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TestingTalk.org Launches National Discussion About Common Core Tests

It is April, and many of our schools have moved beyond the test preparation part of the year and into the actual testing. This year, across the country new tests are being given, aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Although the content of the tests remains cloaked in secrecy, fiercely guarded by vigilant minions of the testing companies, a new online forum was launched this week to gather public feedback about the tests. TestingTalk.org was opened for public comments on March 30, and is actively soliciting input from parents, teachers, and students regarding their experiences with the new tests.

The site's mission states:

This site provides a space for you to share your observations of standardized tests your students are taking this year. What works? What doesn't? Whether your district is giving its own, CC aligned test or is piloting PARCC or Smarter Balanced, we want to pass the microphone to you, the people closest to the students being tested. The world needs to hear your stories, insights, and suggestions. Our goal is collective accountability and responsiveness through a national, online conversation.

It is the brainchild of literacy expert Lucy Calkins, who created a similar forum last year focused on the tests in the state of New York. I asked her to explain her motivation:

I came to realize that the Common Core is going to be redefined by the tests. The standards, which I think have the potential to support rigorous, exciting work, can be interpreted in a way which is myopic. Instead of opening possibilities they can close them down. In New York State, the test reinterpreted the Common Core so it became all about kids perseverating over short passages to select the right line, the right passage, to answer little questions That is so far from what the Common Core should be - kids reading across texts, writing to wrestle with ideas, engaging in grand conversations about what they read. Instead, the tests seem to want third and fourth graders to pore over short passages like students in a high school AP English class.

 In their posts on the New York forum, teachers were not complaining about the rigor - it was about the way that reading was interpreted by the tests, the nature of the reading work that the tests valued. Reports from the field were so alarming, I wanted the people at the state Department of Education to hear directly from the people affected. 

Don't we need to learn? And how will we learn if we do not have a public discussion like this? Of course, as important as feedback from the field was last year in New York State, it is all the more important this year, when the entire country is piloting tests that will define education for years to come.

The site has had more than 150,000 visits in its first two days, but has collected fewer than 300 comments thus far. A number of commenters express fear of repercussions, and many have posted anonymously. The original version of the site required commenters to provide their email addresses, though that would not be made public. Due to concern voiced by teachers, that requirement was removed, so now commenters can post without identifying themselves.

The project has been built with the active involvement of a steering committee comprised of several dozen high profile educators. Some have been supporters of the Common Core, while others, such as myself, are active critics. Lucy Calkins explains that

I wanted people standing by me, and standing by the teachers when they stand up and speak out. The Steering Committee -- and especially Patricia Kinsella, a school leader from Brookline, Massachusetts, has helped shape this project from the start.

All the comments posted on the site are available for public review. There is also a survey that has just been posted, asking for feedback on the various tests being taken.

Here are some sample comments, with names removed. 

Poor test construct is not rigor

Anonymous teacher, Smarter Balanced test. 

First, I'd like to say I'm all for the CCSS. However, the way the SBAC was designed is poor.
1. Software glitches
2. Test formatting: confusing at times- Directions, for example, were in same font/size etc as the passage. The directions or questions should be bolded or otherwise visually separate from the passage (they are on the SATs-why not on the 3rd grade SBAC?) There was not a consistent place for answers.
3. items themselves were not grade appropriate- several questions were convoluted. Some passages were not grade appropriate.

I would go into more details about just how bad the items were but the test manual says "Only students who are testing can observe assessment items.....even TAs may not actively review or analyze any assessment items". and on another page...."no review, discussion, or analysis of test items, stimuli, reading passages, or writing prompts at any time, including before, during, or between sections of the test, is allowed by students, staff, or TAs..."

So all my comments are hypothetical anyway since I didn't look at the test. But if I DID look at the test I would be appalled at what I saw. Just because a test is asinine does not make it rigorous.

Level of Text Complexity in Reading for Grade 3

JT, Administrator, NY

As a school district administrator, I am watching what testing has done to school curriculum and instruction over the last nine years, and I am questioning the amount of money we are spending on this work as a nation and where it is taking us. The increasing importance that has been placed on high-stakes tests has not only shifted what matters in our schools, but it has narrowed what students are exposed to in school each day. The costs are great!

Reading and Math are often seen as the most important areas because of the testing, and the scores do not provide schools with good information about what students need to improve in reading and math. The scores come too late, and receiving the scale scores and item analysis after the students have moved on does nothing to improve instruction or learning for students.
The level of text difficulty has increased significantly on the ELA tests for grades 3-8. In the case of grade 3, the text on the 2012 assessments were well beyond what most 8 year-old students could read and fully comprehend. The research base on reading does not support putting young children in text that is too difficult for the majority of their reading work.

2010 3rd Grade ELA Passage
Lexile Measure- 620L
Mean Sentence Length- 9.28
Mean Log Word Frequency- 3.53
Word Count- 167

2012 3rd Grade Draft ELA Passage
Lexile Measure-850L
Mean Sentence Length- 13.72
Mean Log Word Frequency-3.67
Word Count- 535

Expecting young children to read deeply and analyze text of this level will encourage instruction that is both inappropriate and detrimental to creating life long readers. Teachers feel the need to "chase" these tests with test-prep work that will give students some chance of answering these questions correctly. After all, if their evaluations and ultimately their jobs will depend on student growth on these tests from year to year, they will do all they can to game the system....but it will be at the expense of our children.

I will spend the next two to three months taking delivery on tests booklets, answer sheets, directions and scoring materials. Our instruction will be interrupted by all of the testing and scoring work that must take place in grades 3-8, well before the end of the instructional year. I will work to secure separate testing locations for students with accommodations, pull all available adults to proctor, and I will then pull some classroom teachers and all support teachers to score the tests to get them back to the scanning center on time. The cost is great in terms of both materials and time.

My school has a high poverty with 15% ELLs and we have a great instructional program where students are achieving in literacy and math. However, we are behind in technology and do not have enough student computers or devices in our classrooms. As long as these tests remain as powerful as they are, the work of schools will be grounded in work that looks like 1980. We need to take a careful look at what we are doing as a nation to prepare 21st century learners. We also need to look carefully at the costs of these tests, both monetarily and in terms of what they are doing to our program and instruction.

Psychologically unfair

JR, Teacher, New York.

On the 8th grade ELA exam, the second passage was a Shakespearian poem which was extremely difficult. Not only do I feel that this does not belong on an 8th grade exam, but the fact that it was the second passage makes me think that the test makers are setting the students up for failure. There have been studies done that show when a student faces a difficult question, the questions following are usually answered incorrectly. The student is feeling as though they are "stupid", or "they just don't get it", or "this is too hard." Why would we want the kids to feel like this on the second passage? At least let it be the final passage.

This passage and the questions following ate up so much time. My students tried to persevere through it and left themselves a lot less time to address the other passages, where they could have been successful, or at least feel success.

Despite the many times I've taught my students to skip around and not take the test in order, when the nerves kick in, they go to their default -they do the test in order.

I really believe that this is more a test of resilience than of comprehension. Developmentally students are not able to compartmentalize and move on. They allow the defeat on one part to dictate the rest of their performance. They then take that defeat and internalize it - they think they are failures. They judge all of who they are based on their performance on these tests.

At our school, we made it very clear that our students are so much more than a test score. We are all so much more than scores on a page.

Why are we asking 8 and 9 year old students to be college ready now?

Anonymous, Teacher, Connecticut. Smarter Balanced - pilot

As the 4th grade students undertook the daunting task of answering the SBAC questions, all that could be heard from them was, "Are they serious?" We have been working very diligently to teach to the standards and the students have challenged themselves to think more critically (not easy when developmentally, most 8/9 year old children are still concrete thinkers), work hard and have changed how they read text. When I took the sample test, I was also quite shocked by some of the questions being posed to these students as they truly require deep analytic thinking (quite frankly some of the questions looked as if they were made for students already in college). While I fully agree with raising the bar for students to consistently be challenging themselves to think, one has to ask why are we rushing them to grow up? Has anyone bothered to fully examine what is developmentally age appropriate for children?

Another issue that came up was with our ELL students. Students that have been in the country for 1 year are expected to take the same test despite having significant gaps with English and reading? Has anyone bothered to remember that students whose first language is not English, may have been in the country for one year, and/or may have come from a country that was engaged in war making education minimally available to them would find this test cruel punishment? Despite having someone read the text to them, it doesn't help them if they don't know what the word means?

My final opinion is that this test is completely unrealistic and should seriously be examined as to whether or not it is developmentally appropriate for this age level. I would love to know if 3rd, 4th, 5th grade teachers, etc. truly participated in designing the questions because it doesn't seem possible??

All Standardized Tests

WZ, Principal, California

It is not the tests as much as what the tests are used for and how they are used that provide or lack value. As a public school teacher I was instructed to focus on the third quartile of students as my target of instruction for the year, as raising scores among those children would raise the school's score the most.

I had five children in my class of 30 who were no where near grade level and the district provided no or minimum support for those children, the children for whom the stakes were the highest in their own lives.

If we do not serve children, as teachers, we serve no one. Education is not scalable; children's needs, on the ground, at individual schools, taught by individual teachers who are supported by individual principals imbued with the rights to support said teachers and students, provide education

Day 2 - Defeat

Anonymous 4th grade teacher, New York.

I could just cry. My kids are smart. They have worked hard. Today was too much. It was difficult and way too long. Some kids gave up and finished early. Some were still writing when I had to call time. As I glanced through their work I was pleased to that they used the strategies we worked on all year, but the work was HARD, not rigorous - just too hard and developmentally inappropriate in some cases. The first multiple choice question was really tricky. I feel so defeated as a teacher. I unpacked my Common Core. I defend it, as I feel the curriculum is good. These tests are awful. They are not done in the way that we teach, and I am constantly told to not teach to the test, but to my students. I know my district does well, 98% of our kids go to college, many to Ivy League. We are a high performing district, yet our kids are going to bomb these stupid tests. It seems to me the problem is with the test, not my students or my teaching. What does this "data" do for my students, or for me as a teacher (other than drag my APPR score down)? Nothing.


Anonymous principal, New York.

Today was Day One of the New York State English Language Arts examination. After the exam, I asked for our top 7th grade teacher's reflection. She said, "The passages were reasonable, but the questions were challenging. For most questions, three of the four choices were reasonable answers. In fact, I really did not know the answer. If I had to take this exam, I hope I would get a "3."

I responded, "I wonder how all of the 7th grade ELA teachers would perform?" I am not criticizing the teachers' capabilities.

If the test is difficult for a college graduate, imagine a student's perspective or better yet a student who has been in an English speaking country for one year.


Peggy, Teacher, New York.

The only kind of reader who dissects a text like my 9 year olds were being asked to do in today's NYS test are college professors of literature and their students. NO one. I mean no one delves into reading for the purpose of dissection. Nor do they read to decide which paragraph leads to a prediction of another paragraph! Elementary students need to learn the sheer joy of reading and visiting other worlds through literagure, learn to understand themselves as readers, understand the development of character by noticing contradictions in their actions etc, and practice reading to learn. Decomposing a text does not belong in elementary or early middle school.

The Shangri La of Testing is Attainable

CM, Teacher, New York.

My 8th grade students today sat the first day of a three day slog through the NYS ELA Common Core assessment. Although I did not see my grade level, once again I am struck, as many of my fellow educators, by the lack of common core critical thinking skills assessed. No one is arguing accountability. I will happily be held accountable for doing my job well but these assessments are not effective. We need to do things differently. We need to rethink. We need to align our assessments to the critical thinking skills called out in the Common Core. And most importantly, it can be done.

I have had the pleasure of reviewing the ELA assessments created in Quebec for the English speaking schools. It is this model that will meet our needs. Why? They follow best practices. A team of teachers creates the tests and associated materials. They are project based learning. They model the teaching we want our teachers doing everyday. They "test" their students at the end of 2 year cycles and rotate math and ELA (now there is a novel idea). The testing window is two weeks, which eliminates many of the variables (a fight with mom, the death of a pet, fallout with a boyfriend, etc....) that become "high impact" when the testing is a 90 min window, and the testing project can be effectively embedded into class time. They start with an essential question and end with an authentic writing. Students read, write, speak, listen, and collaborate. And these skills-collaboration, speaking, and listening-are scored all along the way. Students are in possession of the rubrics through out the project so they know what is expected. Teachers meet in the summer and regionally grade based on rubrics (much like we do in NY but not during class time or the AP does with its exams). They actually assess the critical thinking skills that we want students to learn and that will more adequately predict their success outside of and after the classroom.
How sad, this common sense notion can not seem to get any traction unless Pearson decides they can make a profit on it. Shangri La exists. Let's reach it!

A Travesty: Anxiety, Not Education

Lisa, teacher, New York.

As a teacher with 16 years in testing grades, I can truly say that these past few years have been an exercise in insanity. Although I understand the merit of having a common ground in terms of requirements for both teachers and students, implementation is a key factor. Testing children on developmentally inappropriate material/questions may SEEM like the type of "rigorous" education the common core strives for. However, let's really look at this from a sane point of view. Brutalizing children in the name of "no child left behind" & as a way to evaluate teachers actually works in reverse. While watching my kids pull their hair, smack their heads, cry, and pick at their skin (Gen Ed) while testing for 90 minutes, I had time to reflect as I circled them.

These are little human beings, just learning about life and the beauty (or beast) of learning. Lifelong learners have an intrinsic view of what they need to learn. Other kids need more help, and we show them what they need to know while encouraging them to continue their search to broaden their minds. But this? It slams a kid's confidence, logic, and any semblance of sanity. Even if they DO well, what does that show? You know how to take one sentence and examine it incessantly. And then what? Well I'm sure THIS will make them want to learn more (not even a little). Instead, we are horrifying kids and threatening qualified teachers all in the name of a test. I wonder. Will they whip out their scores on their first interview? Perhaps as a way to brag in a relationship later in life. Or maybe on their death bed, they'll fondly remember these tests and leave this earth with a feeling of unmitigated accomplishment. Or perhaps, more obviously, it will pad someone's bank account while they receive accolades while the IMPORTANT pieces of the education system (teachers and students) struggle, crumble, and fall by the wayside.

What do you think? Is this project gathering useful information? Will you share your own feedback there?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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