In April, hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3-8 in New York State took Pearson’s version of the totally new Common Core aligned literacy exams. The students’ scores on those tests have yet to come out, but the New York State Department and Pearson’s scores have been accumulating as well, and accounts of how well they’ve done on this test are not good. Each week, another journalist produces a blog or a column that begins, “I recently obtained a bootlegged copy of the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) exam…” and then the article proceeds to critique the exam. One recent journalist, for example, wrote, “I received full copies of each of the sixth, seventh and eighth grade tests…” before going on to ponder the implications of this iteration of the test (andreagabor.com)
. More than a month ago. The Post distributed copies and quoted excerpts of the 5th grade exam.
Ironically, it feels as if the only people who are studying the test and writing their responses to it are teachers and principals. Because this is a closed test, educators risk losing their jobs if they obtain and speak out about boot-legged copy of standardized tests. Still, it is possible for the world to hear the observations and concerns that educators have about the test. The day after the ELA, the organization I lead – the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project – opened a site (http://elafeedback.com)
on which educators could post observations made during the test, and thoughts and concerns about the test. More than a thousand responses have been entered onto that site, and altogether, the responses show that teachers, principals and superintendents from both high achieving and high need schools have deep concerns about New York State’s test. Elafeedback.com
gives a window into what educators are concerned about in regard to these tests. Now the question is – is anyone listening?
It continues to matter that educators and parents agitate to be able to see the test and that they insist on meaningful revisions. Pearson is poised to be one of three major writers of the new generation of Common Core aligned tests, and Pearson may or may not end up as the choice of New York State. Each state will decide whether to adopt one of the not-for-profit assessments (PARCC or Smarter Balance) or to adopt the assessment developed by Pearson. Although it is unclear whether there will be significant differences between PARCC, Smarter Balance, and Pearson, New York State’s Pearson assessment provides a window into what Pearson will offer as a CCSS assessment. Educators thus have a right—indeed, an obligation—to become knowledgeable about this test as it is a harbinger of what it to come.
It is entirely likely that this test will be influential (even controlling) in decisions about how reading and writing are taught. It is especially likely that the exams will become curriculum in any state or city in which standardized tests have become deciding factors in whether teachers are hired or fired. In NYC, the scores that students receive on Pearson’s tests determine whether students have access to selective middle schools and secondary schools, allowing the tests to take on inordinate importance. On top of that, in NYC, teachers are ranked by name in newspapers based upon the scores their students receive, and this, again, means that the tests become an all-important measuring stick.
In the online posts at elafeedback.com
, you’ll find a few issues that are raised again and again. One of these addresses the interpretation Pearson makes of close reading of nonfiction. For most teachers, the goal of teaching kids to read nonfiction successfully is to teach in such a way that students can learn from the nonfiction they read. That is, if they read an article on the Pony Express, the goal is that they learn quite a bit about that topic. If you look at the Common Core standards themselves, this reading work would encompass standards 1-3, which asks students to determine central ideas and supporting details, and analyze their development in the text, as well as standards 7-9, which asks students to synthesize and integrate, compare and contrast, and weigh and evaluate, ideas suggested by texts on the same subject.
Yet the Pearson exam seems to have asked few or no questions that addressed standards 7-9, as they chose to present students only with isolated texts rather than text sets, and many questions on standards 4-6, that ask students to analyze the craft and structure of texts. “Which term best describes the structure used in paragraphs 4-6?” “Why did the author include the image of….in line 12 of paragraph 5?” This sort of highly metacognitive, analytical reading-writing connection work is not usually the primary reading lens of nonfiction readers. Teachers are getting the message that their instruction should no longer channel students to read lots of nonfiction in order to expand their knowledge and grow ideas about a topic. Teachers are gathering that what counts to Pearson and New York State is that even children as young as nine year olds read nonfiction texts in order to analyze the author’s craft. This work has been propagated through the Publishers Criterion, a document offered by two authors of the Common Core, after the CCSS was ratified. As one poster, Sandra Wilde wrote, “ the items are constructed in a very narrow way, not from the standards themselves but from a narrow set of ideas - based on the Publisher's Guidelines”
Another concern, that has been expressed across hundreds of posts, revolves around the timing of the test, with lots of high performing students not finishing or even getting to the essay sections at all, with kids crying and feeling like failures. The message the test has sent is that students must read closely and think critically at the speed of light. Then, too, students must be willing to persist through an inordinately long exam. “These weren't tests that were about testing knowledge- they were about testing a child's stamina” posted a principal, and hundreds of others echoed that sentiment. If the test were a low-stakes pilot, you might say that it was somewhat cruel to experiment on kids this way, but you could let it go that the timing was somewhat off. But because the test is high stakes and is the model of upcoming tests, the timing issues become significant – they imply a model for Common Core level reading and writing that suggests kids read short texts analytically without having the time for rethinking and revising.
There was one other concern, that was raised repeatedly, although we have had to remove posts that refer to specific texts, and that was that passages in the Pearson curriculum resurfaced on the test, sending out the clear message that the path to success in this new Common Core world revolves around purchasing curriculum for a for-profit company. As one principal put it, “I didn’t purchase the Pearson prep this year because I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on test prep material. But now my teachers and children may be disadvantaged.”
Because this test will have profound implications for what kids do in classrooms over the next few years, as well as the tests they will take next, we encourage you to visit the site, to view comments, and to post. We also encourage you to click on the link that gives addresses of state legislators who need to hear the voices of their constituents.