Teachers Weigh In, Mostly Against, State English Tests

Friday, April 04, 2014 - 02:52 PM

A math teacher prepared her students for state tests. (Reema Khrais)

As sure as the annual state tests are the complaints about said tests. This week, teachers complained that state English tests were just as problematic as last year's when less than a third of New York’s elementary and middle school students were deemed proficient. This is the second year in a row in which the tests were aligned with tougher Common Core learning standards.

Lucy Calkins, director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, helped to create a website called Testing Talk for teachers around the country to share thoughts about state tests. As of Friday afternoon, 126 teachers from New York commented on the English Language Arts tests given to students in grades three through eight.

“A lot of teachers will say we can’t answer these questions, we don’t understand what they’re asking, as far as we’re concerned there’s two right answers,” said Calkins, adding that the complaints were similar to those voiced last year. 

Calkins acknowledged that the sample of respondents was very small, however, and that she has no way of knowing if the teachers who wrote in had a bias against standardized tests. Calkins had not seen the tests herself.

[Her Reading and Writing Project develops its own classroom assessments and curriculum materials that schools can buy, making it a direct competitor to those produced by the state’s testing company Pearson.]

The New York State Education Department said its tests were developed, edited and reviewed by New York teachers, based on last year’s field tests. Spokesman Dennis Tompkins dismissed complaints as coming from “a small minority,” given that 1.2 million students took this week’s exams.

He said the state expects student scores to increase incrementally over the previous year because teachers and students have had more time to adjust to and use the Common Core-aligned materials in the classroom. He also said the state would release “significantly more” than 25 percent of test questions for the public to see, the amount released last year.

Alex Messer, a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 321, said he did not take the online survey, but thought its comments mirrored his own criticisms and those of his colleagues. He participated in a rally by teachers and parents from several schools in Park Slope on Friday who were critical of the English test.

“It didn’t really seem to test reading comprehension as much as it should,” he said. “There was an outsized focus on text structure,” such as the value of individual sentences as opposed to big ideas. “It felt like looking at the trees instead of the forest.”


Comments [5]

amandagov from Manhattan

Relevant Teacher. I am not suggesting that the test is not error prone, only that when we discuss these issues, it helps to be accurate. I am all for transparency,and think we should hold Pearson responsible if in fact they produced a poor test. The headline was very misleading. That was my only point.As people talk about the tests and journalists write about them, sound bites don't help the discourse and do a disservice to our children.

Apr. 09 2014 01:55 PM
relevant teacher

amandagov: your bon mot - while very witty and clever - doesn't speak to the issues being raised by the teachers regarding the content of the tests this year, and the lack of transparency surrounding them.

Apr. 07 2014 12:29 PM
amandagov from Manhattan

@BethFertig, this headline is enormously misleading.

Shouldn't the headline for this article be
"Pearson Competitor Says Statistically Irrelevant Numbers of Teachers Against Test."
instead of
"Teachers Weigh In, Mostly Against, State English Tests"

Apr. 07 2014 11:03 AM
Follow the Money NY

These tests were already Common Core aligned last year, and I believe PS 321 performed among the top 20 in the state on them, so this wasn't about difficulty. This was about the content of the tests... and about transparency. These tests used to be released to the public, but they no longer are. Many educators don't feel the tests did an adequate job testing comprehension, but instead had a large - and what felt like an inappropriate - emphasis on structure. Many have said that the content of some of the passages felt inappropriate. And that there were questions that were so vague, a room full of adults would probably debate and not be able to decide on the right answer for some of them. Unfortunately, the taxpayers in NY State are no longer allowed to see them to see that for yourselves (they used to be). And teachers aren't allowed to share any of the specifics - as much as some of them would love to - or they would lose their jobs.

None of these educators seem to be against assessments - they seem to be very troubled by the content of these particular assessments. People might be very interested to know that the teachers never actually receive a breakdown of how students did - by question - on these exams. Nor do parents. And teachers don't even receive the scores for students until the following year - when they no longer have said students. Assessments should ideally be used to drive instruction. Unfortunately, because such information is never given to educators or families, they can't be used meaningfully in that way.

Apr. 06 2014 03:19 PM

If the exams are too difficult, then why do so many children do well at them? Isn't this an argument to protect students from failing? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of assessments?

Apr. 06 2014 09:14 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.