Teachers Sound Off on State English Tests

Monday, April 21, 2014 - 04:00 AM


Following the recent controversy around the state's English tests for grades 3-8, we invited four educators to WNYC's studios over spring break to hear why they're so critical of the tests. Three of the four work at schools that were involved in a protest rally earlier this month, organized by nearly 40 Manhattan principals.

Nicole Dixon, who teaches seventh grade at East Side Community School, said the test questions were more like trick questions.

Though she couldn't use a real example from the test, she said she saw a multiple choice question in which all four answers were reasonable.

"That’s really alarming to me, and that’s something that really takes away kids’ confidence," she said.

She also complained that teachers should be able to see and discuss all of the test questions in order to figure out where their students need to improve. The state released 25 percent of the questions last year and said it will release more this year. But state officials say since the tests are so new, they can't share all of the questions or they won't have enough material for next year. 

The state has also defended its tests by saying 300 New York educators were involved in creating and editing the questions – which are aligned with new standards adopted by New York and other states called the Common Core. But Ryan Zimmerman found them confusing. He’s a third grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, whose principal wrote an editorial in The New York Times about the tests.

P.S. 321 teacher Ryan Zimmerman (Jen Hsu/WNYC)

"I felt like the students really were just being tested on how well of a test-taker they were, not necessarily how great of a reader they were or how great a writer they were," he said.

The teachers said they support the state's new Common Core learning standards. But Lisa Ripperger, principal of P.S. 234 in Lower Manhattan, said the tests didn't push for the same kind of critical reading and writing skills.

Lakisha Odlum, who teaches 7th grade at the Eagle Academy for Young Men in Queens, agreed. She belongs to the group Educators4Excellence, which has supported using tests in part to evaluate teachers. She was also very critical of the tests, but said they were at least better than last year's version.

"I think the reading passages were more interesting this year," she said

State math tests start later this month.


Comments [11]

Nancy Quigley from Bronx, NY

quoting from the piece:

P.S. 321 teacher __ ____ (Jen Hsu/WNYC)

"I felt like the students really were just being tested on how well of a test-taker they were, not necessarily how great of a reader they were or how great a writer they were," he said.

How is it possible that no one commented on the truly frightening collection of grammar/usage errors in the above single sentence - from a teacher!? I find its inclusion in the story nearly as alarming; was there no quote available? No story editor?

Apr. 25 2014 02:30 PM
Box teaching

The first problem is our students are not all "standard" and the given tests leave many levels out; from the best and the brightest creative thinkers to the students who struggle with learning. Have you ever witnessed a crying student after having a standardized test administered to them? The arts at every level are also impacted; how many schools are sacrificing the arts classes in order to get more time into the regular classrooms. The self-esteem issue on many levels is a concern for all of our students; the students "gift" in many different learning styles and curriculum material. The collaboration in the classrooms is missing; being creative is disappearing and working as a team is almost non-existent. It should be an interesting future for our present students as to how they work together and problem solve in their future careers.

Apr. 22 2014 04:44 PM
John from NY

The tests are shrouded in secrecy. There's point of contention #1. The results don't come in for months and are not a complete set of results (parents/students only get a number.) Point of contention #2. The results are essentially meaningless. The majority of test takers finish this school year, have summer vacation, start the next year in the following grade, then results come in. No "real" educational decisions that impact these kids and help to improve their learning experience are made. Schools offer AIS to students who scored a 1 or 2 months earlier? These tests are simply used as part of the unfair judgement tool applied to their teachers, principals, and schools. Point of contention #3. The state collects the test scores, along with hundreds of other data points on these kids, for storage, sharing, mining, etc. not just int he databases of the likes of the former inBloom, but in the NY P-20 Longitudinal Database. Point of contention #4. The tests are way too long and there are way too many (including the 3 days of ELA, 3 days of Math, 2 days of Science for grades 4/8, the stand alone ELA/Math field testing, the PARCC field testing ... in addition to all the new SLOs, locals, benchmarks, etc. No other nation over tests like we currently do. None. Point of contention #5. The results from last year, this year and next will be meaningless once the state moves to computer based testing under PARCC, or whatever consortium they choose. You can't compare the paper/pen based results to new CBT that has students watching videos to answer Qs, listen to passages, drag and drop items, and typing essays on an adult sized keyboard....among many other concerns about CBT. Go find the PARCC samples for yourself and see what that looks like. Point of contention #6. I could go on and on, but until the state addresses these issues, my kids won't participate in this huge experiment.

Apr. 22 2014 10:18 AM
James Demers from New York

The answers are, indeed, almost all "reasonable" -- but in every case, only one choice answers the question being asked, and I had little difficulty picking it out. Admittedly, I have an edge over the typical 8th grader, but my point is that while the questions are difficult, they are not impossibly vague or indefinite: there is, in fact, one correct answer.

That said, I can't imagine how one could possibly "teach" students to do better on these exams. What the questions require is (1) a mastery of English grammar and vocabulary, sufficient to reach the needed level of comprehension, and (2) the ability to think logically. Most critical of all, however, is the abililty to understand exactly what's being asked. (The questions are of the sort commonly encountered on a state bar examination: "Which of the following best explains..."

It's a mistake, I think, to even attempt "teaching to the test." A few practice questions will acquaint students with the style of question they'll be dealing with, but practice questions can't provide the needed tools. I'd bet the ranch that if you look at those kids who do well, what they have in common are old-fashioned vocabulary drills, and lots and lots of reading.

Apr. 22 2014 01:21 AM
Scott from Brooklyn

My child is in 7th grade. He has no reading assignments outside of class. No novels, nothing. The teacher says that after the state ELA test is over he will assign reading for the students. So 5/6 of the way through the year, even though teaching generally ceases my the end of May, my son will get his first reading assignment in English class. Thank you for the test!!

Apr. 21 2014 09:59 PM
NYCEducator from NYC

As an educator of 10 years, I'd like to point out that a lot of the concerns voiced in this article are not specific to Common Core aligned tests. I argue that students are nervous about common core aligned tests because the adults around them are nervous. The argument against multiple choice tests have always been that they test how good of a test taker a student is, rather than how well a student reads, writes, or does math. One teacher in the interview said teachers don't get useful data from tests. We've never gotten useful data from tests, that hasn't changed.

Apr. 21 2014 05:22 PM
Donald Mintz from Trumansburg, NY

I just tried to read "Jason's Gold." Cliche-ridden, semi-literate trash. Why would a kid want to read such stuff? Who are the people making up these tests? Oh right, for-profit corporations. And the State can't release more questions because they would then run short of garbage for next year? Aren't there teachers in this State capable of making up a couple of half-decent tests? Of course there are. Decent core curricula—and I emphasize "core" meaning "basic" to which much should be added at teachers' discretion—are an obvious necessity. The current regimen, however, is not what is needed. Good lord, people. Such blatant flummery!

PS: I have a PhD in historical musicology from Cornell, have spent much of my life as a journalist and more of it as an academic.

Apr. 21 2014 12:07 PM
Jon Gorman from Florida

The better question might be of what practical value are the tests given. Good decision making and application of critical thinking skills based on a good basic knowledge of the world might be a better indicator of an educated mind. "Tricky" questions and questions not based upon what was taught during the year rather then ones designed to test the students ability to decode a nuanced question unrelated to their basic knowledge and critical thinking skills are of little value in determining what they have retained of the material taught during the year.

Many individuals are great at taking tests but seem to overlook the reason for education. Living one's life as an adult has little if anything to do with passing tests. Taking information from your knowledge base and applying it to whatever situation you face and coming up with the best course of action might be a better indication of success.

Apr. 21 2014 11:23 AM
Sally from New Jersey

I wish that the people who were queried would be people who knew more about testing, rather than those worrying about the effects of testing on their jobs. The best multiple choice tests DO have several choices that seem reasonable. This minimizes the advantage of guessing. To get the answer right, you have to think more deeply and understand the details of the topic. That is what is needed to distinguish the best answer from other almost-right answers.

Apr. 21 2014 08:04 AM

There is a disconnect somewhere between what is being taught in
the clastoom and what is being measured on the standardized tests.
It would be important to see the breakdown by item as to the # of students who passed.
Nyc teachets and NYS test developers need to meet
to discuss and analyze the test items and clarify what each item is purported to measure

Apr. 21 2014 07:38 AM
mc from Brooklyn

GUYS! NYC public schools are NOT back today. They are back on Wednesday.

Apr. 21 2014 07:12 AM

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