Testing Season Anxiety

Monday, March 31, 2014


State English Language Arts (ELA) testing starts Tuesday for grades 3-8, beginning the second year of assessments aligned to Common Core. Yasmeen Khan, WNYC reporter covering education for, answers your questions about this year's tests and whether the opt-out movement is gaining traction.


Yasmeen Khan

Comments [25]

We debated opting our son out. We have a history with our school district that made it appealing to opt out.

My 5th grader said the ELA tests were easy. ELA is not his strong suit, but he said he felt well prepared by his teacher and he's fortunate enough to have a teacher who minimizes the stress. After the ELA exams I asked my 5th grader what he thought about opting out. He said he really didn't know. One of the first things he said was that if he didn't have to take the exam he would have liked to have said he'd only take the exam if he could read silently afterwards, which our district does not allow. Later he said he would not want to opt out if it would have harmed his teacher in any way. There's definitely a part of him that wants to be tested.

I asked "Do you think the exam measure you against meaningful education?" He said yes, with the exception of a couple of multiple choice questions where multiple answers could be correct and selecting the best answer has more to do with how you think than what you comprehend.

I asked: "Some complain that the exams are too difficult and others complain that preparing for the exams takes away from education. How can both be true?" He said he thinks its just different parents complaining about different things, with the parents of struggling students complaining that the new curriculum is too hard and the parents who want to push their kids harder complaining that the testing takes away from educating.

I asked "Do you think your education suffers because of the exams, or do you think the exam's standards raise the bar for the necessary amount of information required?" He said he didn't know because he doesn't know what it would be like if the exams didn't exist. Regardless of the blame he thought they could be challenged more, especially in math and science.

Apr. 05 2014 11:39 AM
Kirsten from Peekskill, NY

Today's show had the potential to be good but Yasmeen Khan seemed very unsure and not very knowledgeable about the issues surrounding the Common Core and the State Testing. Too many questions were answered with, "That is a good question" and not with an actual answer. Also, in the middle of the morning, do you really think that there are going to be teachers listening to the show who can then wait on hold to give you feedback on what the 2% of instructional time might mean? It would be even less likely among teachers who have students taking the New York State ELA tests tomorrow.

Mar. 31 2014 01:24 PM
Olivia from Bronx, NY

By way of introduction - I went to public school in the 50's and early 60's, my daughter in the 90's. My mother ran an accredited, (wonderful) nursery school (when early childhood education was in its infancy) and I taught pre-K for a year. What's going on now, in the name of reform, is a disaster, in my opinion. First, let's understand that "testing" is a huge money-maker - as they say, "follow the money." But even more important - testing was originally a diagnostic tool for the teacher. It revealed to him/her which children were grasping the material, which needed extra help, and which could move even faster. Short tests were given by the teacher - grade appropriate - throughout the year. The information was for the teacher to assess her students and by extension her/himself. There was no standardized testing until Regents in high school - perfectly appropriate - and we went on to productive, successful lives, thank you very much. The idea of young children being confronted with these long tests is counter productive to teaching and to a love of learning. It also treats the teacher as a "mechanical operator" rather than an "artist mentor" who engages in passionate, inspiring teaching. I ran into some students on the subway one day talking about a teacher they loved. I asked them what made him such a great teacher (he taught English). They said with excitement, "he is so passionate about what he teaches!" We need to understand teaching as an art, train teachers differently, and better, so they can show the kids their love for the subject matter. Then the kids will learn. Standardized testing does the opposite to the teachers and students. A Common Core is fine - but let the teacher with their principals' guidance make the magic happen in the classroom. PS - I believe a study found a correlation between lesser performing teachers (by any measure) and colleges that had sub-par education major programs. I believe teachers should major in a subject they love in college and then get education instuction if they want teaching as a career. The kids know passion when they see it - and they respond. You've lost them on the first day if that is missing.

Mar. 31 2014 12:57 PM
kk from Brooklyn

Brian! So glad you had an Aha! moment about how a law limiting test prep, but still sanctioning the tying of teacher evaluation to test scores, puts teachers in an impossible place. Test prep will only stop, as Yasmeen acknowledges, when the scores are decoupled from evaluations. That is what should happen if we have the best interests of both our teachers and our kids at heart.

Also, the researcher was wrong about who developed the Common Core. Edweek's Anthony Cody writes the following:

Of the 25 individuals on the two teams [charged with drafting the Standards], (four people are on both) six are associated with the test-makers from the College Board, five are with fellow test-publishers ACT, and four are with Achieve. Zero teachers are on either Work Group. The Feedback Groups have 35 participants, almost all of whom are university professors. There appears to be exactly one classroom teacher involved in the entire process, on one of the Feedback Groups. (Taken from:

Mar. 31 2014 11:32 AM
Linda Natanagara from ocean, NJ

I live in nj and kept my 6th grader out of the NJASK last year. Many parents were surprised to know they could have done this. In order for my daughter not to take the test, I had to keep her home both on test days and make-up days until testing was over. It was a big commitment on both of our parts. Though the district did not harass me, they did not make it easy either. Many parents have commented since that this would not have been possible given their jobs etc. I work for myself so could manage it. Hope parents can find a way to support each other. Many more parents would opt-out if it were manageable within the framework of their lives.

Linda Natanagara

Mar. 31 2014 11:25 AM
Jeff from New Jersey

You should take a look at Finland and South Korea on test scores. Test scores is really a subset of the issue of "equity" versus" choice" in the current education debate - or lack of debate. Finland, for example, emphasizes equity while the US emphasizes choice. While Finland is often sited as a model (with a few other countries like South Korea) in making progress in education (i.e. less focus on test scores), there are those who argue it can't be compared with the US. If the debate in education in the US evolved around equity rather than choice, I'd argue the outcomes would be very different. Today, education is about "I got mine" (or my "kids got theirs") versus how to make sure everyone gets what is needed.

Mar. 31 2014 11:21 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The primary purpose of "school" is to safely keep kids off the streets and enable their parents to go to work. While they are in school we have to keep them occupied and out of trouble. Last but not least, we hope we can occupy them with stuff and ideas that will make them employable and good taxpaying, law-abiding citizens.

Mar. 31 2014 11:20 AM
Mary from Nassau

From experience, most of this anti-common core response has been drummed up by the schools themselves with kids coming home programmed to scare mommy and daddy with the ills of the test. Why is the profession so against accountability? They want to be treated as professionals, their work (i.e. the kids competence with the material) need to be evaluated as such.

Mar. 31 2014 11:20 AM
Alexis from Brooklyn

To the caller Liz: None of the countries that are crushing the USA in terms of math are teaching their kids arithmetic through fun games. The learning of basics is often rote and it teaches children to tolerate the mundane, which builds grit and character. I suppose they are all doing it wrong, too.

Mar. 31 2014 11:20 AM
john from office

Problem here is in the home, not in the schools. As long as kids have kids and baby daddies don't stay in the relationship and mommy won't read to her kids, this is all meaningless.

Turn up the rap music!!

Mar. 31 2014 11:17 AM
kk from Brooklyn

The tests are more high-stakes in NYC than in other places in NY because of the use of test scores for middle and high school admissions. That said, the widespread perception that all screened schools depend on 4th & 7th grade scores is, at least in some city districts, a false one. Parent committees at both of my children's schools called the middle and high schools that our children typically apply to and found that the vast majority of them do not use the scores for admissions or will consider alternatives like portfolios of student work.

Mar. 31 2014 11:16 AM
Todd from Manhattan

Lets see, we have failing schools. We have different results between classes even within the same school. Yet we should not be evaluating teachers? These tests should be mandatory, period. And they should change yearly so they cannot be taught to easily. Kids have one chance at education and we need to weed out ineffective educators early on.

Mar. 31 2014 11:13 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Oh, let's just manufacture kids to different standards through genetic engineering to perform different kinds of jobs and chuck this "education" nonsense once and for all. We need sanitation workers and we need scientists and engineers and all kinds of work and intellectual levels in between. We are torturing some kids who can never live up, while making it too easy for those who are intellectually way ahead. The liberals have imposed the "one standard for all" which is making "education" convoluted and impossible.

Mar. 31 2014 11:12 AM
Amanda from Manhattan

Our public school spends a lot of time teaching our kids to read and write critically and compute efficiently. The kids also get a pretty strong art education. Test prep at our school consists of teaching kids to get comfortable with bubbling in sheets, writing short essays etc. This happens immediately before the test before school if parents chose to send kids to "test prep." Our kids did really well on last years tests and I just hope people don't throw away the Common Core because they don't think educators--even in public schools can do a great job of teaching kids what they need to know as a way to prepare them for tests. Lets worry about how teachers teach--and how they are trained, because you can give kids a great eduction that enables them to succeed at standardized tests.

Also--Brian please answer the question why all of a sudden we are calling these "high stakes?" In NYC, the tests matter for 4th and 7th grade. Nothing has changed there--it is the same. Lets stop focusing on testing and start focusing on what is going in the classroom.

Mar. 31 2014 11:12 AM

Feel very lucky that my kids go/went to PS 321 in Park Slope where Principal Liz Phillips acknowledges some value to tests, but that they are far from adequate to measuring a child's progress. And our school as a very active "Testing Task Force." I am NOT opting my kids out, but it's tempting.

Mar. 31 2014 11:11 AM

doing simple math -- about 25 hours, assuming 7 hours a day/180 days a year. Possibly an hour a day, for the 4 weeks leading up to the test.

Mar. 31 2014 11:08 AM
Nancy Cauthen from Manhattan

Yasmeen Khan is spot on when she says the so-called "reforms" in the NYS budget re: Common Core and testing are nothing more than gestures. In terms of the impact on children, NYC is the only locality that uses test scores for grade promotion and the new administration signaled their desire to de-emphasize test scores during the election. So the "gestures" change nothing for kids, especially given that their teachers will continue to be evaluated on student test scores. The stakes are still way TOO high. I hope parents will take note come November.

Mar. 31 2014 11:06 AM
TINA from East Harlem

Does anyone ask why the emphasis on holding students to a higher standard is happening at the same time there are fewer opportunities to be gainfully employed? What is the purpose really? I wouldn't have made it to Harvard with such standards, our teachers wouldn't be quitting at such high rates today...what is the point, really? The most cynical of us believe these standards exist for others to get rich, but some people truly believe this is a good thing. Really what's the endgame? Does the data show that these standards make life better for folks?

Mar. 31 2014 11:04 AM
Bob from Huntington

Ms. Khan,

Please address the fact that English Language Learners (students who speak little or no English) are taking Common Core exams that are written entirely in English. Teachers of these students are then being evaluated on the results which, given the students' inability to comprehend the questions, are inevitably dreadful.

Thank you.

Mar. 31 2014 11:03 AM

The law makes sense. There should be minimum time for test prep. The test is to make sure that teachers are actually teaching the curriculum, not teaching to the test. We need more of this.

Mar. 31 2014 11:00 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

As controversial as it may be, I am in favor of testing; however, I feel that it is not done properly here. When I was in elementary school, we took the "Iowas," but we were never prepped for the test. We only had our regular classroom instruction and how one did on the test depended on how much one had assimilated from regular instruction. This is what the current testing should be doing; there should be no "test prep." Test prep presumes that there is a way around the measurement of what one has learned (or not learned), which is actually the point of the tests.

The same, by the way, applies to the PSATs, SATs, ACTs, etc. These tests are not meant to be games or, to paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, "ways to circumvent" proof of our acquisition and assimilation of knowledge and reasoning skills. They are to measure how well students have put together the puzzle pieces they have been given along their educational journey. If they can't do that, they are pointless.

Mar. 31 2014 10:40 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Once we start producing babies in factories, they should be produced in five basic models or ranks called Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. The Alphas would be the highest intelligence levels: the Steve Jobs, the Elon Musks, the Einsteins and Edisons of the future. The lowest rank Epsilons would do the semi-moronic repetitious work. Each rank would be conditioned to enjoy and appreciate their own level and not be envious of the other ranks. I think Aldous Huxley outlined the perfect Society in his 1932 sci-fi classic "Brave New World."

We are wasting resources trying to educate everyone to the same levels and standards. One size can never fit all.

Mar. 31 2014 10:18 AM
Tina Suszynski from East Harlem

Why isn't the NYC Fund for Schools part of the private sector's influence on the public discussion when asking whether it's good or bad to have the backing of hedge funds for charter schools?

Mar. 31 2014 10:12 AM

The "art" in "language arts."

It was once called basic literacy, so what changed, the learning or the teaching of it?

Mar. 31 2014 10:01 AM
Anne Stone

I've only read the description of this segment and already inspired to comment. The fact that "scores are not expected to improve much" is what you consider the most newsworthy aspect of the upcoming testing shows the degree to which the public conversation has been distorted from what is really important, which is the intellectual life of the children. You assume that test scores are an accurate reflection of educational achievement. Why? Give an easy test and scores will go up. Give a hard test and scores will go down. Give a stupid, badly designed, and error-ridden test (which is what I've seen come home in my son's backpack all year in the form of "practice tests") and scores will really go down. What does it show? That we need to stop relying on expensive, time consuming standardized tests and start thinking about the education of every individual child. Stop reporting on the tests, as if they are the news, and start reporting on education.

Mar. 31 2014 09:28 AM

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