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The insidious influence of Testing and Test Prep

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Now that the three days of testing for the English Language Arts are mercifully over, the critique of both content and questions has begun. Not surprisingly, even though specific details are forbidden from the discussion, there are basic features that baffled and enraged the several Principals and teachers who have spoken out. Liz Phillips of PS 321 in Brooklyn said this: “Because we are bound by test security, we cannot reveal details but we can tell you that we have never seen an ELA exam that does a worse job of testing reading comprehension. There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages. Our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not

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correlate with their reading ability.”

Another Principal, Kate Matthews, said:” I am the Principal of a 3rd and 4th Grade diverse building, and I am highly disappointed in these tests. While Days 1 and 2 were challenging for our students, Day 3, particularly for 3rd Grade, was poorly written, developmentally inappropriate and soul crushing for our students and their teachers. Students did not have enough time on ANY of these books. I do not think I am permitted to speak specifically about the nature of the questions, and who knows whether or not NYS will ever release these questions.

However, the very first passage with highly technical language was a terrible example of non fiction writing. Where were the text features that our students have learned to use with such proficiency? To ask students to define and understand two terms that are deeply buried in a text is developmentally inappropriate. The amount of time it took students to answer this question left little time for the remaining 2 lengthy passages with 3 short answers and 1 extended response.”

Consider this critique from JO NAPOLITANO AND JOIE TYRRELL of Newsday:

'In the Rockville Centre district, more than 30 percent of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders sat out the exams, Superintendent Bill Johnson said. The numbers were higher in the middle school, reaching 62 percent.

"This is a sad day in education," Johnson said. "We should not be in this position. We are here because the state developed a very bad test, did not implement it properly and is essentially refusing to modify its implementation."

Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the state Education Department, said his office doesn't track the number of students who refuse the tests. But he said he's confident that most parents want to know their child's

progress in the subject matter.

"Why wouldn't a parent want to know how well his or her child is doing?" he said. "This year, like last year, the parents of more than a million students across the state will 'opt-in' to find that out."

But Johnson said, "We need to toss this exam and start over again -- tolook at ways to shorten the test, provide immediate feedback to schools,children and families. All of which is doable."

Richard Iannuzzi, head of New York State United Teachers, the state's

largest teachers union, expects the refusals to rise. Parents have gone a year, he said, "watching a [Board of] Regents task force, a governor's panel, legislative forums, and we are in the very same

place we were, and I think it has escalated the frustration and the anger."

”Teaching to the test” is no longer an occasional event. It has become the whole event. From the Washington Post, we get an article by Carol Burris, http://wapo.st/1h3owds deconstructing the Governor's much vaunted Budget Bill to respond to parental outrage:

"Equally as meaningless is the bill’s mandate that state testing not consume more than 1 percent of a student’s instructional time each year. Even though time on state testing has ballooned in the past few years in New York State, the commissioner clocks the time spent on state testing as “less than 1 percent.” Not only does this legislation not cut back testing time, it would allow it to increase.

In a rather odd attempt to micro-manage the classroom, the legislature also banned “test prep” to 2 percent of school time, leaving others to define what test prep is, or even how this law can be enforced. The concept of trying to classify and regulate classroom activities is absurd."

When teachers and administrators resist the increase in testing of younger and younger students, critics scornfully declare that they don't want to be held accountable. The missing piece is an understanding of how the format and

content of the tests has come to influence the very nature of the school day, the school experience, the understanding of what education even attempts to achieve. So complete is the dominance of the testing protocols that it really would be impossible to take tests without serious training in the way they work, how to approach the question format, and how, worst of all, to train your brain to jump from topic to topic, giving no attention to the content, but searching for key words and clues to the test providers' intentions/expectations. I used to believe that a reasonable reader with a degree of curiosity could adapt to the tests and be successful even if they hadn't spent hours on test prep. I'm now convinced this is not true. Without serious training, at the expense of creative thought and imagination, none but the most nimble and well-informed students can pass. Not only that, the more thoughtful students are, the more they will waste time exploring the reasons why the answers simply don't work, or could apply in several different ways. We already know that teachers often cannot agree what the correct answer would be, only the test creators know, in their own labyrinthine reasoning.

To top it all, while we've always known that certain questions were ambiguous and could have more than one right answer, recently I've seen test prep booklets providing lines to write your reason for selecting a particular answer, So suddenly any of the possible answers may be correct, as long as you can justify it from the text! Evidence! As David Coleman so famously said, “We don't give a sh*t what you think! Show the source in the text!” But most exams don't give that option – you've got to pick the same answer as the testers or you fail. Mixed messages? So suggesting that a parent would make their child sit the tests so that they can know how they are progressing becomes irrelevant. The test results are the last place you will find out their progress.

However – consider this: your child has spent all year practicing for the high jump, or playing the clarinet, giving all his time and attention to this one activity. Then the question becomes – how can you deny him the chance to perform at the meet or at the concert? That's pretty much the testing scenario we're faced with. If tests were just a momentary interruption, take them or don't take them. But for many children, it is the sum and scope of everything they've done all year. 1%? 2% of classroom time? I think not.

For a range of examiner articles around related subjects, check out the articles below, and do subscribe to my page!

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