by David Safier
A principal in Brooklyn, NY, doesn't much like the Common Core tests her students had to take. She'd like to tell you why, but she can't.
I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.
She can't talk about specifics, but . . .
In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.
I've looked at some practice test questions, and they validate the principal's concerns. My sense is, the people who created the tests are trying to be too clever by half. They've constructed complex questions that demand students go through a number of conceptual steps, then bubble in the one "right" answer. It's good to encourage high level thinking in young children, but the process needs to be more open ended, where children are allowed to use their own powers of logic and perception, which may be valid but lead to conclusions different from an adult's predetermined answer. Trying to turn a fill-in-the-bubble test into an instrument to measure conceptual thinking in young children is like trying to make a pig to stand up on its hind legs, flap its arms and fly.
You can take a sample PARCC test, which is the exam that will be given to a sampling of Arizona children soon. English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics tests are available at a variety of grade levels. I haven't had a chance to take one yet, but I plan to. I'll probably try the 8th grade version. I've been out of school for awhile. I'm not sure I'm ready to be tested as a high schooler.