Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

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The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.

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We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

Pushing Back on the United States of Pearson

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Last week I attended this year’s IRA Convention where every registered participant not associated with an exhibitor’s booth had to wear a name badge around their neck emblazoned with Pearson’s name and logo—which, in effect, made each and every one of us a walking advertisement for the corporate giant that seems to be taking over public education. Also last week third through eighth grade students throughout New York State were sitting at their desks with sharpened pencils, bubble sheets and test booklets published by Pearson, trying to make it through the three-day ordeal that was this year’s state ELA exam.

Subway Test PosterPearson created the tests as part of a $32 million five-year contract with New York State to design Common Core aligned assessments, and the word on the street was they were going to be hard. New York City had, in fact, already warned schools and parents to expect a dramatic drop in scores, and they spent $240,000 on what the New York Daily News called “a splashy ad campaign” explaining the drop to parents through posters that appeared in the subway and on ferries.

What all that money couldn’t buy, however, was any peace of mind, as reports from parents and teachers attest to on sites such as WNYC’s Schoolbook, the New York City Public School Parents blog, and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s “Responses to the NYS ELA Exam” page. There you’ll find stories of students in tears, vomiting and even soiling themselves as their stress and anxiety levels mounted. And you’ll hear many tales of students running out of time, which was in short supply. According to testing expert Fred Smith, whose piece on the New York State tests appeared in the Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet,” students had 7% less time per item than last year when the passages and questions weren’t as difficult. Not only does this make no sense, it’s also profoundly ironic: One of the Standards’ Six Instructional Shifts specifically tells teachers to be “patient [and] create more time in the curriculum for close and careful reading,” yet this year’s tests seemed to value speed over thoughtfulness and depth. And students had to waste what precious time they had on passages and questions that Pearson was field testing—that is, trying out for use on future tests—which served Pearson’s purposes, not students’.

As Smith says, such field testing “raises legal and ethical questions about forcing children to serve as subjects for commercial research purposes without their parents’ knowledge and informed consent.” And this wasn’t the only ethical question this year’s test brought up. As reported in the New York Post, At the Chalk Face and Diane Ravitch’s blog, several teachers noticed passages on the 6th and 8th grade tests that were in Pearson textbooks, giving students who’d read those texts in class an unfair advantage—and perhaps encouraging schools to buy additional Pearson products to up their students’ chances of scoring well.

Trademark SymbolThere were also reports of other kinds of product placement, with brand names, such as Nike, IBM and Mug Root Beer, appearing in many of the passages. Pearson has said this is an inevitable consequence of using ‘authentic’ texts. But while brand names do, of course, appear in lots of books and articles, you usually don’t see trademark symbols or footnotes such as the one that supposedly explained that “Mug Root Beer is the leading brand of Root Beer” beneath a passage that referred to the brand.

I say supposedly because the tests are kept under lock and key with teachers jeopardizing their careers by revealing specific details of the contents. This lack of transparency again raises questions about corporate versus citizens’ rights—though parents exercised their right to have their children ‘opt out’ of the test in record number this year, and a petition has started circulating online demanding that the State cancel its contract with Pearson.

The lack of transparency also means that parents and other taxpayers who have financed the tests cannot judge for themselves how well, or not, they lived up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s claim:

“For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.”

ELA Test BookletThe full battery of what Duncan calls these “game-changer” tests are not due out until the 2014-15 school year, but New York State and Pearson have said that this year’s assessments are in line with what’s to come—and Pearson’s in a position to know. They’ve been deeply involved in developing test items for PARCC, one of the two consortia that have received $360 million in federal funds to create the new assessments. Yet according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, these ‘game-changer’ exams will be “only marginally better than current tests” and will waste an enormous amount of time and money for everyone except Pearson.

As for IRA, it was heartening to hear (at least in the sessions I attended) more emphasis placed on best practice than data and more talk about meeting the needs of students than the needs of the test. There was even a little insurrection going on with those Pearson name badges: My fellow presenter Mary Lee Hahn of the A Year of Reading blog bought some clear packing tape and used it cover Pearson’s logo with her own business card, and several people used magic markers and editing marks to change PEARSON to A PERSON.

All that and the volume of online chatter I discovered about New York’s tests once I got home made think that there might still be a chance to raise our voices, flex our muscles, and reclaim the conversation from Pearson about where education is going.

Barry Lane at IRA

Educator, author and songwriter Barry Lane pushing Pearson out of the way at the 2013 International Reading Association Convention