Monday, March 30, 2015

Refuse the Test

When I was in third grade, I took the Iowa standardized tests.  Within a short amount of time, we received the results in a teacher-parent conference.  Because my mom was told that I needed "a challenge," she immediately bought me the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  I read them for hours, lingering on zoology, nature, and history entries.  When my interest started to wane, a set of Greek Mythology books appeared.  I spent hours curled up in a chair, reading and pondering each myth.  Then, a set of classics – Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, Little Women, Treasure Island, and others…all books that broadened my world and my background knowledge.  I was given access to a typewriter so I could write my own newspaper.  My zest for learning, reading, and writing exists to this day.  My guess is that little of that would have happened at home without the feedback that was received because of a standardized test.  It quite possibly changed my life.

Fast forward to today, because the tests our children take in school are nothing like the Iowa’s.  Here are my best reasons (there are lots more) why refusing the test is the right thing to do, for your student, for your schools, and for the teachers in our state.  

#1.  Analysis of the text and questions on the Pearson-created exams show that reading lexile levels are sometimes three, four, or five grades beyond the student's age.  Kevin Glynn, a former test developer with Pearson and NYSED, does an outstanding assessment of third grade ELA tests here.  Russ Walsh, a literacy expert, has found similar reading levels on the PARCC ELA and math tests.

#2.  According to a teacher test instruction manual on the EngageNY website, questions for the third-grade ELA test are written with "equally plausible" answer choices.  What that means, is that students have to use abstract reasoning skills to discern between answers to pick the "one best choice."  Cognitive research based on the work of Jean Piaget states that abstract reasoning does not develop until age 12.  Simply, these type of questions are not developmentally appropriate for those under 12.

#3.  Even if the tests were written fairly and on grade level, which they are not, there is the huge matter of cut scores being manipulated.  According to a letter written by 500 New York State principals, "New York State Education Department used SAT scores of 560 in Reading, 540 in Writing and 530 in mathematics, as the college readiness benchmarks to help set the “passing” cut scores on the 3-8 New York State exams. These NYSED scores, totaling 1630, are far higher than the College Board’s own college readiness benchmark score of 1550. By doing this, NYSED has carelessly inflated the 'college readiness' proficiency cut scores for students as young as nine years of age."

As if that were not enough, cut scores are manipulated after the tests are scored to give the state the results they want.  John King announced in 2012 that 70% of students would fail the test, and after cut scores were set, that's what he got.  Last year, cut scores were adjusted downward very slightly in order to show a small amount of "improvement" from Common Core reforms.  The bell curve that they use to set these scores means that NO MATTER HOW WELL STUDENTS DO, there will be a bottom standard deviation, a middle (which is the average), and a top.  Even if all students scored above 90 on the tests, they would still rank them with a bottom 16%.  And NYSED adjusts that bell - to get the deviations they want.  The main point, is that scores are worked by NYSED to prove whatever they want them to prove.  And right now we seem to have a governor and a State Education Department, that want to prove public schools are failing, so they can privatize and push their charter school agenda.  

#4.  There is no transparency.  Pearson protects the questions to maximize their profit, even though NYS has paid for the questions.  A test cannot be valid without transparency.  A test cannot "inform or assist instruction,” if the item analysis is never given to teachers.  Test creators cannot be held accountable for poorly written questions and misleading answer choices if we never see the questions.   Anyone who tells you that these tests are to help your teachers teach students better, is blowing hot air.  It is simply not true.

#5. Pearson embeds product placement within the tests.  New York State Ed claimed this was because they were “authentic text.”  Not true.  I did research on the 2012 exams that proved a financial interest between Pearson and the companies that were mentioned.  The product mentions are disjointed and do not flow with the text.  Have you ever read a children’s story where the waiter dropped MUGS Root Beer?  No. 

#6.  According to the NYSED ELA Educator Guide, provocative and "emotionally charged" passages are used in the tests.  Normally, a teacher would have a class discussion around such passages and help students to analyze various perspectives and come to an understanding about the meaning of such literature. Our State Ed Department, however, has a gag order preventing teachers from discussing questions, even after the test is completed.  What this means, is that students never get to ask questions about this content and therefore never get a chance to pursue full understanding.  This has the potential for skewing student opinion and could potentially be manipulated for a political purpose.  We have a right to know what our students, the captive audience, are being led to believe.

#7.  Students are being data mined by the tests.  As students complete the tests, personal information, and each click during the time they are online, records data points on the student.   In OH in 2013, the state contracted with PARCC and that contract allowed PARCC to ask personal noneducational questions about the lives of students.  Questions like, “Does anyone smoke in your house?”  Or “Do your parents get along?”  True this is an extreme case, but federal FERPA laws are being weakened to allow data collection on children, and the sharing of that confidential information to “third parties."  Pearson also apparently monitors the social networks of students before, during, and after the test to check for “test breaches” or “brand mentions,” as apparent during a recent event in NJ. This is not okay. 

#8.  The tests are too long.  NY Reading and Math tests in 2014 took about 7 hours.  In comparison, the GRE and SAT takes less than 4 hours, and the MCAT for medical school – about five hours.  Test fatigue becomes a factor in student performance.  The length of the exams also leads to greater student stress.

#9.  Teachers are unfairly assessed using test results, and according to Cuomo's education reform proposals, may lose their jobs if rated "ineffective" for two years in a row.  These assessments are produced using what is called VAM - Value-Added Measurement.  VAM has been called "junk science," and has been criticized by the American Statistical Association and in a joint statement by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education.  Fully one-third of teachers vacillate from one effectiveness rating to another, from year to year.  There is no rhyme or reason to the outcomes, and it does not do the job of giving verifiable feedback regarding a teacher's aptitude for their job.  Our best knowledge tells us that teachers have at most, only a 1-14% influence on standardized test results of their students.  VAM results are highly correlated with the poverty of the district, with teachers in impoverished communities receiving the lowest evaluations. Teachers most at risk of being fired based on faulty test scores, are those who are most needed - special education, teachers of English Language Learners, and of course, teachers in impoverished communities.  What new teacher will want to go into these jobs, knowing they have absolutely no job security.

#10.  Schools are labeled failures and targeted for takeover by the state, absolving locally elected boards.  School districts that have been taken over in other states have been doled out to for-profit charter investors, with little oversight or accountability.  There are many cases of charter fraud nationwide.  Cuomo's plans for "receivership," will eliminate local control.

#11.  As teachers strive to retain their jobs, more and more emphasis will go to test prep, reducing the amount of time that students can be engaged in projects, authentic assessment, and creative activities.  What do you remember most about school?  Taking a test, or perhaps a medieval fair your class acted out?  Sadly, there is little time left in the schedule for the all-day learning and enrichment experiences that my own now-grown children have as memories.  Test prep is crowding out the humanities and arts - social studies and even science are relegated to second or third fiddle status, with classes usurped for the almighty test prep.  Life is more than just ELA and Math.  So much more. And our children are missing out.

#11.  Perhaps the most compelling reason in my mind – and I think about my grandchildren – is the emotional/psychological component.  What does it do to our youngest learners to sit and take a test that is much too difficult for them?  Children know when they “don’t get” something.  Do they feel like failures?  Do they feel like they are letting their teacher or the school down?  Do they blame themselves and believe they “aren’t smart enough?”  These are questions that I know are first in the minds of parents and grandparents, because we want our children to grow up as confident learners who know they can grow, and who have the motivation to try.

For all these reasons and many more, REFUSE THE TESTS.  Starve the beast.   It may be our one best hope for our public schools and our children.  Write a letter, and/or send a note in with your child stating that they refuse the test and their test should be scored as a "999" refusal.  For more information, and forms, visit NYSAPE.


  1. If high stakes testing is so important, why aren't Charter Schools required to administer them?

  2. Good question. Why aren't they held to the same financial standards either - public schools have strict accounting rules. Not so for charters.