May 22, 2012
A group of parents and teachers are once again preparing to opt their children out of state tests, this time when their schools will administer “field” exams in over a thousand elementary and middle schools across the city next month.
Field testing allows test makers to gauge the value of future test questions. Pearson, the company that currently makes New York’s state tests, is preparing a slew of new questions that are aligned with new learning standards known as the Common Core. This spring’s field tests focus on science, math, or reading, depending on the grade level. Students in selected schools already took the science test in mid-May, which was for grades 4 and 8. The math and reading tests are scheduled for the first week of June.
The parents and teachers, who are part of the Change the Stakes coalition, are calling on parents to protest the testing, which will be administered on behalf of Pearson Education, the test publisher that famously drew criticism for the “pineapple” test questions on the state’s eighth-grade English exam in April.
“This is just research for the company,” said Tony Kelso, whose third-grader is supposed to take the reading field test at Amistad Dual Language School in Inwood.
Kelso added that he doubted Pearson would get useful information from the tests. “My understanding is that the tests aren’t even reliable. The students know they won’t count so they don’t take them seriously,” he said.
A small number of students opting out would be unlikely to affect the big picture that Pearson is seeking to draw from the field tests, according to Sean Corcoran, a New York University researcher who studies testing. “Since the test is given statewide, inferences about performances will largely be based on how students do relative to all test takers statewide. It would take a lot of students opting out to change this distribution.”
Unlike regular state tests, students will not find out how they’ve performed on the field tests. Instead, Pearson’s field tests are supposed to provide data to improve future tests, according a memo sent to superintendents and principals in March from Ken Slentz, the state’s Deputy Commissioner of P-12. Pearson landed a $32 million contract with the state in 2010 to produce elementary and middle school tests over five years.
But several parents want to know why their schools didn’t inform them about the stand-alone field tests.
“I found out about it through the grapevine,” said Kelso, who isn’t allowing his son to take the test. “I plan on calling every third grade parent to see if they will join me in writing a letter to the principal. I’m against these high stakes tests. It just results in teachers being forced to teach for the test.”
The protest is part of the grassroots organization’s campaign to reduce the culture of high stakes testing, which the organization said “distorts classroom curriculum” and emphasizes “mind-numbing” test preparation.
“I have seen my son go from being excited to being bored by school,” said Diana Zavala, who is involved with the Change the Stakes campaign. “This is all about making money for Pearson. They create the tests and study guides. This is a huge business for them.” Zavala was one of the parents who chose to opt of the state testing for their children this year but her son isn’t required to take the field test.
Other parents are questioning why a stand-alone field test is being administered when Pearson already embedded field questions in the state tests this year.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Jinnie Spiegler, whose daughter is in fourth grade and feels pressured to do well because the state tests influence which middle school she is admitted to. “They’re basically doing free pilot studies.” Her daughter class wasn’t selected to take the field test.
“The schools should inform parents and give us the option to opt out,” she said.
Children who opt out of the state tests are assessed on a portfolio of work instead. Unlike the state tests, there are no consequences for boycotting the field tests, according Matthew Mittenthal, the press secretary for the city’s Department of Education.
But there is no opt-out option for teachers like Lauren Cohen, who teaches the third grade at P.S. 63, a Lower East Side elementary school. Her students will take Pearson’s reading test during one class period.
“It’s hard because I feel like I’m caught between ethics in what I believe and my ethics that I need to be doing my job,” said Cohen.
Many of Cohen’s students receive special education services and struggled to sit through the 90-minute state tests in April, which were longer this year because of the embedded field questions.
“I definitely want to make it a stress-free situation for my kids,” added Cohen. “I’m not going to hide the fact that the field-test doesn’t count toward anything.”