Here is another good article from Amy Zimmer at DNAinfo New York. To read the piece at that website, CLICK HERE. For practice questions to build skills for the AABL, visit www.TestingMom.com. Once you join, go to Select Practice Questions – NYC Private School and the practice questions are right there!
MANHATTAN — Some of the city’s most elite private schools will soon require 4-year-olds to take a new, harder admissions test given on an iPad and designed to assess math and literacy skills.
The educational services company ERB’s Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners (AABL) will be given for the first time in October and is a significant departure from the previous, IQ-like test most New York City private schools required for the past 45 years.
While the new test is much cheaper for families — it’s $65, rather than $568 for the old test, because the new test is taken by iPad rather than by a trained examiner — experts believe many parents will shell out even more on classes and books to prepare their toddlers for it.
“These are subjects that were not previously tested,” said Emily Glickman, president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, who advises parents on private school admissions.
“The AABL is supposed to identify a child’s ability and achievement,” Glickman said. “That achievement part — how much you learned — is totally new. You usually think of an achievement test as something you take in high school. It’s not something you think of for preschoolers.”
So far, only Horace Mann and Riverdale Country School have announced plans to use the new exam, but experts believe more may follow.
In the past, most private schools used the ERB’s IQ test for kindergarten admission. But this year the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) told schools they were no longer required to use that test and instead could use a different one, make admissions tests optional or ignore them entirely.
The coalition cited concerns that 4-year-olds were over-preparing for the old IQ exam.
Some consultants, though, were perplexed by the shift to the new, more difficult AABL test.
“The AABL is really requiring more from preschoolers. That is in line with what we’re seeing in public schools,” Glickman said, referring to changes in the Department of Education’s gifted and talented admissions test. “We all know that some of the brightest people are late bloomers, yet more and more schools are rewarding the early achievers.”
To prepare kids for the AABL, parents should work with their youngsters on basic early literacy and math skills, said Karen Quinn, best-selling author of “Testing for Kindergarten” and co-founder of online test prep service TestingMom.com.
“We’re looking at things like knowing letters, numbers and shapes, knowing letter sounds, recognizing rhymes, counting, adding, subtracting and more,” she said.
The ERB’s IQ test was more subjective, especially on the verbal section, in which the examiner could award partial credit, said Bige Doruk, founder of test prep company Bright Kids NYC.
“For example, if the question stated ‘What is a mouse?’ and the kid answered ‘animal,’ he or she would get 1 point. If the kid said ‘a gray animal that is small, has a tail and likes to eat cheese,’ the kid would get the full 2 points,” Doruk explained.
If a child just said “animal,” the tester would reply, “Tell me more,” giving the child another chance to earn the full 2 points, Doruk said.
In addition to a numerical grade, the old test also included a written narrative from the examiner describing the child’s behavior during the test, such as whether the toddler seemed to be focused or easy to work with.
It’s unlikely that the AABL will include a report on the child, because the child will take the test independently on an iPad, Doruk said.
“It favors those with more reading skills and who’ve gone to more academic preschools,” said Doruk, whose company began offering one-on-one tutoring, ranging from $140 to $200 a session, for the AABL about a month ago.
Horace Mann and Riverdale declined to comment on their choice to use the new test, but Horace Mann explained its rationale on its website.
“While the score report is only one element of a child’s application,” the school said, “it is the only piece of the application that is consistent and objective for our applicants, who come from many schools and many different backgrounds and include children who do not come to us from formalized preschool settings.”
In the past, many parents would sign their kids up to take the test in the spring and summer before applying to schools. Registration for the AABL, however, doesn’t open until Sept. 15, and testing starts Oct. 15, according to the exam’s website.
Some consultants raised concerns about the use of an iPad test, saying toddlers shouldn’t spend so much time in front of a screen. But Doruk said her company has been using iPads in tutoring sessions for the past two years.
“Kids know how to use the iPad. They like the iPad. It’s more engaging to them. It looks like a game,” Doruk said. “But they still have to answer the questions correctly.”
I love anything that Sumathi Reddy writes. This is such an important subject for parents to be aware of. If you would like to read it at the Wall Street Journal website, CLICK HERE.
Little Children and Already Acting Mean, By SUMATHI REDDY
Children, Especially Girls, Withhold Friendship as a Weapon; Teaching Empathy
Children still in kindergarten or even younger form cliques and intentionally exclude others, say psychologists and educators who are increasingly noticing the behavior and taking steps to curb it.
Special programs are popping up in elementary schools to teach empathy as a means of stemming relational aggression, a psychological term to describe using the threat of removing friendship as a tactical weapon. Children also are being guided in ways to stand up for themselves, and to help others, in instances of social exclusion. Though both boys and girls exhibit relational aggression, it is thought to be more common among girls because they are generally more socially developed and verbal than boys.
“I think it’s remarkable that we’re seeing this at younger and younger ages,” said Laura Barbour, a counselor at Stafford Primary School in West Linn, Ore., who has worked in elementary schools for 24 years. “Kids forget about scuffles on the playground but they don’t forget about unkind words or being left out.”
Relational aggression is a relatively new term in psychology, devised to distinguish it from physical aggression. There is no research showing that relational aggression is increasing or manifesting itself earlier, experts say. An increasing awareness of it, however, may be what’s fueling educators’ perception that it is starting earlier and becoming more common.
Generally thought of as a middle-school phenomenon, relational aggression is less explored among young children. Experts say it often goes under the radar because it is harder to detect than physical aggression. The behavior is similar to verbal aggression but revolves around threatening the removal of a friendship. Examples include coercing other children not to play with someone else or threatening not to invite them to your birthday party if they don’t do what you want them to do.
“It actually works so well because of the child’s limited cognitive abilities,” said Jamie Ostrov, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Ostrov, who has conducted observational studies of relational aggression in 3-to-5-year-olds, said he has detected signs of the behavior in children as young as 2½ years. It isn’t clear why some children are more inclined to relational aggression than others. There is evidence that children can learn these behaviors by observing parents or older siblings, as well as from media, Dr. Ostrov said.
Unlike physical aggression, relational aggression increases with age, often peaking in middle school, said Charisse Nixon, chair of the psychology department at Penn State Erie. Some research indicates that girls are more affected than boys by relational aggression as they perceive it as more damaging to their social relationships, she said.
Dr. Nixon’s research has found that an average of 50% of children and adolescents—grades five through 12—have experienced relational aggression at least monthly. About 7% of children report experiencing physical aggression on a daily or weekly basis.
Experts say children engaging in high levels of relational aggression can have other conduct problems. It is also linked to health problems, such as depression and anxiety, Dr. Nixon said.
Laurel Klaassen, a counselor at Sibley-Ocheyedan Elementary School in Sibley, Iowa, says she has seen first-grade girls make a list of who can play with whom at recess.
“They’re already thinking at that age about being popular, being the queen of the classroom, or the queen of the playground and vying for that position,” said Ms. Klaassen. With boys, episodes of relational aggression seem to roll right off them, she said. “I’ve had girls that have come in and said to me, ‘I remember back in kindergarten when so-and-so did this to me.’ ”
Mark Barnett, a developmental psychologist at Kansas State University, says affective empathy, or vicariously experiencing the emotions of someone else, is what needs to be encouraged to reduce relational-aggressive behavior. If a child does something negative to someone, the parent should say, “Imagine how it would feel if someone did that to you?” Dr. Barnett also recommends parents and teachers talk about feelings of characters during story time. They also need to model empathetic behavior.
Steph Jensen, a presenter at “Mean Girls” seminars run by training group AccuTrain, of Virginia Beach, Va., said she has been seeing more participation from elementary-school teachers and counselors. And Simone Marean, executive director of the Girls Leadership Institute, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., said the group started a program aimed at kindergarten and first-grade children addressing relational aggression three years ago in response to parent demand.
Trudy Ludwig, a Portland, Ore.-based author of books on children’s social and emotional learning who does presentations at schools, said she engages in role playing with the children to teach them both empathy and how to stand up for themselves. Last week she read one of her books, “The Invisible Boy,” to kindergarten, first- and second-grade students at Sue Buel Elementary School in McMinnville, Ore., in a program funded by the PTA.
The children were invited to insult Ms. Ludwig, as she showed them how to respond in a dignified and nonviolent way. In another role-play game, she demonstrated how to be a good bystander by comforting children who are bullied or including them in a group activity.
“A lot of kids don’t understand that manipulating friendships and relationships is bullying and that’s what I’m trying to educate the kids and the staff about,” Ms. Ludwig said.
When Ms. Ludwig asks students whether they find relational or physical aggression more hurtful, over 90% of the children will raise their hands for relational aggression, she said. “They’d rather be punched in the stomach,” she said.
Experts say parent involvement is important. A 2012 study in the journal Early Child Development and Care found that parents of preschoolers believe children should seek out adult assistance for physical aggression but not relational aggression, which they think children should work out on their own.
Samantha Parent Walravens, a mother of four children in Tiburon, Calif., said she was alarmed one day in January when her daughter Genevieve, a kindergartner, woke up crying. The girl complained of a stomach ache and didn’t want to go to school because some girls on the playground were being mean and wouldn’t let her play with them.
“I was shocked,” said Ms. Walravens, a 46-year-old writer. “You think about the mean-girl stuff going on in middle school. But in kindergarten?”
Ms. Walravens found out from the teacher that Genevieve was in a best-friends triangle with two other girls, which sometimes led to hurt feelings. The teacher “nipped it in the bud,” including telling Ms. Walravens to encourage her daughter to have other friends.
“I’m trying to teach her empathy,” Ms. Walravens said. “How did you feel when those little girls didn’t allow you to play with them? What do you do if you see someone who’s feeling sad on the playground? I always tell her you can go to me or the teacher and we will help you work it out. A lot of the stuff they can’t work out on their own.”
I am very excited to see that Daniel Goleman has written a book called “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.” It is one I will order just as soon as I finish posting this article about the book on my blog. [To read this article at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE.] Being able to focus is critical to a child’s ability to do well in school and beyond. You may remember that Daniel Goleman is the author of books about Emotional Intelligence or EQ, qualities that are also critical to a child’s success in school and life.
Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits
By DANIEL GOLEMAN MAY 12, 2014, 3:56 PM
Which will it be — the berries or the chocolate dessert? Homework or the Xbox? Finish that memo, or roam Facebook?
Such quotidian decisions test a mental ability called cognitive control, the capacity to maintain focus on an important choice while ignoring other impulses. Poor planning, wandering attention and trouble inhibiting impulses all signify lapses in cognitive control. Now a growing stream of research suggests that strengthening this mental muscle, usually with exercises in so-called mindfulness, may help children and adults cope with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and its adult equivalent, attention deficit disorder.
The studies come amid growing disenchantment with the first-line treatment for these conditions: drugs.
In 2007, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study finding that the incidence of A.D.H.D. among teenagers in Finland, along with difficulties in cognitive functioning and related emotional disorders like depression, were virtually identical to rates among teenagers in the United States. The real difference? Most adolescents with A.D.H.D. in the United States were taking medication; most in Finland were not.
“It raises questions about using medication as a first line of treatment,” said Susan Smalley, a behavior geneticist at U.C.L.A. and the lead author.
In a large study published last year in The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers reported that while most young people with A.D.H.D. benefit from medications in the first year, these effects generally wane by the third year, if not sooner.
“There are no long-term, lasting benefits from taking A.D.H.D. medications,” said James M. Swanson, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of the study. “But mindfulness seems to be training the same areas of the brain that have reduced activity in A.D.H.D.”
“That’s why mindfulness might be so important,” he added. “It seems to get at the causes.”
Depending on which scientist is speaking, cognitive control may be defined as the delay of gratification, impulse management, emotional self-regulation or self-control, the suppression of irrelevant thoughts, and paying attention or learning readiness.
This singular mental ability, researchers have found, predicts success both in school and in work life.
Cognitive control increases from about 4 to 12 years old, then plateaus, said Betty J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Teenagers find it difficult to suppress their impulses, as any parent knows.
But impulsivity peaks around age 16, Dr. Casey noted, and in their 20s most people achieve adult levels of cognitive control. Among healthy adults, it begins to wane noticeably in the 70s or 80s, often manifesting as an inability to remember names or words, because of distractions that the mind once would have suppressed.
Bolstering this mental ability, specialists are now suggesting, might be particularly helpful in treating A.D.H.D. and A.D.D.
To do so, researchers are testing mindfulness: teaching people to monitor their thoughts and feelings without judgments or other reactivity. Rather than simply being carried away from a chosen focus, they notice that their attention has wandered, and renew their concentration.
According to a recent report in Clinical Neurophysiology, adults with A.D.D. were shown to benefit from mindfulness training combined with cognitive therapy; their improvements in mental performance were comparable to those achieved by subjects taking medications.
The training led to a decline in impulsive errors, a problem typical of A.D.D., while the cognitive therapy helped them be less self-judgmental about mistakes or distractedness.
Mindfulness seems to flex the brain circuitry for sustaining attention, an indicator of cognitive control, according to research by Wendy Hasenkamp and Lawrence Barsalou at Emory University.
For a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, they imaged the brains of meditators while they went through four basic mental movements: focusing on a chosen target, noticing that their minds had wandered, bringing their minds back to the target, and sustaining their focus there.
Those movements appeared to strengthen the neural circuitry for keeping attention on a chosen point of focus.
Meditation is a cognitive control exercise that enhances “the ability to self-regulate your internal distractions,” said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.
His research seeks to duplicate these effects with video games that “selectively target the key circuits without the kind of side effects you get with drugs.”
With colleagues, he designed NeuroRacer, a game for older adults in which they respond to traffic signs that appear suddenly while driving on a winding road. The game enhanced cognitive control in subjects ranging from 60 to 85, according to a study published in Nature.
Stephen Hinshaw, a specialist in developmental psychopathology at the University of California, Berkeley, said the time was ripe to explore the utility of nondrug interventions like mindfulness.
Dr. Swanson agreed. “I was a skeptic until I saw the data,” he said, “and the findings are promising.”
I was so excited to read this article in the NY Times earlier this week. It shows how the world and school curriculums are beginning to change and keep up with today’s technology. We have added a program to teach young children coding on www.TestingMom.com – it’s called Tynker and kids just love it! You might want to go over to the site and check it out. Coding is becoming a more important than ever subject to learn about. My own son, who is in college now, is taking a coding course – something he never learned in school – because he feels he can’t go into the job market without a rudimentary understanding of what makes computer programs sing. Check it out! To read the article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding
By MATT RICHTEL MAY 10, 2014
MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.
“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School.
The event was part of a national educational movement in computer coding instruction that is growing at Internet speeds. Since December, 20,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade have introduced coding lessons, according to Code.org, a group backed by the tech industry that offers free curriculums. In addition, some 30 school districts, including New York City and Chicago, have agreed to add coding classes in the fall, mainly in high schools but in lower grades, too. And policy makers in nine states have begun awarding the same credits for computer science classes that they do for basic math and science courses, rather than treating them as electives.
There are after-school events, too, like the one in Mill Valley, where 70 parents and 90 children, from kindergartners to fifth graders, huddled over computers solving animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic.
It is a stark change for computer science, which for decades was treated like a stepchild, equated with trade classes like wood shop. But smartphones and apps are ubiquitous now, and engineering careers are hot. To many parents — particularly ones here in the heart of the technology corridor — coding looks less like an extracurricular activity and more like a basic life skill, one that might someday lead to a great job or even instant riches.
The spread of coding instruction, while still nascent, is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. He sees it as very positive, potentially inspiring students to develop a new passion, perhaps the way that teaching frog dissection may inspire future surgeons and biologists.
But the momentum for early coding comes with caveats, too. It is not clear that teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement are projecting. And particularly for younger children, Dr. Soloway said, the activity is more like a video game — better than simulated gunplay, but not likely to impart actual programming skills.
Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.
The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.
Across the country, districts are signing up piecemeal. Chicago’s public school system hopes to have computer science as a graduation requirement at all of its 187 high schools in five years, and to have the instruction in 25 percent of other schools. New York City public schools are training 60 teachers for classes this fall in 40 high schools, in part to prepare students for college.
“There’s a big demand for these skills in both the tech sector and across all sectors,” said Britt Neuhaus, the director of special projects at the office of innovation for New York City schools. The city plans to expand the training for 2015 and is considering moving it into middle schools.
The movement comes with no shortage of “we’re changing the world” marketing fervor from Silicon Valley. “This is strategically significant for the economy of the United States,” said John Pearce, a technology entrepreneur. He and another entrepreneur, Jeff Leane, have started a nonprofit, MV Gate, to bring youth and family coding courses developed by Code.org to Mill Valley, an affluent suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Parents love the idea of giving children something to do with computers that they see as productive, Mr. Pearce said. “We have any number of parents who say, ‘I can’t take my kid playing one more hour of video games,’ ” he said. But if the children are exploring coding, the parents tell him, “ ‘I can live with that all night long.’ ”
The concept has caught on with James Meezan, a second grader. He attended one of the first “Hour of Code” events sponsored by MV Gate in December with his mother, Karen Meezan, the local PTA president and a former tech-industry executive who now runs a real estate company. She is among the enthusiastic supporters of the coding courses, along with several local principals.
Her son, she said, does well in school but had not quite found his special interest and was “not the fastest runner on the playground.” But he loves programming and spends at least an hour a week at CodeKids, after-school programs organized by MV Gate and held at three of Mill Valley’s five elementary schools.
James, 8, explained that programming is “getting the computer to do something by itself.” It is fun, he said, and, besides, if he gets good, he might be able to do stuff like get a computer to turn on when it has suddenly died. His mother said he had found his niche; when it comes to programming, “he is the fastest runner.”
Other youngsters seemed more bewildered, at least at first. “The Google guys might’ve been coders, and the Facebook guys — I don’t know,” said Sammy Smith, a vibrant 10-year-old girl, when she arrived at the coding event at Strawberry Point.
But well into the session, she and her fifth-grade friends were digging in, moving basic command blocks to get the Angry Bird to its prey, and then playing with slightly more complex commands like “repeat” and learning about “if-then” statements, an elemental coding concept. The crowd had plenty of high-tech parents, including Scott Wong, director of engineering at Twitter. His 7-year-old son, Taeden, seemed alternately transfixed and confused by the puzzles on the laptop, while his 5-year-old brother, Sai, sat next to him, fidgeting.
The use of these word-command blocks to simplify coding logic stems largely from the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which introduced a visual programming language called Scratch in 2007. It claims a following of millions of users, but mostly outside the schools.
Then, in 2013, came Code.org, which borrowed basic Scratch ideas and aimed to spread the concept among schools and policy makers. Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. He called it as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”
Among the 20,000 teachers who Code.org says have signed on is Alana Aaron, a fifth-grade math and science teacher in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She heard about the idea late last year at a professional development meeting and, with her principal’s permission, swapped a two-month earth sciences lesson she was going to teach on land masses for the Code.org curriculum.
“Computer science is big right now — in our country, the world,” she said. “If my kids aren’t exposed to things like that, they could miss out on potential opportunities and careers.”
Correction: May 10, 2014
An earlier version of this article used the wrong pronoun in referring to the founder of Code.org, Hadi Partovi.
This is one of the better discussions of Common Core I have read of late. David Brooks makes a great point. There is such a circus of misinformation surrounding the introduction of Common Core that what they’re about, why they were put in place, and how they might help our kids graduate with better skills has been lost. To read this at the NY Times website CLICK HERE. I recommend you read the piece there in order to see the responses, many of which I agree with, some I don’t. But it is good to read a more rational, thoughtful discussion about these standards, as opposed to the hysteria and hyperbole that appears most often.
When the Circus Descends, by David Brooks
We are pretty familiar with this story: A perfectly sensible if slightly boring idea is walking down the street. Suddenly, the ideological circus descends, burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. The idea’s political backers beat a craven retreat. The idea dies.
This is what seems to be happening to the Common Core education standards, which are being attacked on the right because they are common and on the left because they are core.
About seven years ago, it was widely acknowledged that state education standards were a complete mess. Huge numbers of students were graduating from high school unprepared either for college work or modern employment. A student who was rated “proficient” in one state would be rated “below basic” in another. About 14 states had pretty good standards, according to studies at the time, but the rest had standards that were verbose, lax or wildly confusing.
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards. Remember, school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade.
This was a state-led effort, supported by employers and financed by private foundations. This was not a federal effort, though the Obama administration did encourage states to embrace the new standards.
These Common Core standards are at least partially in place in 45 states. As is usual, the initial implementation has been a bit bumpy. It’s going to take a few years before there are textbooks and tests that are truly aligned with the new standards.
But the new initiative is clearly superior to the old mess. The math standards are more in line with the standards found in the top performing math nations. The English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been evaluating state standards for more than 15 years, concluded that the Common Core standards are “clearly superior” to the old standards in 37 states and are “too close to call” in 11 more.
But this makes no difference when the circus comes to town.
On the right, the market-share-obsessed talk-radio crowd claims that the Common Core standards represent a federal takeover of the schools. This is clearly false. This was a state-led effort, and localities preserve their control over what exactly is taught and how it is taught. Glenn Beck claims that Common Core represents “leftist indoctrination” of the young. On Fox, Elisabeth Hasselbeck cited a curriculum item that supposedly taught students that Abraham Lincoln’s religion was “liberal.” But, as the education analyst Michael J. Petrilli quickly demonstrated, this was some locally generated curriculum that was one of hundreds on a lesson-sharing website and it was promulgated a year before the Common Core standards even existed.
As it’s being attacked by the talk-radio right, the Common Core is being attacked by the interest group left. The general critique from progressives, and increasingly from teachers’ unions, is that the standards are too difficult, that implementation is shambolic and teachers are being forced into some top-down straitjacket that they detest.
It is true that the new standards are more rigorous than the old, and that in some cases students have to perform certain math skills a year earlier than they formerly had to learn them. But that is a feature, not a bug. The point is to get students competitive with their international peers.
The idea that the Common Core is unpopular is also false. Teachers and local authorities still have control of what they teach and how they teach it. A large survey in Kentucky revealed that 77 percent of teachers are enthusiastic about the challenge of implementing the standards in their classrooms. In another survey, a majority of teachers in Tennessee believe that implementation of the standards has begun positively. Al Baker of The Times interviewed a range of teachers in New York and reported, “most said their students were doing higher-quality work than they had ever seen, and were talking aloud more often.”
The new standards won’t revolutionize education. It’s not enough to set goals; you have to figure out how to meet them. But they are a step forward. Yet now states from New York to Oklahoma are thinking of rolling them back. This has less to do with substance and more to do with talk-radio bombast and interest group resistance to change.
The circus has come to town.
According to the New York Times, obscure vocabulary words will not be present in the new SAT Test. I know this test seems far away to you now, but believe me, it will be upon you (and your child) before you know it. What I find interesting is that the test seems to be a continuation of Common Core in so many ways. This means, if your child is going to public school and learning how to take Common Core tests from 3rd grade on, he or she will have an advantage when it’s time to take the SAT. Although, who knows if the SAT will be required by that time! To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
Revised SAT Won’t Include Obscure Vocabulary Words, by Tamar Lewis
The College Board on Wednesday will release many details of its revised SAT, including sample questions and explanations of the research, goals and specifications behind them.
“We are committed to a clear and open SAT, and today is the first step in that commitment,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, the College Board’s chief of assessment, in a conference call on Monday, previewing the changes to be introduced in the spring of 2016.
She said the 211-page test specifications and supporting materials being shared publicly include “everything a student needs to know to walk into that test and not be surprised.”
One big change is in the vocabulary questions, which will no longer include obscure words. Instead, the focus will be on what the College Board calls “high utility” words that appear in many contexts, in many disciplines — often with shifting meanings — and they will be tested in context. For example, a question based on a passage about an artist who “vacated” from a tradition of landscape painting, asks whether it would be better to substitute the word “evacuated,” “departed” or “retired,” or to leave the sentence unchanged. (The right answer is “departed.”)
The test will last three hours, with another 50 minutes for an optional essay in which students will be asked to analyze a text and how the author builds an argument. The essays will be scored for reading, analysis and writing, and those scores will be reported separately from the other sections of the SAT. The current test includes a required 25-minute essay in which students are asked to take a position on an issue and which is graded without regard to factual accuracy.
The new test will have a 65-minute critical reading section with 52 questions, a 35-minute written language test with 44 questions, and an 80-minute math section with 57 questions. The language and math sections will each be scored from 200 to 800, and the top composite score will be 1,600. While the current test allows calculator use, the new one will have some sections that do not. Also, instead of five multiple-choice answers, the new test will have four.
Interpreting graphs will be an important part of the test, not just in math, but in analyzing science and social science texts.
Many of the college admissions officers who will be using the test results praised the effort to align the test with what students should be learning in high school, and what they will need to know to do well in college, but cautioned that it would be years before there was any evidence that the new SAT does a better job of predicting college performance than the current one.
“I like the desire on the part of the exam to assess students’ analytic skills, and the direction they’re taking with the changes in the essay,” said Christoph Guttentag, Duke University’s admissions director. “But we’ll still have to examine the evidence to see if there’s any change in the predictive validity within our context.”
David Coleman, who is president and chief executive of the College Board, and spearheaded the process of revising the test, was a key architect of the Common Core state curriculum standards for schools, a set of guidelines being introduced — and often stirring controversy — in classrooms throughout the nation. And to some extent, the College Board’s vision of the new SAT continues that alignment.
William Dingledine, an educational consultant in Greenville, S.C., said, “It’s a positive step that they’re trying to align the test with what students should be learning in school, and what they need for college, since the current SAT doesn’t do that very well, but it’s going to be interesting to see the SAT align with the Common Core standards while there are lots of states now trying to get rid of the Common Core.”
Many college admissions officers expressed skepticism about the College Board’s claim that the new SAT would narrow the gap between rich and poor students’ scores, and eliminate the edge gained through test preparation courses. Nor do they expect that the new test will hold any less stress for students.
Even if everyone becomes familiar with the format, said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon, “there’s still going to be a lot of anxiety, since it’s still a high-stakes test.”
So what will be the effects of the new SAT?
“It’s like that SAT response: ‘cannot be determined with the information given,’ ” he said.
The Redesigned SAT
Sample questions from the new SAT to be introduced in spring 2016
If you live in NYC and you have a bilingual child and your child will be taking the G&T tests next year, be sure to build up the English you are speaking to your child over the next year. Those are the recommendations after seeing scores drop for bilingual kids after the DOE changed the weighting of the two tests it uses to determine qualification for gifted programs. To read this article at the DNAInfo website, CLICK HERE.
QUEENS — Tim Wang wishes he’d spent more time speaking English to his son at home.
Wang’s 4-year-old recently scored in the 97th percentile on the city’s gifted and talented exam — a very high score, but likely not high enough to earn him a spot in the city’s most elite G&T programs, like the Upper West Side’s Anderson School and the Lower East Side’s NEST+m.
Wang’s son, who learned English as his first language, but now primarily speaks Mandarin at home, did better on the nonverbal section of the exam, which asks kids to identify patterns and shapes and draw logical conclusions, than he did on the verbal section, in which an adult reads a question out loud to a child once and then asks for an answer.
That wouldn’t have mattered as much last year, when the nonverbal section held more weight in determining a child’s overall score — but this year the Department of Education changed the scoring to give the two sections equal weight.
Scores fell sharply across the city, and test prep experts and families said children who speak more than one language had a tougher time achieving top scores this year.
“I was very proud of my son, especially what he did in the verbal,” said Wang, a 41-year-old software engineer who moved from Taiwan to Flushing in 2000.
But if Wang had known about the grading changes, he said, “I may [have] spent a little bit more time to read English stories for my son.”
The score drop in immigrant communities was most apparent in three school districts in Queens — a borough where nearly half of residents are foreign-born, according to city data — where scores of children trying to test into kindergarten G&T programs plummeted more than anywhere else in the city.
District 30, which encompasses Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights and Woodside, saw the number of top scorers drop by 58 percent compared to last year. In District 25 — Wang’s district — which includes Flushing, the number of top scorers dropped by 54 percent.
And District 26, which covers Bayside, Fresh Meadows and Jamaica Estates, saw the number of top scorers fall by 52 percent. Because of the district’s strong schools, many immigrant families from South Korea, China, India and Japan have moved to the area, according to Insideschools.
The drops are even more striking considering that hundreds more children across the city took the G&T qualifying test this year compared to last year, records show.
Deb Alexander, who sits on District 30’s Community Education Council and is a parent of a G&T student, said families in her neighborhood complained the new test is “disadvantageous” to English learners.
“Our district has an incredibly high number of homes where English is not the first language,” she said. “The child may be a native English speaker, but it’s what they’re used to listening to.”
The DOE declined to comment on the impact of the testing changes this year on kids who speak English as a second language. A spokesman released a statement saying, “The tweak in the weights was designed to improve the psychometric balance across the two tests based on the data from the previous year, when the DOE first introduced this particular test combination.”
The Department of Education does provide translators for English language learners on the verbal and nonverbal portions of the test in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.
But many families said the quality of translation services varies. In addition, they say, the verbal part of the G&T exam wasn’t designed for non-English-speaking children — leaving nuances to get lost even with a translator, said Michael McCurdy, co-founder of test preparation website Testing Mom.
“For example, even in the Department of Education gifted and talented handbook they have questions that use traditional American boy names and foods that are American, like pizza,” McCurdy said. “If a child is growing up in a household that only speaks Mandarin, for example, and has never eaten or seen pizza, they would be at a disadvantage.”
Bige Doruk, founder of test prep company Bright Kids NYC, analyzed data from her students’ scores after the changed G&T test this year. Though the scores were still high overall, she said, “Our ELL [English language learner] kids definitely scored much lower this year.”
Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center education professor David Bloomfield said the results highlight the “mutability” of test scores.
“You switch to this 50/50 arrangement [equally weighting the verbal and nonverbal sections], and you change who’s considered gifted or not,” he said. “It just seems to me one more example of how the almost arbitrary changing of metrics creates huge differences in the lives of children.”
Here is why New Yorkers and are protesting the Common Core tests. To read the opinion at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE. I recommend that you take a look at the article on the site just to see the reader comments.
We Need to Talk About the Test
A Problem With the Common Core
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.
This lack of transparency was one of the driving forces that led the teachers at my school to call for a protest rally the day after the test, a rally that attracted hundreds of supporters. More than 30 other New York City schools have scheduled their own demonstrations.
I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.
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.
Teachers and administrators at my school have spoken out against the overemphasis on testing for years, but our stance is not one of “sour grapes.” Last year we were one of the 25 top-scoring schools in New York State. We have implemented the Common Core standards with enthusiasm, and we have always supported the idea that great teaching is the best test preparation. But this year’s English Language Arts exam has made a mockery of that position.
It is frightening to think what “teaching to the test” would mean, given the nature of the test. We won’t do it, but some schools will, or at least will try, despite a new state law that mandates that schools limit test prep to 2 percent of instructional time. How does one even begin to monitor or enforce such a mandate?
Over the past few years, as higher stakes have been attached to the tests, we have seen schools devote more time to test prep, leaving less time and fewer resources for instruction in music, the arts, social studies and physical education. This is especially true for schools with a high proportion of low-income students, who tend to do worse on the test, and whose teachers and principals have to worry more about the scores.
At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.
For two years, I have suggested that the commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests — I’d recommend Days 1 and 3 of the third-grade test for starters. Afterward, I would like to hear whether they still believed that these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.
We do not want to become cynics, but until these flawed exams are released to the public and there is true transparency, it will be difficult for teachers and principals to maintain the optimism that is such an essential element of educating children.
Elizabeth Phillips has been the principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 15 years.
This article makes a critical point about what it will take to make Common Core succeed in NY and, frankly, every state in this country. Teachers need to be trained. To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
The panel convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to review New York’s troubled rollout of the Common Core learning standards will present its recommendations this spring. Among its most important tasks is to offer ways to remedy the most serious weakness in the state’s Common Core effort — the shortage of high-quality programs that are supposed to train teachers to carry out new Common Core-based curriculums.
The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by all but a handful of states, are new goals for what children should learn from one grade to the next. They are intended to move schools away from passive learning and fill-in-the-bubble tests and toward a writing-intensive curriculum that cultivates reasoning skills earlier than is now common. In practice, this means teaching fifth graders to write essays in which they introduce, support and defend arguments, using specific facts and details.
New York, which adopted the standards in 2010, is one of the first states to create extensive Common Core-based curriculum materials and training kits. The problem is that many teachers in New York have not been given the time or the help they need to develop an understanding of the Common Core idea or to master the skills needed to teach it. This failure stems partly from the financial struggles of many districts. Some were actually cutting staff and reducing services to students as the Common Core was being rolled out; they had no money to devote to professional development. Even if the money had been available, professional development programs vary widely in quality from one district to another.
The goal should be to end old-fashioned training sessions where teachers attend conferences at which they listen to lectures for a few days a year and move toward continuous instruction by master educators who observe teachers at work, providing help and feedback.
The Common Core initiative cannot succeed unless these problems are solved. That point was hammered home at the panel’s first public hearing last week. An expert speaking at the hearing, Carmel Martin, a former assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration, noted that other states had invested heavily in teacher development as part of their preparation in rolling out the Common Core. These programs give teachers the time to learn new instructional techniques either during the summer, after school, or by reducing teachers’ course loads during the school year.
California allocated $1.25 billion in the current school year for carrying out the new standards. The Tennessee Department of Education trained more than 40,000 teachers — roughly two-thirds of the state teacher corps — during 2012 and 2013. The training sessions were led by top teachers who were selected through a competition. And Delaware has created a project called Common Ground for the Common Core that helps schools and districts bring the new standards into classrooms.
New York can help local districts by providing money and laying out rigorous guidelines for how it can be used. The state Board of Regents, which oversees education policy, clearly had that in mind when it advised the Legislature to increase school aid by $1.3 billion in the 2014-15 school year. About half of that — $719 million — would go toward helping districts that are still reeling from state funding cuts related to the recession and a state-imposed tax cap that limited their ability to raise money. And $125 million would go to an instructional development fund that would be available to districts that committed to extensive, high-quality professional development. The money would be allocated based on need.
The Legislature would do well to follow the Regents’ recommendations. If New York wants to install the Common Core and improve the quality of education it will need to put its money where its mouth is.
The second article below appeared on November 24, 2013 in NY Magazine. I meant to post it on my blog then, but forgot. Now I see that the top scoring district in NYC will be protesting the ELA Tests in NY this week, so that jogged my memory to put the second article up for you. Opting out of Common Core and protests over the test is not just a NY phenomenon. Parents all over the country are unhappy with the Common Core. We have added plenty of preparation for the Common Core on our www.TestingMom.com website and, in doing so, I can see how much harder this test is than previous achievement tests. Parents are right to be concerned. It will take years for teachers and students to be up to speed on how to do well on this test. From what principals are saying below, it may take years for the test developers to get the test right. The protesting parents in NYC feel the test is not well aligned with the standards and that teachers aren’t getting enough information about questions on past tests to use that information to help students prepare. The first article appears on Dianeravitch.net – CLICK HERE to read it at that website. The second article comes from NY Magazine.
Top-Scoring NYC District Will Protest ELA Tests This Friday
District 2 in New York City–one of the city’s highest scoring districts–plans protests this Friday against the poor quality of the ELA tests given last week. State officials tried to dismiss concerns from other districts, specifically from Liz Phillips, a respected Brooklyn principal who wrote a letter to all the parents in her school saying the tests were.”terrible.” More than 500 parents and teachers at her school joined to protest the ELA tests last Friday. The Néw York Times ignored Phillips’ informed judgment and accepted the assurances of state officials (and pupils–how large was their sample?) that the test was “easier” than last year.
District 2 principals agreed with Phillips.
Here is their statement:
Join Us in Speaking Out Regarding the NYS English Language Arts Exam
Friday, April 11th, at District 2 Schools
Dear District 2 Families,
Community School District 2 represents a richly diverse group of school communities and it is not often these days that we have an opportunity to join in a shared effort. Last week, and for several weeks prior, every one of our upper grade classrooms devoted hours of instructional time, vast human resources, and a tremendous amount of thoughtful effort to preparing students to do well on the NYS ELA exams and, ultimately, to administering them. Only a handful of District 2 families even considered opting out, and we are not advocating families do so, specifically because we believe our students are well prepared for the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core and our schools have worked hard for several years to adjust our curriculum and teaching to support students in meeting those expectations. We had high hopes for what this year’s tests would bring and assured families that they would reflect the feedback test makers and state officials had received from educators and families regarding the design of the test following last year’s administration. Our students worked extremely hard and did their very best. As school leaders, we supported teachers in ensuring that students and families kept the tests in perspective – they were important, but by no means the ultimate measure of who they are as readers, students, or human beings. We encouraged them to be optimistic, and did our best to do the same. Frankly, many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we’d taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing deep comprehension for something quite different.
Last Friday morning, Liz Phillips, the principal of PS321 in Brooklyn, led her staff and her parent community in a demonstration objecting, not to testing or accountability or high expectations for kids, but to these tests in particular and, importantly, to their high stakes nature for teachers and students, and the policy of refusing to release other than a small percentage of the questions. 500 staff and parents participated.
By Friday evening some officials were dismissing the importance of their statement, claiming that Liz and her community represented only a tiny percentage of those affected, implying that the rest of us were satisfied. Given the terribly high stakes of these tests, for schools, for teachers and for kids, and the enormous amount of human, intellectual and financial resources that have been devoted to them, test makers should be prepared to stand by them and to allow them to undergo close scrutiny.
Many District 2 schools will be holding demonstrations this week, making sure our thoughts on this are loud and clear and making it more difficult to dismiss the efforts of one school. On Friday morning, April 11th, at 8:00am, we invite our families and staff to join District 2 schools in speaking out, expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the 2014 NYS English Language Arts LA exams and the lack of transparency surrounding them. Among the concerns shared by many schools are the following: The tests seem not to be particularly well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; the tests themselves are embargoed and only a handful of select questions will be released next year; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; students and families receive little or no specific feedback; this year, there were product placements (i.e., Nike, Barbie) woven through some exams. We are inviting you and your family to join together as a school community in this action, helping to ensure that officials are not left to wonder whether our silence implied approval.
District 2 Principals
Adele Schroeter, PS59; Lisa Ripperger, PS234; Robert Bender, PS11; Tara Napoleoni, PS183; Jane Hsu, PS116; Sharon Hill, PS290; Amy Hom, PS1; Lauren Fontana, PS6; Jennifer Bonnet, PS150; Nicole Ziccardi Yerk, PS281; Susan Felder, PS40; Alice Hom, PS124; Nancy Harris, PS397; Kelly Shannon, PS41; Nancy Sing-Bok, PS51; Lisa Siegman, PS3; Irma Medina, PS111; Terry Ruyter, PS276; Medea McEvoy, PS267; Darryl Alhadeff, PS158; Samantha Kaplan, PS151; David Bowell, PS347; Lily Woo, PS130; Jacqui Getz, PS126; Kelly McGuire, Lower Manhattan Community MS
The Opt-Outers, by Robert Kolker
What happens if enough NY parents say they don’t want their kids to take the test?
More than a year before 7-year-old Oscar Mata was scheduled to take his first major standardized test, his parents received word from his school that he was failing. The Department of Education calls it a Promotion in Doubt letter—a well-intentioned, if blunt, method used to get families to take notice of gaps in a student’s skills.
The letter arrived in 2011, around the time of Oscar’s second-grade winter break. Before then, he had been happy at the Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership in West Harlem. His parents, Andrea and Juan, had been drawn to the dual-language school, where English and Spanish learners took field trips together for innovative social-studies projects. They say that Oscar is great at math and loved science, music, and art. He loved reading, too, until he started to get tested on it.
“There was this transformation of the whole culture—and curriculum,” Andrea says. “I could see it mostly through the homework. It really looked like test prep. There were even bubble sheets.” Oscar had more than a year before the third-grade test, when students start taking the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests—but the thinking goes that the sooner they learn how to take big standardized tests and the sooner any skill shortfalls can be dealt with, the better they’ll do in the long run. Oscar, however, had a paradoxical reaction. “His interest in school,” says Andrea, “took this immediate plummet.”
She felt as if her son had been caught in a vortex: The school starts teaching Oscar differently, he loses whatever spark of curiosity inspired him to want to learn, and the school punishes him for it. He made it to third grade, but by then, test prep had come to dominate his classroom. Grand plans for science experiments and hands-on interactive projects, Andrea says, “would just kind of fizzle out and disappear because there wasn’t time to do them.”
One underlying problem, she learned, was that his school had received a grade of C from the DOE’s school-evaluation system, and student test scores accounted for 85 percent of that grade. The principal was under extreme pressure to raise the school’s performance level, because a low grade could persuade families to pull students out of that school. By spring, with the third-grade state tests imminent, Andrea started to think seriously about having Oscar opt out of the ELA entirely. The potential ramifications were a mystery to her, but in a way, she thought, the worst had already happened. Her son just didn’t like school anymore.
We’re well into the second decade of the accountability era of public education, during which federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have prodded state school systems to raise standards. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has spent a dozen years bringing data analysis and standardization to what once was a decentralized system. Adding an extra layer of assessments to those mandated by No Child Left Behind, the system now tests kids year round instead of at the start and end of school years.
The new data introduced a degree of transparency and precision that never existed systemwide. For the first time, the DOE could make almost real-time comparisons among the skill levels of kids in different schools and neighborhoods and with different socioeconomic backgrounds. In theory, the tests ensure that kids are being taught to the same standard all over the city and keep low-performing students from falling through the cracks. The tests also offered Bloomberg a benchmark by which to justify the closing of several schools—he’s phased out or shuttered 164 in his nearly twelve years in office—with his letter-grade evaluation system.
But the shift to a data-centric system has led to an interesting new moment for everyone involved in the public schools. At the same time that the state and federal governments have embraced data as much as Bloomberg has, Bill de Blasio stands to inherit a system where a backlash has begun—and he, at least partly, was elected because he aligned himself with that backlash. “I would put the standardized-testing machine in reverse,” the mayor-to-be said during the campaign. “It is poisoning our system.”
From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, application-only middle schools use to screen kids.
The harshest critics of testing have argued that students learn best from a well-rounded curriculum, and that the pressure to get the correct answer on a high-stakes test leads to cheating and alienation. Every year brings new examples as proof: This fall, kindergartners at some city schools were taught to bubble in answers; in Montclair, New Jersey, new tests were canceled after the answers were posted online. “If you have a child with high anxiety, you’re just adding to their stress level,” says Kate O’Hagan, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 97 in Brooklyn, who argues that the specter of low test scores on a student’s permanent record leads to more pressure at home as well as at school. “Teachers aren’t initiating the conversation about testing. Parents are.”
No real anti-testing resistance movement ever gained traction until last spring, when the state introduced revamped ELA and math tests that were so much harder than what came before that a vast majority of students failed. The tests were meant to align with a new national set of standards called the Common Core, which until recently has been celebrated by both political parties as a way of bringing critical thinking and academic rigor into schools across the country. The problem was that the state changed the test without changing the curriculum first. And the results reflected that: Fewer than one third of all third- through eighth-graders across the state passed. According to the DOE, about one out of every twenty kids citywide wasn’t able to finish day two of the tests.
“There were a lot of tears,” says John O’Reilly, principal of the Academy of Arts & Letters, a K-8 school in Brooklyn. “People have already talked about how they upped the text level, and there were multiple answers to some questions. But the tests were also really long, and kids didn’t finish. And I wondered if this is what we are deciding academic rigor is.”
As anxiety about the new tests mounted, the city’s school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, tried tough love, saying, “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be challenging.” State officials did the same. “The world has changed, the economy has changed, and what our students need to know has changed,” said Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents. “It’s better to have our students challenged now—when teachers and parents are there to help—than frustrated later when they start college or try to find a job and discover they are unprepared.”
The test triggered the most widespread criticism of high-stakes testing in more than a decade. At the front lines of the movement are children like Oscar Mata, who, last spring, chose not to take the ELA at all.
Andrea Mata had been so worried about the testing issue that in August 2011, she started showing up at a monthly meeting at the CUNY Graduate Center that called itself the Grassroots Education Movement—a support group made up of public-school teachers and some parents reaching out to talk about policy problems that seemed too big to handle on their own. Mata was there to join a subcommittee focused on testing called Change the Stakes. Later on, she met a mother with a similar story, Diana Zavala, whose son Jackson also went to a Harlem elementary school. “We were always told he could express himself well, but in third grade he suddenly hated school,” Zavala says.
Other groups around the country like FairTest and United Opt Out National had been encouraging boycotts over the years, and, locally, Time Out From Testing had scored some small but significant victories. But as of spring 2012—still a full year before the state would revise the ELA and math tests—no local group was boycotting those exams. “We didn’t feel there was a handle for parents to understand why they were boycotting,” says Jane Hirschmann, a leader of Time Out From Testing.
Mata, Zavala, and several other parents, however, did feel that way. By early 2012, the Change the Stakes subcommittee shook off the larger entity and became its own group. But even up until March, it wasn’t clear that its members would opt out at all. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, Maybe we shouldn’t take the test,” says Mata. “But it wouldn’t make sense if I was just by myself.” She and other parents made some calls to see what would happen if they did in fact have their children opt out. “We all heard different things,” she says, which made the parents feel as if the test had become so powerful that no one had ever considered accommodating anyone with a legitimate complaint against them. “That just fueled us more.”
In the spring of 2012, 113 students in New York City, including Oscar, opted out of one or both of the state tests. What most parents didn’t know is that the DOE did have a process in place for kids who failed the tests—and this same process became the recourse for kids who refused to take the test. Any child who scored a one on the state ELA or math test (as well as all opt-outers) could submit to an alternative evaluation system called a “portfolio assessment,” which includes the score of another test called a “Blackline master,” or BLM, that takes a little less time than the state tests (the portfolio may also include examples of the student’s classwork, though that’s not required). The overall portfolio is reviewed by the teacher and the principal, then by the superintendent, who determines whether the student moves to the next grade. It wasn’t a perfect solution—students were opting out of a test by taking a different one—but it at least meant the students could avoid the big standardized tests and the parents, as a group, could lodge a protest they hoped would register down the line.
The principal at Oscar’s school, Evelyn Linares, as Mata recalls, had never heard of a student opting out. “She said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” (The DOE would not make Linares available to comment for this story.) Other principals did their best to dissuade parents from opting out and went out of their way not to help those who did. Last year, Peter Nuñez—father to Pharez, an 8-year-old third-grader at P.S. 173, populated largely by children learning English as a second language—says his son’s school made the appeals process as difficult for him as possible.
Pharez had been earning threes, making him an average student. Then, as April approached, he started crying each morning, sometimes for twenty minutes or more. He wouldn’t say why. Nuñez has taught in the city schools for more than fifteen years. When he visited P.S. 173, he learned that it had surrendered its schedule solely to test prep; teachers spent the entire day teaching almost nothing but material related to the ELA and math exams.
By then, Pharez was having trouble sleeping. He lost his appetite. “He was complaining about pains in his back and his head. If it was happening to a college student, I might accept this. But for a child, it was not acceptable, not at all. And so I opted him out.”
Nuñez wrote a letter and had it notarized and brought it to the principal, Dawn Boursiquot (who also did not comment). That’s when the administration reacted, he says. Nuñez got phone calls at home from the principal’s secretary, the PTA president, and the assistant principal, all asking him why Pharez opted out and trying to persuade him to change his mind. “After a few calls, I said, ‘You know, I think you ought to respect our decision.’ ”
From April through June, Nuñez says he asked repeatedly to help the school prepare a portfolio for Pharez, only to be ignored. In June, three days before school ended, he was called in for a meeting with Boursiquot. “We got there, and she told us they [gave Pharez the BLM] that same day during the school day,” Nuñez says. “And she informed us that he had failed.”
In his last face-to-face meeting with Boursiquot, Nuñez recalls, the principal told him in front of everyone in the office, “You know what? You decided this for your son.”
The Common Core standards that triggered last spring’s change in the state tests are the Obama administration’s way of sealing in the quality-control demands of No Child Left Behind, which rewarded high test scores without ever really saying what should be on those tests. One of the Common Core’s chief authors, David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”
With reading and writing, the Common Core digs deeper. Where a lot of class time in the early grades has, until now, been spent encouraging students to express themselves and use their interests as a starting point for learning new skills, the Common Core is designed to have students think critically, gathering evidence to make arguments, skills they’ll eventually need in college. (The standards, for example, push nonfiction texts over fiction, reasoning that there isn’t nearly enough nonfiction reading in the lower grades to prepare students for college-level work.)
“It can change the quality of teaching,” says Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer, who has marshaled the curriculum’s transition. He argues that if implemented correctly, the Common Core will eventually help student scores on standardized tests improve without the need to overload class time with test prep. “Here’s a chance to actually push how rigorous the assignments are that we’re giving kids every single day. How much are kids actually thinking? How much are we seeing kids defend their ideas? What kinds of teacher behaviors do you have to create so the planning goes into a lesson?”
The early challenge of any new curriculum, however, is how it’s absorbed by the people who have to teach it and the kids who have to learn it. Changing standards takes time, and in the schools, that process can take years. Massachusetts went through a similar transition a generation ago, flushing additional money into the system in exchange for higher testing standards. It took several years, and there was a lot of pushback at first, but now around 90 percent of Massachusetts students meet those standards—and the state’s students rank at the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the commonly recognized yardstick all school systems use to compare themselves to one another.
After the shock of last spring’s new state tests, the Common Core was formally rolled out in New York State classrooms this fall. There were the expected bureaucratic snafus: new textbooks arriving late to classrooms and teachers not getting enough training. Then came complaints that the curriculum is developmentally inappropriate. Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.
Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
At forums across the state, parents and teachers have blasted Andrew Cuomo’s education commissioner, John King, about the Common Core. One teacher even claimed that children are being “diagnosed by psychologists with a syndrome directly related to work that they do in the classroom. If that is not child abuse, I don’t know what is.”
In response to the growing criticism, Arne Duncan, the White House’s Education secretary, this month said it was “fascinating” that some of the Common Core’s detractors are “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” There was an uproar among parents and administrators. “Did he really say that?” wrote Long Island superintendent Joseph Rella in an open letter. Duncan later “regretted” his phrasing, but what was most telling about his comment was that it seemed to acknowledge that support for the Common Core is being derailed in part by how it plays into the culture of anxiety often associated with high-stakes testing.
Oscar’s parents held tight as they waited for the superintendent to review his BLM and make a final determination. It took until late August—just days before the start of the new school year—for Oscar to be promoted to the fourth grade. But the process proved illuminating: Oscar’s mother realized that, aside from the wait, there were no immediate consequences to Oscar’s opting out. So last spring, when it came time to take the ELA again in the fourth grade, Andrea and Oscar decided he would opt out for a second time. And he had more company.
According to the DOE, New York City had 320 opt-outers in 2013, nearly triple the number of the previous year—and all because of the city’s decision to roll out a test that was way too hard for most students. Locally, Time Out From Testing and Change the Stakes worked together to show families how to opt out. Across the state, the movement was even bigger. Buffalo, Rochester, and Long Island all boasted support for their opt-out movements. Jeanette Deutermann, alarmed by her child’s panicked reaction to the tests, started a Facebook page called Long Island Opt-Out Info that now has nearly 13,000 members. “People got onboard so quickly,” Deutermann says. “Even if their kid got fours”—the highest scores—“every parent had a story about how the test had negatively affected them.” One mother in Levittown told the group that she and others were making shirts for their kids to wear: On the front, I AM NOT JUST A TEST SCORE; on the back, NO MORE COMMON CORE.
A group of principals from prominent middle and high schools wrote a letter pledging they “will no longer be using test scores as part of our criteria for selecting students.” The City Council passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the use of certain “field tests” to try out sample exams on kids already inundated by test prep. This fall, Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights canceled new standardized multiple-choice tests when more than 80 percent of parents had pulled their children from testing. “My feeling about testing kids as young as 4 is it’s inhumane,” PTA co-chairwoman Dao Tran told a reporter. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has called New York City “the test-prep capital of the United States” and started a petition to ban the use of standardized tests for pre-K through the second grade.
The De Blasio era may seem promising to the resistance, but it’s unclear how much he can do in the short term. For the moment, he’s promised to scrap the A-through-F grading system for schools, putting less weight on test scores and more on “curriculum, quality neighborhood schools, arts, and physical education.” While he hasn’t said as much, he could also detach those tests from promotion, meaning no one would flunk a grade because of poor performance on the tests, but even that won’t mean the end of the tests themselves, or of the Common Core.
If anything, test pressure stands to increase this year before De Blasio has the chance to make his mark. A newly negotiated rule in the teachers’ contract in New York means that for the first time in the city’s history, all teacher evaluations are tied to students’ performance on these tests. Quite suddenly, teachers have been asked to instruct to a specific set of standards or watch their own ratings fall. “They’ve set up a situation where people are terrified to do anything but teach to the test,” says Jane Maisel, a City College instructor and former teacher in the city schools who is also a member of Change the Stakes. “And then they say that teachers shouldn’t just teach to the test!”
“They’ve provided it to us on the fly and said ‘Make it work,’ ” says Kate O’Hagan of P.S. 97. “I’m being handed a curriculum ten minutes before I teach it, and so I’m expected to adapt it. And then later on at my teacher training—and I’m glad I’m at least getting training—they tell me it’ll be better next year. But it’s just truly not ready. What do I say to my students who I have for the next ten months?”
Should the movement continue to grow, there are a number of tangible (and chaotic) repercussions that De Blasio would have to face. A growing opt-out movement could hurt teachers, if refusals to take the tests bring down the overall average of the scores being used in teacher evaluations. A critical mass of opt-outers could even arguably work toward disqualifying a school from receiving federal funding (the money from No Child Left Behind is contingent upon 95 percent of a school’s students taking the annual standardized tests). And while super-selective schools like Stuyvesant have their own entrance exams, there’s no guarantee that students won’t be penalized down the line, should they find themselves applying to a middle or high school that wants to see those scores.
“If a parent’s concern is that they don’t want their child’s education to swirl around a standardized-testing moment, we agree a hundred percent,” says Ken Wagner, the New York State deputy education commissioner who is supervising the rollout of the Common Core. “But we’d also caution parents that if they remove their child from the assessment program, there’s an impact. We really believe that these tests are not only important but irreplaceable. A parent who opts out of that is giving up the opportunity to get a critical piece of information.” Others, like Bloomberg, have argued that the sooner kids get used to taking the tests, the better prepared they’ll be for later challenges—like the SAT or ACT, which few choose not to take.
For the resistance, of course, all these arguments miss the mark. It’s not just about these tests; it’s about test culture’s dominance in the school system. “The majority of the people opting out—not everyone but the majority—are asserting their political will,” says Maisel. “We wanted to emphasize that the system is broken.”
Last summer, for the second year in a row, Oscar Mata was administered the BLM in June as part of his portfolio assessment. The school said he met the standard, but the superintendent disagreed. So he was not promoted in June. Andrea again decided to just let the process unfold, refusing to go along with anything that smacked of a test or evaluation. “We didn’t go to summer school when the summer-school-recommendation letter came in June. We didn’t retest in August, which is what most people do after going to summer school. And then the same portfolio was submitted in August.”
On August 26, Oscar was promoted. Andrea celebrated, then decided to part ways with the school. While he’ll finish out the fifth grade there, she’ll move Oscar’s little sister somewhere new—a school that she believes has built up a stronger resistance to test-prep culture.
The Nuñez family had gone directly to Polakow-Suransky of the DOE to override the principal’s decision to fail Pharez. Like the Matas, they waited all summer for word; Peter was ready to uproot the whole family and move to the Dominican Republic for a year if Pharez was held back, but they heard he would be promoted the same week as Oscar, with just days before the start of the school year. And like Oscar’s family, they decided to move Pharez and both his sisters to a new school. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he won’t run into the same pressure he encountered last year. “I’m going to be contacting the principal and seeing how they roll out test prep and looking at the environment,” Peter says. “I don’t think it’s going to be a symbolic act.”
He’s joined Change the Stakes, too. He thinks what happened last year to his son can’t be allowed to happen again. “They rushed into a lot of the things, and they weren’t well prepared. There was no system of support. And a lot of the kids failed.”