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‘Unfair’ ELA test draws widespread protests

New York Teacher
Miller Photography

Students from PS 87 on the Upper West Side on April 11 join their parents for an early-morning protest of the ELA exam.

Miller Photography

Demonstrators march in front of PS 87, Manhattan.

Incensed by what they said were confusing, developmentally inappropriate or needlessly long questions on this year’s English language arts exams, teachers, parents and students at more than 35 schools in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn mounted early-morning protests against the tests on April 11, drawing large turnouts.

Those protests followed a demonstration outside Park Slope’s PS 321 that drew hundreds from the school community the day after students in grade 3-8 sat for the three-day exams, given on April 1–3.

The tests were written by the giant testing company Pearson and billed as being fully aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards. But teachers said test questions were not well aligned with the Common Core, were often ambiguous or had more than one plausible answer, and even included product placements (Nike, Barbie) in some exams.

“The language of the questions was unusually convoluted,” said Beth Hickey, a literacy coach at PS 503 in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood who proctored the tests. “I felt the wording was purposely complex, and it wasn’t clear what standards they were addressing.”

Alex Messer, a 4th-grade teacher at PS 321, told the Brooklyn Eagle that the tests weren’t even useful. “We never receive a breakdown,” he said. “Teachers can’t use the test results to help kids focus on areas where they need more help.”

Edith Baltazar, a parent at PS 87 in Manhattan who helped organized a protest outside her school, praised the teachers for speaking out. “Teachers were so brave to say, ‘Look, we can’t be silent about this.’” she said.

Parents and teachers also complained that the tests were too long, as much as three hours a day over three consecutive days for English language learners or others who used test accommodations. Field-test questions, which children must answer but which are being used only to design future tests, made the tests even longer.

Parents and educators were also angry that the tests were “shrouded in secrecy,” in the words of one. Teachers, principals and other school staff are not allowed to speak publicly about the specifics of the exams. The protesters demanded that the exams be released to the public as soon as they have been graded.

“If this test is an assessment, we need to see where the kids did well and where they did not and we are not given that information. There is absolutely no transparency when it comes to the results of these tests,” said Francine Cornelius, a teacher at PS 234 in Tribeca.

Twenty-five principals in Manhattan’s District 2 wrote a letter to families saying they were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests, and felt Pearson had not responded to their feedback from last year’s tests, which had also sparked complaints. Many supported the protests.

Test scores plunged across the city on last year’s inaugural Common Core tests. Overall proficiency rates in reading and math fell sharply, with black and Hispanic students at all-time lows.

“We’re not against testing. We want to be very clear about that,” said PS 503 Chapter Leader Lorraine Cogliando, who helped organize her school’s protest. “We’re against unfair testing and lack of transparency.”