By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Teachers and parents marched outside a Park Slope elementary school Friday morning to protest what they call a “horrendous” English Language Arts (ELA) exam given to third, fourth and fifth-graders over three days last week. The test is part of the new Common Core curriculum, but teachers say it’s so poorly designed that it will actually harm students.
“We’re very upset by the tests, and the teachers are very angry,” said Lori Chajet, parent of two kids at the sought-after P.S. 321 on Seventh Avenue. Chajet said test questions were ambiguous, and multiple-choice questions could have several correct answers.
Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321, told the Brooklyn Eagle that without being allowed to describe the details, it’s hard to get across just how bad the test is. “But it’s just awful. It’s not actually testing reading comprehension, and some of the content – such as the moral of the story -- is inappropriate for third- and fourth-graders.”
Messer heard from a fifth-grade teacher that the test given to that class even had a question involving product placement -– designed to sell a product to an impressionable test-takers.
The test has “such high stakes,” Messer said. “The results count towards promotion, and middle schools look at fourth-grade performance. Our own teacher evaluations are based on the exam. And it can’t even be seen by anyone.
“We’re calling for more transparency,” he said. “We want people to know the facts about what’s being tested.”
Teachers and parents say they’re also upset because students’ results are never broken down for teachers and parents, making the whole effort a waste of time and a distraction from actual learning.
“We never receive a breakdown,” Messer said. Teachers can’t use the test results to help kids focus on areas where they need more help. They don’t even get any results at all about their students until the end of the summer, when the child is long gone from their classroom, he said.
“No actionable information is given to parents or teachers about areas of need. No information is disseminated. I don’t think people are aware of that,” Messer said.
“The state is paying Pearson millions of dollars to get data that’s not going to be useful to anyone,” Chajet said. “Teachers can’t use it. It’s not of benefit to anybody.”
Pearson, a publishing powerhouse and testing company, received a five-year, $32 million contract with the New York State Department of Education in 2010. In 2012 the company apologized for designing state tests that had so many errors schools had to throw out the results and re-score the exams.
A memo sent to parents from staff members after the test administration reads in part, “The teachers and administration are truly devastated by what a terrible test it was and how little it will tell us about our students. Because we are bound by test security, we cannot reveal details, but we can tell you that we have never seen an ELA exam that does a worse job of testing reading comprehension."
The memo continues, “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages. Our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability.”
New York State administered the first set of tests designed to assess student performance in accordance with the new Common Core State Standards in 2013.