May 2015 Issue - Testing/Assessments and Learning Standards
April 27, 2015

NYSUT urges Regents to personally review Pearson tests

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
With testing "horror stories" widely circulating in publications and social media, NYSUT is calling on the Regents to personally review the Pearson-developed standardized tests in English language arts and math so they can better address concerns about the appropriateness of certain questions, the length of state tests and their difficulty.

According to reports, this year's ELA tests contained reading passages that were, in some cases, several grade levels above students' actual grade and contained obscure vocabulary words and phrases. Concerns were also raised about the difficulty of certain math questions.

Because teachers are inappropriately - and unlawfully - gagged from discussing state tests, NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said it is imperative the Regents undertake a public review of all the grades 3--8 ELA and math tests, in part to understand the growing anger and frustration among parents and educators.

"The Regents are responsible for this system. They set education policy. They should know what's on these tests," Magee said. "If they read the tests - especially those that have been singled out as egregious examples of Pearson run amok - we believe they will gain a better understanding of why so many parents are frustrated and why NYSUT continues to question their validity."

NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino noted the State Education Department and Pearson should not be the only ones to see the tests in their entirety. "The Regents should review the complete ELA and math tests before making a decision on a new five-year testing contract that will dramatically affect the lives of students," Fortino said. Leaked questions, anonymous blogs and published news reports hint at why frustration has been mounting. Nearly 200,000 parents across the state opted their children out of the state ELA tests.

According to reports, the ELA tests, developed under a $32 million contract with Pearson, contained a number of controversial questions, such as:

  • The third-grade ELA test contained a passage from "Drag Racer," which had a grade level difficulty of 5.9 and an interest level of grades 9–12, as well as an allusion to the Aurora Borealis. Teachers anonymously reported one question appeared on both the third-grade test and fifth-grade test.
  • Fourth-graders, generally 10 years old, were required to write about the architectural designs of roller coasters and why cables are used instead of chains.
  • Sixth-graders were asked to read a Jack London story, "That Spot," which included difficult words and obscure phrases such as "beaten curs," "absconders of justice," "savve our cabin," and "let's maroon him."
  • A sixth-grade reading passage from Smithsonian magazine references Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde, and includes this paragraph: "As a result, the location of the cloud is an important aspect, as it is the setting for his creation and part of the artwork. In his favorite piece, Nimbus D'Aspremont, the architecture of the D'Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium, plays a significant role in the feel of the picture. 'The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible,' he writes. 'You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.'"

Several teachers took issue with a reading passage on the sixth-grade exam titled "A Master Teacher" by Helen Bledsoe. It was a story about Confucius and how he was credited with the exam system in China. Printed in bold letters on the second page: "Let exams do the ranking." It spoke about how people had to take exams and how those who did well received positions in government based on the results.

"We were appalled and angry that this found its way onto the exams today," wrote one anonymous post on a Facebook page.

"To us, it spoke to how little NYSED and Pearson care about parent wishes, students and the testing climate and quietly 'attacked' it yet again."

In your words: The ELA exams

We asked our Facebook fans to comment on the ELA tests. For more, visit www.facebook.com/NYSUTUnited:

"These three days of ELA have been torture - I had only 23 students opt out and I had at least 3 times that number in tears. If we were permitted to talk about the content, it would be over so fast. Folks would be horrified at the vocabulary, the reading levels and the ambiguity of the questions. I was unable to answer at least 25 percent of them."

"Due to so many opt outs I proctored a small group (8 students who were not AIS or IEP students) on the 3rd grade test. On day 1, four out of eight ran out of time but worked hard the whole time. On Day 2, three students were on the verge of tears and 1 high honors student said "I did really, really, bad on this" as he also had tears in his eyes. Day 3 was worse. Before it started some of them looked exhausted, stressed and defeated. These were average and above students. Our students should not be on the verge of tears because of a flawed unreasonable test. Even teachers were unsure what a few of the answers were ... and there were not enough details to pull out of the text to support written responses. Our kids deserve better. I will get more information out of the work I provided my opt out students ... because I will actually get to look at it. I am beyond frustrated."

"Typographical error on 4th Grade, Day 3. Background blurb at the top of the page mixed up the first name of one character and the last name of another character - creating a brand new character that was not in the passage. Kids were very confused."