Dear Elementary and Middle School Families, Students, Teachers, Parent Coordinators, Counselors and Principals:
We are writing to communicate with you a change of policy in our admissions criteria brought on by the great concern we have about the recent new “Common Core” state tests in grades 3-8. Historically, most of us have used test scores in one way or another as part of the criteria to enter our middle schools and high schools. For the incoming 2014-2015 classes and beyond, we will no longer be using test scores as part of our criteria for selecting students. Although we do believe that state test scores provide us with some information about children’s skills and capabilities, we have always known they were just one piece of a much more complex puzzle. The introduction of the Common Core Learning Standards (although far from perfect) and news that the tests would be more aligned to the CCLS made some of us more hopeful about the role that testing might play in capturing student learning. The Common Core Learning Standards themselves, PARCC’s information, and the NYC DOE’s information about the Common Core represent a deeper and more meaningful understanding of what students should learn, know and be able to do in order to be ready for college, career and citizenship. Unfortunately, the new tests that are being publicized as assessments of Common Core are far from our understanding of the Common Core’s original intent. We expect rigor, high standards and accountability, but also expect that these three crucial words and concepts not be thrown around loosely; and, even more importantly, we plead that they be implemented in a proper, respectful and effective way. Therefore, we cannot grant these recent tests the value others claim they have until the following four concerns are addressed.
1. The length, time and structure of the test: Even if these tests were assessing the Common Core Standards, the length, structure and timing caused many students to rush through the tests in an attempt to finish, get stuck on confusing questions, and not complete the test or even get to more authentic parts like the writing assessment. Moreover, the inappropriate length and structure induced unnecessary anxiety, causing many students to second-guess themselves or randomly bubble in answers. As a result, we fear that in many instances students’ scores will not represent their true abilities. Indeed, the test will, in fact, penalize students who attempted to practice many of the Common Core skills we emphasized to our students, such as close reading, rereading, critical thinking, and crafting nuanced claims. In English, the standards themselves and everything we as pedagogues know to be true about reading and writing say that multiple interpretations of a text are not only possible but necessary when reading deeply. However, for several multiple choice questions the distinction between the right answer and the next best right answer was paltry at best. The fact that teachers report disagreeing about which multiple-choice answer is correct in several places on the ELA exams indicates that this format is unfair to students. The math tests contained 68 multiple-choice problems often repeatedly assessing the same skills. The language of these math questions was often unnecessarily confusing. These questions should not be assessing our students’ ability to decipher convoluted language. Instead, they should be assessing deep understanding of core concepts. Even in cases where students with IEPs had extended time, the mere length of the test made it very difficult for students to maintain the stamina for three hours. We know very few competent, professional adults who can sustain focus and maintain quality work for three straight hours on extremely difficult tasks without proper breaks. Kids as young as eight have to sit for longer than people taking the SAT, teacher certification tests, or the bar exam. Testing kids for this amount of time is completely unnecessary, as their basic skill level should not change across days. Kids without incredible stamina, however, will tend to do more poorly. We recommend:
a) Shorter, untimed tests
b) Questions that are designed to test students’ critical reading and writing skills and not their ability to analyze inauthentic test questions.
c) Fewer multiple-choice math questions testing isolated skills and more open-ended problems that can be solved using various solution pathways. These open-ended problems should focus on the critical areas emphasized in the Common Core.
d) For students with IEPs, we also recommend less rigid rules around students taking breaks and the possibility of schools breaking down or chunking the time students spend on the tests.
2. The tests were NOT “Common Core” tests. New York State, New York City and the media continue to refer to the recent tests as “Common Core” tests. The simple but most important fact that must be stated is that these tests may have been more rigorous and challenging in some ways, but were in no way Common Core assessments. The ELA tests assessed and covered a very narrow interpretation of the Common Core. If one was to look closely at the Common Core Learning Standards (www.corestandards.org) and compare them to the tests, it is evident that the tests focused mostly on analyzing specific lines, words and structures of information text and their significance rather than the wide array of standards. As a result, many students spent much of their time reading, rereading and interpreting difficult and confusing questions about authors’ choices around structure and craft in informational texts, a Common Core skill that is valuable, but far from worthy of the time and effort. We read informational texts for research and background knowledge from which to craft our perspective on important issues. We spend far less time analyzing specific lines of non-fiction as we do poems or literature; rather we analyze non-fiction for central ideas and specific evidence for claims. Spending so much time on these questions was at the expense of many of the other deep and rich Common Core skills and literacy shifts that the state and city emphasized. Common Core emphasizes reading across different texts in order to determine and differentiate between central themes. This is an authentic adult practice. Answering granular questions about unrelated topics is not. It is difficult to imagine how the recent ELA tests that our students took will be an indicator of how ready they will be for middle school or high school, let alone how they assess a student’s progress on a trajectory toward college, career and citizenship, unless of course it is a college, career or society that values tricky, difficult multiple choice questions being answered with little time to process or think. We strongly recommend that if the Common Core Learning Standards are what we are expected to teach and value in our schools, then the highest stake assessments for students, teachers and schools actually and authentically assess the Common Core Learning Standards, not undermine them.
3. This leads us to our third point: transparency. Unfortunately, most families, students, educators, journalists, politicians, and policy makers will not be able to have any meaningful reflection, analysis, discussions or debates around the issues mentioned because the tests—although paid for by the public and used to make high stakes decisions about public school students and public employees—are highly secured and not released to the public. The number one skill that the Common Core Standards seems to value—looking closely at evidence in order to make claims—is not able to be practiced here because the most important evidence, the tests themselves, are under lock and key. We are all for holding students, teachers and schools accountable, but there seems to be very little accountability on the part of Pearson, the testing company taking millions of dollars of public money, or the state officials approving and administering these tests. We strongly recommend that the tests be made public immediately so that meaningful, evidence-based discussions can take place and the testing company and decision makers can be held accountable as well.
4. Inauthentic tests and test prep are taking away time for quality instruction and authentic learning and testing. We fear that even the schools and teachers with the best intentions will continue to move away from authentic forms of reading, writing, speaking, listening, problem solving, thinking—and ironically away from the Common Core—after seeing these recent tests. If these tests remain at the heart of student, teacher and school “accountability” and masquerade as “rigor,” teaching and learning will suffer and students will lose out. We strongly recommend that students, teachers and schools be held accountable in a way that promotes real learning and increases authentic rigor, not undermines it.
We appreciate that officials at the New York City Department of Education seem open to hearing our concerns and we hope for the same response from the state. We are part of a larger group of principals who have sent a separate letter to New York State Education Commissioner John King requesting a meeting. We look forward to discussing these concerns with him as well. When these concerns and recommendations are addressed, we will consider using state test scores as valuable criteria for admission. Until then, we must truly put children first—ahead of testing.
Rex Bobbish, Principal of The Cinema School
Kourtney Boyd, Principal of The School for the Urban Environment
Sonhando Estwick, Principal of Tompkins Square Middle School
Mark Federman, Principal of East Side Community School
Rosemarie Gaetani, Principal of Simon Baruch Middle School
Stacy Goldstein, Principal of School of the Future Middle School
Ramon Gonzalez, Principal of The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology
Peter Karp, Principal of Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE)
Herb Mack, Principal of Urban Academy Laboratory High School
Kelly McGuire, Principal of Lower Manhattan Middle School
George Morgan, Principal of Technology, Arts and Science Studio (TASS) Middle School
Lisa Nelson, Principal of Isaac Newton Middle School
Taeko Onishi, Principal of Lyons Community School
John O’Reilly, Principal of Arts & Letters
Jeanne Rotunda, Principal of West Side Collaborative Middle School
CC: New York City Department of Education Officials and New York State Department of Education Officials