NYS Tests: Has anything really changed?

When I wrote my blog post last year, The Truth about New York State Testing, I thought to myself… if only I could really tell the whole truth about the tests.  As I signed the gag order in 2015, I cringed knowing that I would not be able to discuss the ambiguous questions or perplexing vocabulary my students had to endure over the three day ELA testing period.

Last April, as I read the 6th grade ELA test, I became more determined than ever to continue fighting against these tests.  The 3 day period of testing was obnoxious and overwhelming for my 11-year-old students.  Some of my students took 3 hours to work on the test, and they were still not able to finish.  I watched them try to annotate the text, and then reread the questions to try to determine the best answer.  Some students flipped back and forth, back and forth, multiple times to reread the lines that were being referred to in the questions.  I watched the frustration on some faces as they tried their best to write an essay about an animal that faced challenges.  The essay question itself was not poorly worded as it was pretty straight forward, but the passages that were to be compared were quite challenging and written many years ago.  There is nothing wrong with classic literature, but when there are at least 16 to 20 words in one passage that are extremely difficult, it makes it much more frustrating to comprehend what is being said.

Parents keep wondering what the big deal is about these tests.  Let me tell you.  The big deal is these are not the same type of tests that were given years ago when we were in school.  The current tests are not used to help teachers or students because the information received after the tests are taken is useless and vague. These tests are not the same as the Regents exams the students will eventually take either. Regents exams are based on content taught and more appropriate for the age level.

This year, the 2016 NYS tests have changed.  It could only be for the better, right? Wrong! The state tests this year have changed a bit, but I do not believe for a minute that they will benefit my own children, my students or myself as a teacher or a parent.

No time limit

In my post last year, I wrote about the stress students encountered as they sat and rushed through the passages and questions in order to finish before the timer went off.  This year, according to the state, there will be no time limit. This may sound like a good idea, but now students may be subjected to taking a test for hours on end….as long as they are working productively. Special education students who normally get extended time, will get as much time as needed this year. But, will this help the students or will they become so completely overwhelmed and exhausted that they just shut down? How long will all students be expected to sit and wait for other students to finish the untimed tests? Will testing students be moved to another room after a certain amount of time?  Fortunately, before the big testing week, teachers across NYS will receive instructions on how to administer the tests and proper protocol within each building.

Shorter Tests

The tests have been made shorter according to NYS. But, the length has only been changed minimally.  A few questions have been taken off for each grade level and some students have one less passage to read. I am really hoping that the overall test has not been made more rigorous to compensate for the shorter test and no time limit.

Refusing the Tests

Many parents are struggling with the big question looming over them. Should my children take the NYS tests? I have heard parents asking others for advice and hoping they are making the right decision for their children. This decision is not taken lightly by any parent, and it shouldn’t be. Parents grappling with whether or not their child should take the test need to do what is best for their own child. Every child is different!

My own children will be refusing the tests for numerous reasons. My 4th grader has a learning disability, and I do not feel that it is necessary for him to take a test that is developmentally inappropriate.  It will not benefit him or the teacher.  My children will not take the tests because it goes against everything that I believe in. It suggests to NYS that the tests are age appropriate and can in some way help my children. But that is not what is happening when my children take these tests. I get no useful information on how my children have improved over the course of the year, and my children’s teachers are not able to use the information to actually help my children.

If more parents refuse the tests, it will help NYS see that parents are not happy and want changes made!  Parents want their children to become well-rounded creative problem solvers who can think critically. They do not want their children to be subjected to narrow curriculum and long hours of test prep just to get ready for the NYS tests. Unfortunately, some teachers do not have a choice on whether or not to do test prep. Some schools require students to complete workbook after workbook to prepare for one test that is meaningless. When parents stand up, NYS will start listening….the high number of refusals last year has proven that parents can make a difference!

 

 

 

The View from the Other Side

I felt butterflies in my stomach as I anxiously waited to be called into the conference room; I was nervous about the meeting that was about to take place.  For the first time in my career, I was going to be sitting on the other side of the table. I have attended many CSE meetings over my thirteen year educational career, and I have advocated for my students to receive the best possible accommodations to help them succeed.  I have fought for my students to get the help they have deserved.

But, this day was different because I was sitting on the parent side of the table.  I was advocating for my son who was struggling in every academic area of school.  I was fighting to make sure he got the support he would need to help him gain confidence and to be able to work to the best of his ability.

As I sat in the conference room listening to the testing results being read, I thought to myself how difficult it was to be on this side of the table.  At that moment, I felt more empathy than ever before for the parents of my students with disabilities.  It was hard listening to someone list my son’s disabilities.  I kept thinking to myself how school was going to continue to get more challenging…and how frustrated my son would become as the material increased in rigor over the years.

During the meeting, my son’s teachers discussed the problems they had been seeing and offered ways to help support him in the classroom.  By the time we were finished, my son was labeled as LD and was given an IEP.  I felt satisfied with the solutions that had been discussed, but also a little uneasy about the upcoming year. How would Tyler react to having a special education teacher giving him support in an inclusion classroom?  Would he feel different and out of place? Even with those thoughts in my mind, I knew that this was the best option for him.  I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that he would be in good hands, and I was a bit hopeful that he would be able to thrive in his 4th grade classroom.


A Little Piece of Advice

Some parents are afraid to have a child tested for a disability because they don’t want to have their child labeled. Every situation is different, and parents have the right to make their own decisions.  But, not having a child tested because of the stigma that could be attached is doing a disservice to the child. Yes, an IEP is a label. But, if it helps a child become a better learner, then who cares.  An individualized education plan is the best way to help a struggling student prosper and feel good about what they can do…not feel bad about what they can’t do.

Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way.  -George Evans

Missing: Creative Students


Being creative is part of being a child.  From the moment my kids could hold a crayon, my husband and I encouraged them to be original.  We did a lot of art projects incorporating different types of mediums to get our kids to realize that creativity comes in all shapes and sizes; it is not about fitting inside the box. Two of my four kids are much more creative than the other two.  They get that from my husband because he is an art teacher. He is the abstract thinker that is able to take ideas and make them into an art piece.  I, on the other hand, am not so creative.  I am a concrete thinker who likes to know the guidelines and fit inside the box.  But, I do value the importance of teaching kids how to express themselves creatively in and outside of the classroom.

When my daughter took her kindergarten screening test, they asked her to draw a person.  She drew the typical 5 year old drawing: a big head, rectangular body, stick arms and legs.  She was marked off because she did not include a neck or fingers on her drawing.  How many 5 years olds would consider drawing a neck?  I guess this was part of the new and improved “college and career ready” kindergarten tests.  I was a bit annoyed that she lost points over something that is not really developmentally appropriate at that age.  Little did I know that this would be the beginning of her journey through the more challenging and rigorous standards set upon her education.  These standards have inevitably decreased the time allowed for teachers and children to be creative in the classroom.

In My Classroom

Over the years, my students have become less creative.  I have noticed a big change in how my students approach specific activities and how uncreative many of them are.  I do not feel that this change has anything to do with the different students I teach each year, but more of what they are being taught.  More time is being spent on reading and math and less time is being spent on subjects that allow students to use their imaginations and be creative. Just the other day, my students finished their research for the periodic table element that they were assigned.  Many years ago, I required all of my students to create a “poem, song, or rap” that demonstrated their understanding of that specific element.  Some students were nervous about getting up in front of the class, but overall most students enjoyed this assignment.  They were able to express themselves in an original manner while showing their understanding of elements.

This year, I decided to allow the children a choice in either creating a model or being creative musically by singing a song or rap.  Out of 48 students, I only had 2 students that decided to take the music route with their assignment.  Although the model representation could be artistic, most students just ended up drawing an atom on a piece of paper without putting much thought into the creative side of this assignment.  Some of my students were able to use their imaginations by using beads, beans, stamps, and other items to show the protons, neutrons, and electrons. But, only a select few.  I was disappointed that my students were so standard in their presentations.  I do realize that some students are just not that artistic….that was me in school.  But, I also had teachers who helped me get past that creative block to become more innovative and less standard as I progressed through my educational career.  I am trying my best to inspire my students to break out of their comfort zone, but it seems to be more difficult each year.

When I give my students an assignment, I am very specific in what information must be included, but I allow them to present the information in various ways.  Some of my students want me to tell them exactly how to present it.  This number of students who wants to know the precise manner (graphic organizer, words to say, etc) has grown over the years.  Children are losing their ability to think for themselves and share information in a unique way.  When I walk down the hall in my building, I see projects hanging on the walls that look exactly alike.  I do not want my students’ projects to look exactly alike; they are all unique individuals, and they should be allowed to show their originality in the way their assignment is presented.

My Thoughts

I watch my students’ faces as I tell them be creative.  So many students cringe when I say this word.  Why is that?

I think that students are becoming so used to following their teacher’s directions that they have a hard time thinking for themselves when given the opportunity.  The Common Core Standards are requiring children to read higher level text and go beyond the literal level which can be a good thing, but it is also creating robotic children who spit back information.  Students are all expected to do the same thing when they get the text: read, annotate, answer questions with text evidence, and discuss their answers. Of course we need to teach children how to answer questions by restating and providing details to support their answers.  Unfortunately, this way of teaching leaves little room for the authentic artistic activities that could enhance the students’ learning process.

Perhaps teachers are becoming rote in their teaching methods because of the modules and the lack of time available to get all of the curriculum in by the testing deadline.  There is an abundance of information that must be covered, and the projects that require creativity consume a lot of time. Teachers are tossing these activities aside.  Therefore, students are not able to think outside of the box anymore; I fear that children are becoming more and more dependent on the teacher telling them how to do things that they cannot use their own imaginations.

I have spoken to many art teachers, including my husband, about this missing creative piece in students.  They all agree that over the past few years, students have become less original.  Some students are afraid to take a risk in art class because they don’t want to do it incorrectly.  They are waiting for the art teacher to tell them what colors to paint or what to draw.  It is sad that students do not have an imagination anymore.

Teachers are doing their best to foster creative minds; but if 50% of their evaluations are based on the state tests, how much longer will that continue?  I worry for all students across the United States as more emphasis is placed on standardized tests.  Our children are not standard.  They are all different in their own way and should be able to express themselves creatively.  What would our world look like if everyone was the same and there was no more music or art?  Our educational system is headed down this path, and it scares me to think about the lack of originality in the students that are being molded into college and career ready citizens.

I Am That Teacher

What do I want my students to remember about me?  Well, I know for certain that most of my students will remember me by one thing…that they were taller than their 6th grade teacher!  Think about how exciting it is for a child to walk into his classroom and be taller than his teacher.  I know that this has nothing to do with my teaching, but I also understand that my students will not really remember much about my teaching methods or if I helped them get a “3” or “4” on the state test.  But, they will remember that their 6th grade teacher was only 5 feet tall!

I hope that my students will remember me for other reasons as well. I know that they will remember that I cared about them and helped them realize their full potential.  Every year I work hard to try to help all of my students reach their goals.  I know that I have made that happen many times throughout my career. I am that teacher that requires my students to be honest, responsible, caring, and hardworking.  I ensure that my students work to the best of their ability by encouraging them to put in their full effort all of the time.

I am that teacher that cares about my students.  I learn what each student likes about school so they can feel successful at what they are doing.  I like to hear stories about their outside activities and lives; I make a connection with each and every child.  My students feel comfortable in my classroom because they can ask for help, and they know that I will be there.

I am that teacher that tries to be funny, but is not really very humorous.  Some students laugh at my jokes, but I think that is just because they feel bad for me!  Even though sometimes my classroom atmosphere is lighthearted, I still maintain control.  My students know when they can joke around and when we need to be serious.  I like my classroom this way.  These children are only in 6th grade…I want them to still like school!

I am that teacher that has high expectations for my students.  I challenge them and expect them to work hard every day.  I also realize that each child is different and has his/her own learning style.  I create lessons that enable all of my students to succeed in their own way.  I am that teacher that sees growth in each of my students.  I can tell you what skills they have mastered and which ones they still need to work on….even without a state test!

I Refuse

I refuse to be that teacher that does test prep all year long.  I will not subject my students to a learning atmosphere that only teaches them how to answer questions.  Students want to delve into a novel, but they do not want to have to answer twenty questions about each page.  Nor do they learn anything after they have shut down due to the repetitive nature of test prep.

I refuse to allow my students to become a test score.  Each child has his/her own strengths and weaknesses, and I do not need a standardized test to tell me that.  In fact, the state tests do not help me learn anything about my students. This is for three reasons: the passages are extremely challenging, the questions are poorly written, and the scores are not sent to me until the following September.  I also refuse to worry about my teacher score.  If I am rated a “2” because of the NYS test scores, then so be it.  I do my best helping students all year, and I hope for the best when they take the test.

I refuse to give up the lessons that I know work with my students so I can teach modules all day long.  My favorite units are the kids’ favorites too, and these are definitely not the modules!  Thank goodness I am only required to complete two modules this year!  I will adapt these modules to meet the needs of all of my students while keeping them engaged in the novels we are reading.

Most importantly, I refuse to give up this fight for my students and my own children.  I will not remain quiet about the detrimental impact that Governor Cuomo’s attack is having on our educational system.  I refuse to let him win!  I hope my students remember that I was that teacher that stood up for their future.

The Truth about New York State Testing

Well, I guess I should really say most of the truth about NYS testing.  Each year when I administer the state tests, I sign a waiver that is pretty much a gag order.  I am not allowed to talk about the actual test questions that were on that particular test.  I can talk about the test in general, but I am bound by some kind of secrecy to this test that I have administered.

The security for the state tests is crazy!  The tests are counted and recounted numerous times from the moment they arrive at our school until the moment the top secret vehicle takes them back to Albany.  They are even kept in a locked vault until they are graded.  I am not exactly sure what happens to all of the tests once the scores are in, but I am wondering if someone gets paid to stand and guard them forever and ever.

State testing in NYS has become a hot topic over the last few years.  I have had many parents ask me questions about the tests that are given to students in 3rd-8th grade.  I don’t think many parents are aware of exactly what these tests entail.  The following information is based on what I have seen over the last few years.

Preparing for the Tests

Students work hard all year in my reading class with analyzing challenging texts by close reading, annotating and discussing ideas with others.  Then they get the test, and it is timed.  There is not enough time for students to use the strategies being taught because they cannot possibly read a challenging passage three times, annotate it AND answer questions within the time limit.  I always tell my students to take their time and check their work…but when it really comes down to it, there isn’t time for this on the state tests.  This is very frustrating!

This year, the new ELA manual for the state tests says that the questions will be more complex and more advanced than on prior tests.  The questions will have four answers with only one correct answer.  That sounds okay, right?  But, it also states that the other answers will be “plausible but incorrect.”  So, basically most of the choices will look correct to an 11 year old!

Taking the Tests

Most teachers and students dread testing days.  I dread these days for various reasons.  Each testing day takes away 90 minutes of my actual teaching time.  For some special education students, they are losing even more classroom time because they have extended time which could be up to 180 minutes!

All students deal with testing differently.  I know that some of my students will be nervous while other students will just take the test without putting much thought into any of the questions.  This is concerning.  Many of my students dread the tests because they are expected to sit for extended periods of time without a break, unless they have to use the bathroom.  My students know they should put in their best effort and work diligently throughout the tests; but when sitting for 90 minutes or 180 minutes, how can anyone concentrate that long?  Some students are very anxious and freeze when they get the test.  They suddenly forget all of the strategies they have learned all year and become overwhelmed with the ambiguous questions being asked.

When students begin the test, I am allowed to put the beginning and ending time on the board so they know when time is up….according to the directions (which I MUST follow), I am allowed to state that there are ten minutes left.  There are other rules that I must also follow.  I am not allowed to clarify any words that are on the tests.  It breaks my heart when a student raises his/her hand and asks me what a word means for the essay question.  I feel a pit in my stomach knowing that the essay will not be answered correctly without knowing the meaning of that word!   But, I am not allowed to help my students.  I know what great writers they are, but the person grading those essays does not know the growth that my students have shown over the course of the year!

Grading the Tests

In my district, the tests are graded by other sixth grade teachers, but great care is taken so each teacher does not get any of his/her students.  This is to ensure a fair grading process.  I generally look around the room at teachers reading essays and try to put my fears to rest by telling myself that all of my students did their best and that is all I can ask for.  These tests will be graded and sent to Albany, and eventually be used for part of my teacher score.

After the Tests

When I went to college, I was taught that testing was supposed to help drive my instruction.  I will not be able to use these tests to drive my instruction because I will not get the test scores until the following year!  The following year when those students are no longer in my classroom.  I receive a score for each student, but that does not tell me what each child answered incorrectly or how I can help that student any further.  So what is the point?  Why am I giving a test that I cannot see afterward to determine what my students did well on or what they need help with?  Why am I being graded on something that my students tried their best on, but were tricked by questions that didn’t make sense?  The NYS tests are given to students every year from 3rd-8th grade; but why do we keep administering tests that don’t have any benefits to either the students or the teachers?

A Closer Read of Common Core State Test Questions

This is a “close” read of some actual 3rd grade Common Core test questions done by individuals that were former test developers. The readability of the questions is appalling! How can we expect kids to appropriately answer questions when they cannot even understand what the questions are asking? Check out the essay question that asks kids to analyze the character’s mood throughout the story and then write an essay about it! Some of my 6th graders would have a difficult time answering this question…how can a struggling 3rd grade reader/writer analyze a character’s mood and then put all of their ideas into a well developed essay? Just think about the fact that many 8 year olds will not even understand what the word “mood” means even though the question refers to it as the character’s feelings.

lacetothetop

It goes without saying you would never assess a 3rd grade student or their teacher by using 7th and 8th grade math questions.  I think it is a statement that everyone (reformers included) would agree with.

In English Language Arts tests, the grade level appropriateness of text used is a gray area. Some would argue that it is perfectly fine for third graders to be assessed using texts with readability levels of 5th and 6th graders.  But even the champions of rigor must adhere to the golden rule of testing- the questions MUST be written on the grade level you are attempting to assess.  It only makes sense.  Students can’t answer questions that they do not understand.  These tests are constructed for ALL students in a given grade level and therefore it is imperative that the questions are  grade appropriate.

As a former test developer for Pearson, PARCC, CTB, and NYSED we…

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Module Madness

Modules have become the new “trend” in NYS.  Teachers are being told to either adapt or adopt these units of study.  I am fortunate enough to be in a district where we are allowed to adapt this so-called curriculum.  I am thankful for that.  EngageNY is the website set up to “show” teachers how to teach their lessons for each module.  I say “show” teachers because the module is literally a script for teachers to follow.  I am not required to follow the script verbatim, but some teachers are.  This is very concerning to me as an educator and as a parent.


My Experience

Two years ago on the last day of school, I printed out the first ELA module which ended up spitting out 800 pages! These 800 pages were a script of what to say and what to do with my students.  I put those 800 pages in a BIG binder and took it home to work on over the summer…yes, teachers do work over the summer!!  I read through much of the module, but just could not bring myself to wrap my mind around what they wanted me to do with my sixth graders.  I was a little, okay a lot, overwhelmed.

I decided to give the first module a shot in the fall of that year.  One of the few good things about the modules are the books that we are expected to cover.  Bud, Not, Buddy was the first book I was going to implement in my classroom; I enjoyed reading the book over the summer and thought the messages that it would send to my students would be beneficial.

The first few days of the module I completed what I could using the EngageNY pages that were included.  I could tell right away that using only those pages was not going to work!  My students were fading fast, and I needed to do something else to keep them going.  One of the problems with the module was that the lessons would take forever to complete if I followed their format.  There was no way that I wanted to drag this unit out over four months!  Also, another challenge was that the 6th grade module was set up for the kids to read the book at home, which some students did not do.  The most frustrating problem was that the students were supposed to have only five minutes to discuss the chapter the following day.  Then, it was time to move on to the next lesson and the new documents being introduced.  I actually did like the included documents that correlated to the text, but the kids did not have any time to discuss what was going on in the chapters they had read.  They were as disappointed as I was because they just wanted to talk about what was going on in the book!

I decided to do the module my way, but use the materials I was given.  We went back to reading the book and discussing it in groups.  The kids were so excited every day to get into their groups and talk about what happened in the chapter they read for homework.  They answered higher level questions and really analyzed the characters and the plot.  I loved the fact that my students were thrilled to read and engaged in meaningful conversation.  Actually, when we finished the module, I had a lunch group that went on to read the next book, The Mighty Miss Malone.  They loved that book too!


Balancing Act

It is disheartening to say that not many teachers are able to adapt the modules the way I was allowed to.  Some teachers across NYS are instructed to teach the modules as they are written.  The problem with this is that the modules are boring, repetitive and drawn out over months and months of time.  The kids lose interest and do not enjoy the books; this is crushing any hopes we have of kids appreciating literature.

My own son who is in 6th grade is lucky enough to have a group of teachers who are able to adapt the modules to fit the kids’ needs.  I am thankful that my son thoroughly enjoyed The Lightning Thief, but only because his teacher was able to make that module her own.  This is the first book that my son wanted to talk to me about and wanted to continue reading.  I believe that if his teacher was not allowed to adapt the module, my son would have tuned out for most of that book.

Many students are losing interest in the books they are reading because they are so sick of dissecting the book and not enjoying the book.  Students are expected to close read (reading a text up to three times), annotate, and show text evidence.  These strategies truly do help children get a deeper meaning of the text, but they can also destroy a love of reading if used too frequently. Teachers try to find a perfect balance of using these strategies, but also allowing the children time to read and appreciate a novel.  This is what makes using the modules so difficult because some teachers are not given this freedom.  How do we protect the children from losing their love of reading?