I’ve been an educator for over 20 years. To pay for college I was a waiter/bartender and an in-store trainer at the restaurant where I worked. I took every opportunity to teach others and to learn from them as well. You can say I was born to teach. I always felt that if I can achieve, then anyone can. Inspiring children to have this determination is what I love about being a teacher.
Two years ago I was asked to score the new Common Core exams given by the New York State Education Department. While being trained how to score the exam, the assistant principal of the school where I was being instructed told me that some families decided to “opt out.” This was the first time I ever heard of such a concept. The school district that I work in has six elementary schools and a vast range of family incomes. It turned out that these first refusals came from very wealthy families. They knew something that most people did not. George Carlin has a funny line. He says, “You and I are not in the big club.” I felt at that time that I didn’t have access to information that people more influential than myself did. Ironic being this was my profession.
A few weeks later I administered the new Pearson Common Core Exams and was shocked by the huge shift in complexity of the exams. My children were taking these tests back in their school in Putnam County while I was proctoring them in Westchester. Both of my girls are on the high honor roll while the children I service are considered “at risk.” It was through both lenses that I was analyzing these exams.
What I think the public does not understand is that these tests do not remotely compare to the tests that adults had taken when they were in school. I often hear people say that they took tests when they were little, and that eventually their children will have to take “high stakes” tests when they get older. Some people think that this experience will prepare students for Regents exams or the SAT. Last week at the “Reclaiming Education” forum held at the VFW in Brewster I overheard a woman say that in the future her children intend to take a driver’s test. She asked if it was appropriate for them to start preparing to drive in elementary school. Her perspective was humorous, but in contrast to the state’s college and career readiness agenda for our very young children the contrast is startling. These new Common Core exams are not aligned to any of the exams students will face in high school when they are developmentally ready to take them.
What the public needs to know is that these current tests are developmentally inappropriate. The reading passages are far above grade level and the complexity of the questions are even higher. Add in the fact that they are timed. For a third grader to be successful on the New York State English Language Arts exams they would have to read around 300 words per minute. In the real world, the average third grader is expected to read about 125 words per minute by the end of third grade. Students are expected to read and answer the questions for each passage in an average time of eleven minutes.
The new buzzword in education is “close reading.” Children read a passage multiple times with a different focus each time. It’s kind of like beating a dead horse. How would you like to read the same thing over and over? Will this strategy foster a love of literacy? All year we practice close reading which is expected to prepare students for the rigor of the new exams. Then when the assessments are given the children don’t have the time needed to repeatedly read the passages, which are above their reading level to begin with, utilizing the close reading strategy. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the types of questions have changed as well. Many of the passages have a question that reads like this:
Which paragraph explains how snowshoeing affects the body?
A. paragraph 9
B. paragraph 11
C. paragraph 13
D. paragraph 15
How would you go about answering this type of question? If you think like I do, then you want to go back and reread these paragraphs. The reality is that you only have eleven minutes in total. You don’t have time.
What really is the purpose of an exam of this nature? Is failure the new norm? Don’t we as a society realize what this is doing to our children? Seventy percent of the children in New York State in grades 3-8 have failed these tests based on a moving target. The cut scores are decided after the exam is taken. They are not determined by science or research, they are arbitrary. When I was in high school it was commonly known that 65% was considered passing. The public will not know what a passing score is before these exams are given. All we know for sure is that most kids will fail. This is unconscionable! Will kids love school if they continue to fail?
As more resources are allocated to testing the curriculum is being narrowed. Teaching becomes more of a factory model where teachers are mandated to teach to the test. Precious instructional time and a huge part of the budget goes toward preparing for standardized tests. Ask yourself, “What is the benefit to my child?” Is there always a right answer to every question? Life requires critical thinking and looking beyond the obvious. Don’t penalize children who think differently. Let’s foster creativity. Art, music, library, social studies, science and athletics among other subjects also have value. This is the beauty of a modern public school with a well rounded curriculum. These important subjects are being stripped out of the curriculum every day.
Being the optimist that I like to think I am, I had high hopes that Pearson and the State of New York would have learned from their mistakes and revised the new tests the second year they were administered. I had a long serious talk with my wife about refusing the ELA test last year but we ultimately decided to let our children take the exam. My wife is a music teacher, however she gets pulled to proctor the exams as well. What we unfortunately discovered last year was that the exams were just as developmentally inappropriate as they had been the year before. That’s when we decided to refuse the Math test for our kids for the first time.
Today our message to anyone who will listen is, “Refuse the test.” We were supported in our beliefs when we went to SUNY Purchase on March 12, 2015 to hear Diane Ravitch speak. She was the Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush and Bill Clinton. She is actively traveling across the state on any given night steadfast in her effort to inform families about the false narrative being given by Governor Cuomo about how public schools are failing. I have a huge amount of admiration for this woman. She is at a stage in her life where she doesn’t need to be working at such a furious pace, however she must feel compelled to get the message out to the public.
I went to Sunday school as a child at Saint John’s in Mahopac. It was there that I developed a strong moral code concerning what is right and what is wrong. We are typically an obedient society as a whole and the idea of protesting through civil disobedience makes many uncomfortable. It was a process that we had to go through ourselves as a family. Now we ask you to join us in refusing the tests in order to protect our children and to give local control back to our schools. I can tell you whole heartedly from my personal experience administering these exams, they are wrong for our children.
Opinion by Mark Hegenauer