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Cynthia Wachtell

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Public School Standardized Testing: Enough Is Enough for New York State Kids

Posted: 05/29/2012 9:37 am

Here is a modest proposal. Let's have private school students take the same standardized tests that public school students now take each year.

While we are at it, let's require private school teachers to be absent from their students' classrooms for the same number of days as public school teachers, who now must serve as conscripted graders for the standardized tests.

For public school children, it has been a long spring, shaped far too much by mandated testing. And the testing is not over. The latest outrage is that public school children are now expected to serve as free product testers for Pearson, the test preparation company awarded a $32 million, five-year contract to develop New York State's 3-8 grade tests.

From June 5-8 "field tests" -- tests composed entirely of trial questions that do not count towards students' annual test scores -- are supposed to be administered to one full grade at each public elementary and middle school.

In trolling the internet, I discovered the English Language Arts and Mathematics Field Tests School Administrator's Manual. My favorite lines in it read: "Do not permit students to obtain information from or give information to other students in any way during the field tests. If you suspect that such an attempt has occurred, warn the students that any further attempts will result in the termination of their field tests." Students caught cheating on a test that won't be scored get to finish early. When did we cross into the realm of the absurd?

Let's just review how much of the spring already has been given over to testing. In April my fifth grade son, along with his aggrieved seventh grade brother, spent six days being tested in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. At ninety minutes per day, the tests were significantly longer than in past years.

Then came May, when teachers at both my sons' New York City public schools were obliged to leave their classes in the hands of substitutes, while they graded other schools' standardized tests. My son's fifth grade teacher missed every Thursday for three weeks. Teachers at my older son's school missed even more days with their students. The principal of his middle school wrote to parents in late April:

"Monday began a five-week period in which testing interferes with every aspect of the school program. During the six days of testing, three this past week and three days next week, every student will miss a minimum of 18 class periods. The six test days will be followed by three weeks, in which fourteen teachers ... will each be pulled out of school for five days, so they can assist in grading the tests ... This is what we are expected to do so the students can be tested!"

A great deal of attention has focused on the flawed questions that appeared on this year's tests created by Pearson. Most notably, a nonsensical reading passage appeared on the 8th grade ELA test, concerning a race between a pineapple and a hare. The public outrage regarding that passage, quickly dubbed "Pinneapplegate," resulted in the invalidation of six questions.

So too, my fifth grade son was asked on his math test to determine the perimeter of a trapezoid, even though it was later established that the particular trapezoid described does "not exist within the bounds of mathematics."

How much testing is too much? Let's keep in mind that the SAT takes under four hours to measure college-bound students' verbal, mathematical, and writing skills. Should assessing my fifth grader's mastery of these same subjects take 9 hours? And does he really need to sit through more testing this school year to help Pearson make more money?

At his elementary school, all 5th graders are supposed to take a math field test in early June. When private school students are enjoying their first days of summer break, do my son and his friends really need to be reckoning again with faulty trapezoids?

Across the nation, there is a groundswell of protest rising against high stakes testing, and in New York State public school parents are calling for a boycott of the NYS June field tests. Isn't it high time for private school students and their parents to share in the experience?

I have often heard it suggested that, if America had instituted a universal draft, we never would have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. High-powered parents never would have tolerated sending their sons and daughters to Kabul instead of to college.

Similarly, if New York State drafted private school children into statewide standardized testing, their high-powered parents would not stand for it. Then New York's headlong race toward ever longer, ever more high-stakes, and ever more flawed testing, would end quicker than a hare can beat a pineapple to the finish line.

Cynthia Wachtell is the author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and is Director of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program and a research associate professor of American Studies at Yeshiva University.

 
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