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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

NYS Education Department Gags Principals From Saying How Bad Standardized English Tests Were In April 2014

Principal Bob Bender


A Conversation About Tests That Educators Want to Have, but Can’t

Let’s talk about testing.

“I want to,” said Bob Bender, principal of Public School 11 in Chelsea. “I want my voice to be heard about how outraged I was about the exam.”

So by all means, speak up.

He sighed.

“I can’t go against the state embargo,” Mr. Bender said.

By state order, teachers and principals may not disclose any contents of the three days of standardized English tests that were given at the beginning of April.

Under many circumstances, this might be considered a favor to humankind: Few subjects are as fraught as standardized testing, with no end to the crossed wires of ideology, self-interest and strong opinions about arcane matters (how many “plausible distractors” — wrong answers that look as if they could be right — should be included in the multiple choices?) and ultimately, what is, or ought to be, at stake.

But it is hard to ignore an uprising by 37 principals from schools in Manhattan, as well as others from Brooklyn, who say they are not opposed to accountability or testing, but have spoken in blunt terms about the design and quality of this year’s state English tests. Among them was Mr. Bender.

“The third-grade test was atrocious,” he said.

While 40 or so principals come from just a fraction of the city’s schools, that is more schools than most districts in the country have. And most striking is who is sounding the alarm: Public school principals, as a group, are generally not militant.

“In some ways the city is having a conversation, but nobody knows what they’re really talking about because they can’t see it,” said Mark Federman, principal of the East Side Community High School, which goes from sixth to 12th grade. “We’re talking about a document that is under lock and key.”

P.S. 118 principal Elizabeth Garraway (left) with P.S. 321 principal Liz Phillips at an open house for P.S. 118
last year. Phillips has said she'll help guide the new school, which holds its ribbon cutting on Sept. 21.

Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 15 years, wrote an essay critical of the tests that was published in The New York Times last month. It began: “I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t.”

Ms. Phillips blamed the order on a contract between the state and the test’s publisher, Pearson, but a spokesman for the New York Education Department says that isn’t the case.

“Pearson did not do it,” said Tom Dunn, the department’s spokesman. “It’s our policy that does not allow teachers to talk about the test questions.” The purpose is to preserve much of the test for use in future years and to avoid encouraging schools to use it as a blueprint for preparations. In the past, when the state made the exams public within a few days, he said, “the test became the curriculum.”

Sometime over the summer, the state will release at least 25 percent of the questions and answers, along with annotations explaining why answers were right or wrong. John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, said he has found the criticism baffling.

“Folks are avoiding having the conversation about the actual items,” Mr. King said.

How can they have that conversation if the test won’t be out for months?

“We have posted 25 percent of the test from last year, the questions, the possible answers,” Mr. King said. “We give a narrative explanation of why the correct answers were correct, and the incorrect answers were incorrect.”

That is far more than most states release, Mr. Dunn said. And few put materials on their tests’ design online, as New York does at “One of my frustrations with the way the discourse has played out is that there hasn’t been a lot of discourse about the design criteria,” Mr. King said.

Mr. Federman said principals were more interested in discussing the specifics of this year’s test than what happened last year, and the release in the summertime of a portion of the questions and the answers is no particular help to teachers and students in finding out what they need to work on. The Common Core curriculum adopted in New York is intended to encourage students to get a strong grip on the meaning of a piece of writing. Yet, Ms. Phillips said, too much of the test focused on small details and structure rather than its overall meaning.

In a joint statement issued by the 37 principals, they noted that “there were product placements (i.e. Nike, Barbie) woven throughout the exam.” But Mr. Dunn, the spokesman, said that any brands mentioned had been written into the original articles used in the exam. “There are no product placement deals between us, Pearson or anyone else,” he said. “No deals. No money.”

These people need to start talking to one another, with everyone looking at the same pages — in the same school year.

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