The Unethical And Useless ELA Assessment

I can remember the conversation as if it was yesterday. It was five years ago, around this time of year. I was in the first year of my new role as the English Department Coordinator. I had so many hopes for that year; many of those hopes are still things I strive for today. In addition to trying to build a team with the English Department, my primary goal was to better our curriculum, better our practices, and better our department in every way so that English class was the single best period a student had all day. I wanted parents to feel that way too.

Things were relatively smooth that year. Then, April came along. It would be my first ELA exam cycle as Department Coordinator. This version of the test was relatively new, but the ELA exam has been a fixture in my teaching career as it debuted during year two. I remember that well because my Department Chair was out due to illness and much of the organization and administration fell to me. So, my first year as Department Coordinator, I felt confidence.

My department is amazing, the Middle School administration is always so organized, and all of the secretarial staff is always ready to help this test go off without a hitch. That year, everything was set, but this was the first year of the “opt out” movement, where parents were choosing to refuse to have their child take the test. Five years later, we have a great system in place, but that first year was filled with phone calls, letters, parents showing up that morning, and a whole lot of running around.

The Principal asked me to return phone calls to parents. The first couple were fine as I explained to the parents that they needed to write a note and bring it in before the test starts in order to opt out. If not, the student would be locked into sitting for the test. But, then the conversation happened.

It started like most of the others. I explained the protocol and what to do. This parent wasn’t happy because she was already on her way to work in the New York City. After a few more minutes of back and forth, she laid it out for me. “You are a torturer of children. Hope you are happy.” Then, she hung up.

I have always been bothered about that conversation. My goal as an educator is the exact opposite of that. My practice in the classroom is the exact opposite of that. My mission with creating professional development for the department is the exact opposite. I didn’t understand why she would say that.

Last week, it became clear.

Last week, I was complicit with every other New York State Teacher, Administrator, School Board member, and Parent who are normally trusted to protect kids. I was complicit because I helped administer the New York State ELA exam. While not (really) physical torture, the ELA exam is very much worthy of the word torture. That parent was correct five years ago. She was correct last week. Every one of us who says that we will make schools a better place for kids was complicit by giving an assessment that was unsound, unfair, illogical, and unethical in every way.

Shame on us.

New York State promised that they had listened to feedback from Teachers and Parents. They promised that the test would be fair. They removed the timed nature of the test, now allowing children “all the time they needed” to complete the assessment. They even made the test two days, rather than the standard three. Maybe, just maybe, they figured out that kids, from third grade to eighth grade, don’t have to write multiple essays and short answers to demonstrate that they can actually read for information, analysis, and synthesis, and put it into writing.

They lied.

They lied in every way.

In turn, we lied to the very kids we go to work for every day.

They lied about being fair. Day one of the exam was the reading comprehension with quite a few multiple choice questions. While most students seemed to finish quickly, there was one quite noticeable thing. There were different versions of this “standardized” test. There were multiple editions of the exam in the room. Granted, the State wasn’t hiding this as they proudly put the version of the test in bold, right on the cover. While this doesn’t seem like quite a big deal, I found it to be a big deal after I circulated through multiple classrooms in our middle school following the exam. I asked kids what they thought of the exam. Most said day one was pretty simple. The passages were hard to some kids and many admitted that they didn’t understand some of the wording of the multiple choice questions.

That was normal. I thought to myself that maybe the State was being fair. That is until I asked about the reading passages themselves. Half of each class had fiction pieces. The other half dealt with non-fiction. So, we are giving an assessment to children that wasn’t even based on the same genre? To what end? One can question the validity of a “standardized” assessment to begin with, but there is nothing standard regarding have a portion deal with one genre with different skill questions and the other with completely different questions. How can this practice help better instruction? How can this be valuable to parents and families? Where is that comparative norm to see where and how, exactly, a student needs remediation? How is the State creating a “norm” when they dilute the sample size of each skill assessed?

And, of course, there is the whole premise that multiple choice assessments are completely useless when it comes to evaluating learning. The history of the creation of a standardized multiple choice assessment is proof. In 1914, Frederick Kelly, an educator, was tasked with creating a multiple choice test to help classify where the influx of immigrants would go—factories, school, etc.—upon entering the United States. Kelly created the multiple choice test, but freely admitted that the purpose was not meant to measure learning; the multiple choice test does not measure that at all. It was a way to do a quick screen to see what the newcomers had experienced, no more and no less.

Multiple choice tests do not evaluate learning. They do, however, measure the lowest common denominator, they build fear in students, they foster an atmosphere of conformity for students hoping for high scores and teachers teaching to the test. It favors memorization. These are are qualities that modern education is trying to rid classrooms of each day. Yet, New York State continues to take kids out of a learning environment and administer multiple versions of the test over the course of a few hours.

So, day one was a waste in terms of getting any sort of valuable, tangible information for educators to use to help students. Day two was even worse.

Day two was more of a writing day. This should have been a valuable snapshot into students’ thought process and execution of the writing process. Sadly, the test designers didn’t follow the qualities of useful test design. Multiple reading passages were followed up with short answer questions and essays. According to the testing guidelines published by New York State, middle school students typically would need 80 to 90 minutes to complete each part.

They lied. Again.

Essentially, the ELA exam got rid of the third day, but crammed the old three day test into two days. Therefore, when it came to the 90 minute mark of day two, nobody was done. Students worked well past that 90 minute mark. There were actual tears from Middle School kids. They worked past their normal lunch times. The lost out on instruction time as periods, which were already shortened, had to be shortened even more. And, given the grueling nature of the test, just how much could be expected out of them?

Let’s think about this for a second. We want to see what kids can read, understand, synthesize, and produce in writing. Yet, New York State wants to see that done in a way that hinders optimal performance. The reading passages are long, uninteresting (but authentic!), and unethical (more on that in a minute). Instead of having to produce one piece of writing, students have multiple pieces that aren’t even scaffolding questions to the larger piece. In essence, students were figuratively beaten down and then asked, literally, to produce something when they were mentally exhausted. If a Teacher created this type of an environment, he/she would have his/her certification questioned.

Here’s the unethical part. The reading passages could be found on many “Common Core Help” websites. One was found on a website, Achieve the Core, which, as of now, is still a non-for-profit site. This site does not appear to be affiliated with Pearson–the test makers–but it did launch almost immediately after the Common Core was rolled out. It seems to have the best interest of education at heart; the site has free lesson plans and does include modifications for ELL learners.

Achieve the Core had one particular reading passage from the ELA exam on its site, even with lesson plans. And, then, it had a whole section of how this passage needed to be modified for ELL students. There were many different modifications needed in order to make this passage accessible for ELL students. Not one of those modifications was on the ELA exam. Not. One. Single. Modification.

Not only were students subjected to an unsound number of hours required to complete the assessment, but a significant number of them were given a passage that a website that is seemingly aligned with the Common Core (it literally launched when Common Core went live) said wasn’t accessible to them.

So, what’s the State’s end game here? Obviously, it is always about the money. One of the reasons I was so late to this whole poor practice was my experience at the high school level. The New York State English Regents exam has always been a fair, achievable test. Even when it was a grueling three essay test over two days, students had a chance. And, its current Common Core version is fair. The passages and multiple choice questions are challenging, but students of all levels can achieve. The two writing tasks are actual products of what we do in an English classroom. Why the fair exam in the high school?

Most likely it is because the State couldn’t have so many kids not graduate as a result of a poorly constructed Regents. But, it could certainly hand out inhumane, illogical, unethical, and poorly constructed assessments in grades three through eight that tell well-intentioned parents that their children aren’t “up to standard” and that parents should invest in private interventions, which just so happen to be owned by test making companies. It could certainly give report cards to districts that put them on notice and instill fear into classroom practices. But, of course, that can be saved by the latest and greatest Pearson textbook. And, there is always that certain person in Washington who seems to want to privatize education. What better way to make the argument than to stack the deck against kids?

I spent most of last Thursday afternoon walking into classes and apologizing to kids. I was sorry that the education industry let them down. I was sorry that I let them down. We subjected them–tortured them–to an exercise that was unfair and will yield zero data that can help impact instruction. Even if it did give useful data, the State releases that data after children are programmed for the next school year, district budget decisions are finalized, and staffing decisions are made. The system is broke for the students. It is designed to get companies rich. We, as educators, have to take a stand.

We’ve been complicit the entire time. Well, the New York State Teachers Union did protest a few years ago, but that focus was on Teacher evaluations being tied to the test results. None of the focus was about the treatment of kids. Sure, kids were used as props—just as the test makers are using them now—, but the Union never protested these exams before our evaluations got tied into them. Protesting because of that isn’t the same as standing up of kids. Protesting for that makes the profession looked scared and petty. Protesting on behalf of kids is what the profession actually is.

There should not be any misunderstanding; having benchmarks for students is positive. Well constructed assessments can give students, parents, administrators, and teachers a snapshot of where the student is, adjustments needed to the curriculum, a measurement of growth, and a base for a sound educational plan. A middle school students’ ELA assessment should be a high level thinking task that requires them to read multiple sources and produce a synthesis writing piece. You know, it should match what goes on in the classroom. It should allow our best teachers to have a great, reliable data point to use to drive individual instruction. One piece, a few grade level reading passages, and a reasonable amount of time is all it would take to allow schools to get useful data. The one day assessment would be rigorous, but there would be no stripping of a student’s dignity. And, there would actually be real results that could impact education.

That parent was right five years ago. Unfortunately, everything I stand for in Education disappears during the two days of this assessment. We’ve been complicit. It’s time for District Leaders, Teachers Unions, and Parents to take a stand against a test that is poorly designed, lacking in any sort of ethicality, doesn’t measure the standards intended, yields little useful data, creates fear and poor decision making by districts, takes away valuable instruction time and focus, and, most importantly, does nothing but hurt kids.

I am sure that many educators feel just as badly as I do. I am sure they are sorry, just like I am. But, none of that is enough.