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Schools Add to Test Load, Just to Assess the Questions

Collecting data for Pearson.

Kudos to Zipporiah Mills.

New York City Mom Comment: We are losing valuable classroom time AGAIN?? That after kissing off days and weeks of it practicing for, taking, and teacher grading of the real tests. AND embedded field test questions are already what made the state test so long to begin with. Let Pearson figure out whether it has drafted comprehensible grade-level questions on its own time -- they are sure getting paid enough! -- without using our kids as free labor to do that work for them.

Comment: Just say no. Do not send your children to school on testing days. Invite other parents to do the same.

Teacher Comment: "Field testing" turned out to be a colossal joke here in PA. I was asked to do that with my high school gifted class in 2010. So my students and I took the thing (it was unbelievably awful), analyzed the test, and wrote a letter to PDE offering suggestions for improvement. Result? They threatened to revoke my teaching certificate for "compromising test security" and sent me a letter forbidding me from ever discussing these tests with students again. Then when the actual tests were administered a year later, the items were absolutely identical. So much for asking for "feedback" for improvement.

Parent Comment: The number of times I keep hearing that data can't be shared because it would violate test security troubles me no end. The security of the test (so that it can be used nationally but given at different times) far outweighs any value even the test creators feel the thing has for children.

When we rely on standardized testing for most of our data, we will be relying on bad data. That's no way to move forward.

My daughter will not be taking the field test. I don't think that she will participate in any of the state testing any more.

Comment: Here's an idea: pay them to take the field tests after school. If Pearson wants their time they can, and should, pay for it.

Mom Comment: My son has spent the entire year in 4th grade at a NYC public school doing test prep. He has learned absolutely nothing other than how to take a test.

M. D. Comment: I work at a company that does "field testing" for new medicines. We don't get to draft our test subjects. We have to recruit them, offer compensation of free medical care and/or money, and make it clear to subjects that they can quit at any time, for any reason or no reason at all.

Reader Comment: thank you, NYT, for highlighting the use of children as test dummies at the end of a year in which they have already worked hard to take tests that really count.

The author takes as a given the value of the testing craze that has swept the country. the quoted 'education scholar' works at the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative group) which has invested heavily in this kind of reform for many years.

There are many who disagree strongly with this approach. a more even-handed article would have included a reference to individuals and groups who oppose the emphasis placed on testing.

We have never had a healthy debate in this country about the decision to put such a high premium on testing like this.

By Javier C. Herandez

English tests? Check. Math tests? Check. Summer vacation? Not so fast.

Students in New York State sweated their way through some of the toughest exams in state history this spring. Now hundreds of thousands of them will receive a reward only a stonyhearted statistician could appreciate: another round of exams.

As school districts across the country rush to draw up tests and lesson plans that conform to more rigorous standards, they are flocking to field tests -- exams that exist solely to help testing companies fine-tune future questions.

In New York, some 3,300 schools will hold field tests in English and math for nearly 374,000 students in June. Starting next school year, more than one million students in 22 states are expected to take the tests, in an effort to help develop a national exam modeled on the new standards, known as the Common Core.

Field test results have no consequences for students or teachers, but that has not placated parents and testing skeptics, who say they turn classrooms into focus groups and add more stress to a process that is already filled with anxiety.

In New York City, where much of the anger has erupted, parents are planning boycotts of the exams and have called on state officials to require parental permission for students to participate. A few principals have refused to administer some field tests, sending back boxes of the shrink-wrapped booklets. [emphasis added]

Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, said she would work with state and city lawmakers to end the city's participation in field tests.

"There is simply no reason why we're having children be guinea pigs," Ms. Quinn said. "For God's sake, we pay these testing companies enough that they should do their own focus groups."

But testing experts call field tests an essential part of designing high-quality exams, and say they help weed out troublesome items, like a reading passage about a pineapple and a hare that prompted widespread confusion in New York last year.

And supporters of the Common Core standards worry that the furor over field tests, along with growing skepticism among conservatives about the idea of standards embraced by the federal government, could undermine what they consider one of the most significant reforms to the American education system in decades.

"We're seeing the early glimmers of a bigger fight," said Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The real question is if states can keep those concerns isolated."

Field testing takes two forms. There are field-test questions included in the regular exams taken each spring, which make up as much as 25 percent of a test (New York officials would not release a precise figure for this year's exams). And there are stand-alone tests devoted exclusively to trying out questions for future exams. Those are the ones coming in June; last year they were administered at more than 1,000 schools in New York City, during a 40-minute exam period.

Field-test questions have been a staple of standardized exams for generations. Most major tests, like Advanced Placement and the SAT, include items that do not count and are included simply to gauge whether the questions are worth using in the future.

The field-test questions can flag various issues, like the presence of arcane vocabulary, confusing instructions or poorly drawn diagrams. If a question proves to be too difficult, or seems to stump a particular demographic group, test makers often send the item back to the drawing board.

In the public education system, field testing has come under more intense scrutiny because state officials have a hand in designing the exams, and parents and teachers routinely complain about the series of tests children face.

With the debut of the Common Core standards, several states have already thrown out old exams and built new ones. Others are awaiting the creation of a national test in 2015, to be overseen by a consortium of states known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

New York was one of the first states to align its tests with the standards. The state introduced tougher exams in math and English this spring, to mixed reviews. Individual scores are used to determine whether students advance to the next grade; education officials expect the overall average to plummet.

But the shelf life of those exams may be limited if the state decides to adopt the national Common Core exam in 2015, as is expected. As a result, during the 2013-14 school year, the state will hold field tests for two different exams.

The state has defended its methods, saying the benefit of creating more stringent exams that emphasize deep thinking outweighs the inconvenience of field testing.

"The only people who would be hurt if we get rid of field tests are teachers and students," said Ken Wagner, who oversees testing for the New York State Education Department. "When you have questions for any test, you want to make sure those questions are reliable."

State officials declined to offer examples of questions that were improved through the field testing process, citing security concerns.

Mr. Wagner said the state would prefer to eliminate stand-alone field tests. The tests can be statistically unreliable, he said, since children are not as motivated if they know the exam has no consequences.

But ending the stand-alone tests would be costly, state officials said. The state would have to find places for all the field-test questions in the regular exams. There would then be too many field-test questions for a single student to handle, so additional versions of each regular exam would have to be printed; each version would have the same questions that count, but not the same field-test questions.

The state currently has a five-year, $32 million contract with Pearson, a testing company.

Zipporiah Mills, principal of Public School 261 in Brooklyn, was one of the those who sent back unopened field tests last year. She said administering the tests would require giving up too much instructional time.

"Families bring their children in bright and early because they want them to learn," she said, "not because they want them to be test dummies."

— Javier C. Herandez
New York Times





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