CityViews: A Testing Skeptic’s Open Letter to Parents About NYC’s Field Tests

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Good morning. It’s late in the school year. I hope that you and your sons and daughters are well. I know you have been busy with everyday matters. Therefore, the field tests your children are expected to take in the coming days are not high on the list of things you want to hear about.

Evidently, New York City Schools Chancellor Farina respects that too and has chosen not to disturb you with information about them. But, we know that you are capable of multi-tasking. Here are a few points you should be aware of:

Since last week, as directed by the New York State Education Department (SED), field tests have quietly begun to be administered to students in grades 3-8. The tests are continuing and may be given any day through June 10.

Field tests let vendors like Pearson try out questions on children in order to develop future exams.

Since 2012, Pearson has given separate field tests in June (a.k.a. “stand-alone” field tests) to a large sample of students throughout New York State. Results don’t count for the students.

The way students respond to the try-out material is used to select the reading passages and items that will go on the English Language Arts (ELA) and Math tests to be given next April to New York State’s test population of 1.2 million children—440,000 of whom are in the city.

The cost of the field tests is borne entirely by taxpayers, free of charge to their producer. They take less than an hour to administer but disrupt the school day.

New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) doesn’t call attention to the field tests. It fails to mention that 774 of our schools are assigned to give them over a three-week period and that 87,330 children have been targeted to try out from 800 to 900 questions in the service of a commercial test publisher.

The bulk of the stand-alone field testing won’t begin until Tuesday, May 31. That’s when 85 percent of the ELA and Math field tests are due to start. These are the Paper-Based Tests. The PBTs are aimed at 517 of our schools and 61,000 students.

They’re now called “paper-based tests,” once simply known as tests, because of the need to distinguish them from the latest innovation in assessment, Computer-Based Tests.

You see, we were also asked to do “computer-based” field testing for the first time. This experiment kicked off on May 23 and will involve 11,000 city children. Enlisting their participation is intended to help transition us from PBTs to computerized exams and beyond.

Introducing CBTs will accelerate the profit-making encroachment of technology in the classroom. This objective must be important. Just last week SED posted a cheerful online letter anticipating “technology issues” but assuring us that the benefits outweigh the bugs, even if it means that our kids are being used as crash test dummies.

Over the last four years, the stand-alone approach has proven to be ineffective. Teachers have roundly criticized the poor quality of the resulting operational exams given each April. They complain that the test material is inappropriate and the items are flawed. Yet, the bad exams were built via the same kind of field-testing process being repeated here and now.

A vast majority of parents (and many teachers, too) have not been informed about the upcoming tests or their purpose. The DOE has made little effort to notify parents in a forthright way.

Chancellor Farina, who speaks about the importance of parent engagement, apparently wants the field tests to go forward without parents knowing much about them or learning that taking them is voluntary. Hence there was no announcement from Tweed. That seems more like parent estrangement. Engaged parents might say they don’t want their children to participate.

In fact, since 2012, more and more moms and dads have become aware of these extra tests and have refused to let their children sit for them. (Here is a letter parents have submitted when they chose to not let their children take the field tests.)

Check the listed posted here to find out if your child or children are in a school that has been assigned to give the PBT field tests to 61,000 students.

Even if your child is not in one of the schools or grades that are slated to be tested, please alert other parents you may know in targeted schools about the field tests and share information with them. Spread the word.

At least you will have a chance to engage in what’s happening and to exercise your right to say Yes or No. Knowledge is power.

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Fred Smith, a testing specialist and consultant, was an administrative analyst for the New York City public schools. He’s a member of Change the Stakes, a parent advocacy group.