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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
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Why can’t we look at Core tests?

By Sara Foss
Monday, April 28, 2014

Secrecy makes me suspicious.
Particularly government secrecy.
When public agencies and institutions are reluctant or unwilling to provide information, it makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide. Especially when the information seems fairly innocuous.
Take the state’s Common Core-based standardized tests.
Given the controversy surrounding these tests, I would have assumed that the state would be willing to make them available to pretty much anyone who asked, if only to prove that concerns about the questions on the exam are unfounded. And since releasing the tests wouldn’t exactly compromise national security, it’s tough for me to see the need to keep them under lock and key.
But the state Education Department sees it differently.
Right now, just 25 percent of last year’s third- through eighth-grade English and math exams are available to the public on the department’s EngageNY website, and the agency has said it plans to post about half of this year’s exams sometime this summer. A spokeswoman for the Education Department told The Gazette’s Haley Viccaro that the state cannot release the entire test because some questions could be reused in subsequent years.
If we weren’t talking about the Common Core, this explanation might pass muster.
But we are talking about the Common Core.
We’re talking about a test that has been criticized by parents and teachers for being too difficult and overly confusing. A test that featured brand names and slogans such as Nike’s “Just Do It,” prompting some to wonder whether the exams contain paid product placement. (State officials have said that they don’t.) A test that principals and teachers have been barred from discussing.
Did I mention that gag orders also make me suspicious?
“I’d like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t,” Brooklyn principal Elizabeth Phillips wrote in a widely read New York Times opinion piece. “Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.”
I don’t know Phillips, and it’s possible that she’s wrong. On the other hand, maybe she’s right. Why not release the Common Core tests in their entirety and provide the public with the information it needs to assess whether the concerns are valid? After all, Pearson’s big contract is paid for by taxpayers. Shouldn’t we be able to evaluate the product we’re buying? This year’s Common Core English tests have already been administered. Why can’t we have them?
I asked a friend who teaches at a local middle school about the secrecy — often referred to as “test security” — surrounding the Common Core tests and Pearson’s recycling of exam questions.
She suggested that reusing questions saves the company money by making the tests cheaper to produce, and added that “it does nothing for the quality of the tests. Passages get reused, sometimes at different grade levels. … They like to say that the test security prevents ‘teaching to the test,’ but all it does is force schools (who focus on the tests because they have so much riding on it) to buy Pearson’s (Common Core State Standards) materials.”
My friend is right.
When officials place so much emphasis on standardized tests, of course teachers are going to teach to the test. It would be foolish not to. And they’re going to teach to the test regardless of whether the tests are released to the public.
Test security might be important. But does it outweigh the public’s right to see the mysterious and controversial tests its tax dollars are paying for? I don’t think so.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 
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