Leaked questions rekindle fierce debate over Common Core tests

The questions, taken from a Common Core fourth-grade reading test, came to a Columbia professor in a
Celia Oyler, a Columbia professor who posted questions from a Common Core fourth-grade reading test online that ignited on the Internet, in Easthampton, Mass., May 21, 2016.
Celia Oyler, a Columbia professor who posted questions from a Common Core fourth-grade reading test online that ignited on the Internet, in Easthampton, Mass., May 21, 2016.

The questions, taken from a Common Core fourth-grade reading test, came to a Columbia professor in an email from an anonymous teacher, part of a blistering critique of the exam. The professor put the questions and the critique on her blog, and before she knew it, her posting ignited on the Internet, fueling a new round of anger about nationwide standardized testing.

As fast as the company that manages the tests played whack-a-mole, trying to get the questions taken down, teachers, parents and education experts kept spreading them on blogs and Twitter — despite the fact that the questions are still being used in testing. Some argued that robust public discussion of test items and their shortcomings was the best way to ensure better tests.

Ever since most states adopted the Common Core — guidelines for kindergarten through high school reading and math — parents and teachers have pushed back, with many parents choosing not to have their children take the exams. Although a new federal education law has lowered the stakes for testing, the viral response to the anonymous teacher’s critique highlights the strong feelings that standardized testing continues to evoke.

“This is what we’ve come to — it’s an act of brave rebellion, a risk to career and livelihood, to publish some questions from PARCC’s Big Standardized Test,” Peter Greene, wrote on his blog Curmudgucation, referring to the company that administers the test.

In more than 100 notices to Google and Twitter, PARCC Inc. has cited copyright law to support its request to take down the postings. It has also threatened legal action against Celia Oyler, the Columbia education professor who first posted the questions and the critique.

The test questions, however, are still circulating on the Web.

Heather Reams, the director of communications for PARCC Inc., said the issue was not just a technical copyright matter. The publication of the questions, she said, compromises the fairness of the test, which will be in use until June 10.

“Fair testing cannot exist if test questions are publicly available before the tests are administered,” she said.

Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group, called the PARCC exams “exceptionally high quality.”

“When items leak, it costs a lot to come up with new items,” Petrilli said.

He added that he was puzzled by the continued anti-testing backlash, given that, under the new law, most states are not using test results for teacher evaluations or school quality judgments.

But many teachers and opponents of standardized testing say parents must have a way to assess the standardized tests their children take. They point to an infamous passage on an eighth-grade reading test four years ago, about a talking pineapple that challenged a hare to a footrace. The pineapple did not move, the hare won the race and all the forest animals ate the pineapple. The passage, and the questions based on it, bewildered children in several states for a number of years before it was publicized, and dropped from the test.

The opponents of standardized testing also say PARCC Inc.’s push to remove items from Google and Twitter was overreaching because many of the posts on Twitter and later on blogs only referred or linked to the questions and did not include their actual language.

Reams said the company was trying to protect the integrity of the questions by cutting off access to the links to them.

The teacher who leaked the questions said in the original post that she was providing the material anonymously over concerns about “intense legal ramifications,” but felt compelled to tell others how “the high-stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.”

The teacher said the questions were inappropriate for fourth-graders, exceeding any reasonable grade-level standards.

For example, the teacher wrote, one question prompted children to write an essay using passages from a book on sharks that is considered at sixth- or seventh-grade reading level, and of interest to students in the ninth to 12th grade.

Reams said that, although the book in question was for older children, the passage was grade appropriate.

Oyler said in an interview that she had not thought much about the fact that the test was still in use when she posted the questions.

“I was so angry when I saw the items that I wasn’t thinking about protecting the company, I was thinking about the importance of the public knowing what is going on in the name of accountability,” she said.

“These tests can determine which middle school you get into, whether you graduate, whether you’re retained for a year, so people need to know that the criteria we’re using for these huge life decisions are valid,” she said.

Reams said PARCC Inc. had the highest degree of transparency of any of the companies developing state assessment tests, with 800 past questions released. She said the group planned to release one-third of this year’s questions, once the testing season has ended.

Still, the chief executive of PARCC Inc., Laura McGiffert Slover, emailed Oyler on May 12 asking her to remove the items, which she said were covered by copyright, and offering to waive any damage claim if the professor would turn over information about the anonymous teacher. Oyler removed the questions from her blog but did not identify their source.

At the same time, the fracas was still spreading on the Web, picked up by various blogs as well as by Diane Ravitch, a prominent education expert and opponent of nationwide standardized testing who is a research professor at New York University. Some of the bloggers said PARCC Inc. was trampling on their free-speech rights by trying to stifle discussion of the test’s flaws.

“A lot of people are upset that they’re making such a fetish of this,” Ravitch said. “It’s like they’re trying to put a blanket over any discussion of their test.”

Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, shared the PARCC Inc. critique on email lists reaching thousands of teachers. He said the importance of public oversight of the testing industry was a basic principle.

“Right now, parents know more about what goes into the food their pets eat than into the tests their children take,” Schaeffer said. “And legalities aside, the reality is that, in a world of social media, with instant transmission, you can’t put a cork back in the bottle.”

PARCC Inc. manages the tests for the PARCC consortium — formally, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The consortium is one of the groups chosen to create tests based on the Common Core, the guidelines for kindergarten through high-school reading and math that have been adopted by most states and have come under heavy criticism from across the political spectrum.

Criticism has been so intense that the PARCC tests, once adopted by 24 states, are now being used in only seven.

Categories: News

Leave a Reply