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What you need to know for 01/17/2017

State reluctant to release Common Core test questions

State reluctant to release Common Core test questions

About 25 percent of last year’s third- through eighth-grade English and math exams are available to
State reluctant to release Common Core test questions
A draft of the New York State Grade 5 Common Core test.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

After being criticized for an alleged lack of transparency, the state Education Department plans to release a larger portion of this year’s Common Core-based exams in July.

About 25 percent of last year’s third- through eighth-grade English and math exams are available to the public on the Education Department’s EngageNY website. The Education Department says it plans to put up about half of this year’s exams, after test results are released in three months.

Jeanne Beattie, spokeswoman for the Education Department, said they won’t release the entire tests because some questions could be reused in subsequent years. Pearson, a private education firm based in London, creates the exams under a $32 million, five-year contract with the state.

“The state Education Department cannot release all test questions because embedded field test questions on all of the tests are used to develop future test questions,” Beattie said. “Releasing [all] exams publicly would require a significant increase in standalone field testing.”

Field tests, which are near-final versions of future exams based on the Common Core, are given to students in New York and other states as part of a push to fully integrate the learning standards into schools. They are being administered nationwide through June 6, although testing in New York will end next month.

Common Core is a set of national testing standards for kindergarten through 12th grade students. The standards work to ensure that high-school graduates are prepared to enter college and the workforce.

State lawmakers and education advocates argue that the new standards involve a large amount of rigorous testing and that it’s unfair to evaluate teachers based on student performance because many school districts don’t yet have the resources to provide a curriculum to meet those standards. Some parents have complained that the Common Core-based exams are too demanding and that the Education Department should be more transparent to help ease concerns regarding test material.

New York State United Teachers, a statewide teachers union with more than 600,000 members, is calling on the Education Department to provide more exam information for teachers to improve instruction.

“We have something unique here where we have this black box that you can’t get the data out of, and no one can ever enter,” said Karen Magee, president of NYSUT. “Good teachers always do a data analysis and look at consistency in mistakes and successful answers. But we have no way to check for understanding. It’s like shooting arrows at a bull’s-eye in the dark. So what’s the real goal? Because we’re not meeting the goal for student achievement if we can’t see the tests.”

Tricia Farmer, whose children go to Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School, said not being able to see the exams is troubling and said she wonders why they are kept secret. Former Regents exams are made public and used as study guides, she noted.

“They have always recycled questions on exams, so it puts up a red flag when they won’t release the tests,” Farmer said. “The purpose of the exams is so teachers can better guide their instruction to meet the standards. So why are they not able to review parts of the exam where the students are struggling? They cannot improve instruction, and that is concerning.”

Farmer started a group called BH-BL Parent Advocates for Education, which meets once a month for parents to discuss their concerns about the Common Core curriculum. So far the group has averaged 20-25 people at each meeting, she said. A similar group is forming in Clifton Park, where parents plan to meet next week.

The Gazette submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for last year’s fifth- and eighth-grade English and math exams earlier this month, and is waiting for a response.

Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said one of the exceptions in FOIL allows the Education Department to withhold questions that are going to be used again. Freeman said it’s highly unlikely 75 percent of last year’s exam questions were reused.

The Education Department would not provide a specific number of questions used from past exams. Beattie said that portions of previous questions are sometimes used to develop future questions, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact number of questions that are reused each year.

The 25 percent of last year’s exams that were released, with three reading passages and more than a dozen math questions provided per grade level, include an explanation of why answers are correct and incorrect. The short answer questions also come with examples of student responses, explaining the scores each response received.

Farmer said she looked through those questions and answers, and discovered a math question that she could not answer with the choices provided. She asked the Education Department if the question could be answered the way it was worded. Their answer? “Perhaps not.”

“The way the question was worded, it really couldn’t be answered with the answers that were provided,” she said. “They kept stating why they believe their answer is correct, and I could see their thought process, but the question could not be answered the way it was worded. After a lot of run around, I finally got someone to say ‘perhaps not,’ that it could not be answered.”

The Education Department did not confirm Farmer’s inquiry but said if a question is found without a correct answer, a public post would be issued and students would automatically receive credit for the question.

In 2013, about 30 percent of students in the state passed the Common Core-based English and math exams. That’s a drop of more than 20 percent compared to the previous year, before the more difficult standards were implemented. The percentage of students who pass this year’s exams is expected to be the same as last year.

Nearly 1.2 million third- through eighth-graders in New York took the English assessment April 1 through April 3. It is estimated more than 30,000 students in the state opted out of the exams, according to a list complied online by parents across the state. The math tests will be administered April 30 through May 2.

“In 2013 students were set up for failure on material they were not yet taught and concepts that were inappropriate for their age,” said Carl Korn, spokesman for NYSUT. “We especially saw that for students with special needs and English language learners.”

In a Siena Research Institute poll released Tuesday, 37 percent of New York voters say the Common Core standards are too demanding, with 23 percent who say the standards are adequate or not demanding enough. Also, 55 percent of state voters say they are not confident that the standards will prepare students for college and careers, with 38 percent who are confident.

“With the Common Core being under fire, the state Education Department should release the exams if that information won’t be used again,” Freeman said. “But to what extent, if any, will those questions be used in the future? Their response is incomplete.”

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