Are You Smarter Than a 3rd Grader?!
by Barbara Nevergold
I've written about standardized tests in previous articles, but given the State’s mandate that the Buffalo School District either turn over BUILD Academy to an independent receiver or close the school and re-open it as a new school, this is a good time to revisit the problem of high stakes testing. The State’s determination was based upon the failure of the school to make “demonstrable improvement” since being placed on the “persistently struggling” list two years ago.
BUILD Academy was given twelve specific performance indicators as achievement goals. BUILD students demonstrated improvement in 4 of the 12 key indicators but not in the other eight. The latter were all test-based indicators. Ultimately, student performance on the State’s standardized English Language Arts and Math tests did not achieve proficiency levels required by the State Education Department. As a school board member and educator, I have followed the high stakes testing debate for some time.
There are numerous reasons why we should question the validity of using these tests as a principal accountability measure of our children’s capability and a determinant of the future of our schools. The tests 1) are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) are not differentiated by student need as almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach 4) encourage teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects 5) demoralize and frustrate children.
In addition, test results are being used to grade schools and to evaluate educators, even though statistics experts dispute the validity of this methodology. Few parents/community members have an idea of what the tests are like. The ELA Tests are principally made up of long reading passages. The paragraphs in the articles are numbered and students are given multiple choice questions or are asked to write short answer responses. The multiple choice questions give four possible answers. Students need to reference the article to select their answer. The passages are lengthy and educators, who have evaluated the reading level of these passages, have found them to be two to three or sometimes four levels above the reading level of the students being tested.
The following is a test question from the 2017 3rd grade ELA test. “Excerpt from Astrophysicist and Space Advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson” by Marne Ventura Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: Are You Smarter than a 3rd Grader?!
DISCOVERING THE NIGHT SKY
1. The lights in the planetarium dimmed. Nine-year-old Neil sat in the darkness and stared up at the huge domed ceiling. The audience grew silent. A voice boomed, "We are now in the universe, and on a high, curved ceiling here are the stars:' 2. It was Neil's first visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He had seen the night sky many times from his home in the Bronx. He had seen a few stars and the moon. But tonight, was different. On the ceiling above him, he saw countless stars, planets, and constellations-groups of stars that form shapes. 3. Not long after this, Neil and his family took a trip to Pennsylvania. Away from the lights of New York City, he was able to see the stars more clearly. He realized the stars he had seen on the planetarium ceiling were not just part of a show. They were real. He wanted to know more about them. Neil felt like the universe was calling him.”
This passage continues for another 8 paragraphs for 11 paragraphs in all, over 800 words. The questions based on the reading asks the students to select the most appropriate answer, based on specific paragraphs that they are directed to reference, as in the following: In Paragraph 3, when the author says that "Neil felt like the universe was calling him," she is referring to how (A) he heard the booming voice inside the Hayden Planetarium on his first visit (B) he was delighted by seeing the stars inside the Hayden Planetarium (C) his experiences looking at the stars made him want to learn more about astronomy (D) he wanted to spend more time in the countryside because he could see more of the sky Paragraph 6 of the passage supports paragraph 3 by showing that Neil (A) saw the same things at home that he saw at the planetarium (B) wanted to return to Pennsylvania to use his new binoculars (C) continued his interest in learning about the universe (D) tried to share his interest in stars with his parents. To answer the second question, students must look back at paragraph 6 and in addition, they also need to re-read paragraph 3. to find the correct answer.
Until recently the tests were timed, and students had to complete then within a set time-frame. So, are you as smart as a 3rd grader? I can only provide a small snap shot of the ELA test here, but readers can make a firsthand assessment about the suitability of the ELA and the Math exams for all children, not just children of color as well as the use of test results to make determinations about school closure.
The State Education Department released a sampling of the 2017 tests in August and you can find these questions and rationales used for grading each test at https://www.engageny.org/resource/ released -2017-3-8-ela-and-mathematics-state-test-questions
Barbara Seals Nevergold is the President of the Buffalo Board of Education but the views expressed here are her personal opinion and are not an official Board Statement.