Next year’s state tests will be shorter, quieter, and potentially more offensive, state education officials said today.
The state math and reading tests that students in elementary and middle school take this spring — just over six months from now — will be the first that are aligned to new curriculum standards known as the Common Core. City and state officials have both warned that the tests will be tougher than what students have been used to, and in dribs and drabs they have released examples of Common Core-aligned test questions.
State officials outlined more nuts-and-bolts changes in a briefing with reporters today. They said that even though questions will more often test multiple skills, the overall length of the exams will not increase. For the youngest test-takers, students in third and fourth grade, the tests will actually decrease in duration, they said.
Last year’s tests were longer than ever before, with students in all grades sitting for around six hours of testing over six days. For third-graders, last year’s tests were more than twice as long as in 2011.
In another shift, the state will make it clear to schools that it’s okay for students to read quietly after they turn in their tests. At some schools, students have in the past been required to stay at their seats without anything to do until the maximum testing period elapsed, an arrangement that one anti-testing activist told the New York Times left her son playing “ballgames in his head.”
The state has also done away with one feature of past English language arts exams, the listening section, in which students answered questions about passages that their teachers read aloud. The Common Core does include a set of “speaking and listening” standards, but they are best assessed in oral presentations or conversations, officials said. That means they can’t practically fit into this year’s tests — and there is no timeline for developing assessments that do measure those standards, they said.
But the state still expects schools to incorporate the speaking and listening standards into their instruction. “Just because we don’t test it doesn’t mean it’s not important,” officials said.
A third change, to the tone and content of texts that appear on the English exams, reverses a longstanding tradition of asking students to read simplified versions of texts that have appeared elsewhere. A widely ridiculed passage about a race-running pineapple on last year’s eighth-grade reading test, for example, bore only a partial resemblance to the original story, according to its author. (That passage had appeared on other states’ tests for years; all of the questions on this year’s tests will be exclusively New York’s.)
Sometimes, the simplified passages reflected a sanitization effort to remove language and content that could be found offensive. Diane Ravitch documented the process by which real texts were emptied of potentially offensive content in her 2004 book “The Language Police.” And as recently as last spring, the city Department of Education wanted to bar 50 words from appearing on city tests out of fears that they would bother or alienate some test-takers.
But the Common Core’s demand for “authentic texts” means that no such editing can take place. Instead, students will see reading passages exactly as they have appeared elsewhere — at a balance of half fiction and half-non-fiction for elementary school students and 35 percent fiction and 65 percent non-fiction for middle-schoolers. And in keeping with the standards’ emphasis on argument, some of the passages might require students to encounter opinions that they or their parents do not necessarily share.
Officials said today that they wanted to warn the public about the new tenor of some content so there are “no surprises” when students open their test booklets in late April. But they signaled that are prepared to stand up to critics who challenge the content on the tests.
“Every viewpoint worth having is a viewpoint that somebody else might disagree with, including parents, including students, including teachers,” said Ken Wagner, the State Education Department’s associate commissioner for curriculum, assessment, and educational technology.
These changes and others will be detailed in the state’s annual testing guide, which officials said they aimed to release by the end of this month. In contrast to past years, when the guides were targeted to principals and contained mostly technical information, this year’s guide will be meant for classroom teachers, too. The guide will contain not only sample questions, which are already available in limited form, but also details about the weight that will be given to different standards and rubrics for how written responses will be graded.
Officials warned again today that test scores are likely to fall statewide as students are asked to show proficiency on tougher material than ever before. But they said they were confident that 2013’s test scores would be able to be compared to 2012’s, for the purposes of calculating student growth, one of several measures that state law requires be factored into teacher evaluations.