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As Pearson's annual field testing ends, some want them never to start again

Public Advocate Letitia James (right) and parents rallied to ban field testing in front of City Hall Wednesday.
Public Advocate Letitia James (right) and parents rallied to ban field testing in front of City Hall Wednesday.
Mary Ellen McIntire

The city’s public advocate renewed calls for the state to stop administering no-stakes “field tests” on Wednesday.

At a small rally at City Hall, Public Advocate Letitia James said Pearson, the company that creates the state reading and math exams, needs to stop using students as “free specimens” for its research, known as field testing.

Test-makers use field testing to try out questions before they count, to see whether they are likely to provide useful results and help decide which questions will be on their exams the following year. But for some parents, who say the city and state have put too much emphasis on standardized testing, the field tests are unnecessary.

Lisa Rudley, a Westchester parent whose school opted out of the field testing this year, said that the exams take away time that should be spent on learning new topics.

“We need to have some better oversight,” Rudley said, calling the state’s testing policy “a runaway train.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the city would was open to the idea of reducing the number of field tests, which were administered in more than 1,000 schools statewide over a span of eight days. But since the hourlong math and English exams are controlled by the state, the city doesn’t have the authority to outright eliminate any of the tests.

This year, students took two types of trial tests, which ended on Wednesday. Ninety-five city schools also participated in field testing for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states currently creating a test that state officials plan to use in the future. Some of those schools were randomly selected by the state, while others volunteered to participate.

The field tests have sparked criticism before. In 2013, a number of parents opted their students out of the tests, and the no-stakes exams became a campaign issue last year, when then-City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn said she would stop the city’s participation in field testing.

The State Department of Education has long held that the field tests are necessary because it would be too expensive to change the way state tests are produced. Though the state exams for grades 3-8 already include some field test questions, the state’s $32 million contract with Pearson does not allow the state to make more than four versions of the tests, which does not create enough questions to pull from for the future—making standalone field tests necessary.

The State Board of Regents requested additional funding to print more versions of exams, which would mean including more field test questions in standardized tests that could eliminate the standalone tests.

Even if the state legislature approved that funding, 600 New York schools were still selected to participate in field tests for the PARCC exams.

At the rally, James suggested that Pearson might end up getting faulty data back from the field tests. Since students know their results won’t count, James said, they’re less likely to take them seriously.

“They are of no consequence to students, and they are not motivated to do well on the items being tried out,” James said.

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