If your elementary or middle school child came home frazzled after taking statewide English exams last week, there’s good reason: The questions were a lot tougher than last year.
Some students didn’t complete the tests. A few shed tears. And many will likely see lower marks when their scores come back in a few months.
“It seems that across the board, kids are struggling to finish the tests,” said East Aurora Middle School Principal Mark D. Mambretti. “Even solid performing kids.”
The tests this year – which will continue this week with math – are designed to be harder, with questions that require critical thinking. Reading is no longer just about picking out the right answers from the text. Math questions, even for the youngest test takers in third grade, are wrapped in word problems.
It’s all designed to meet new standards for learning that are being adopted across the country. State officials have been telling school administrators for weeks that they expect to see a drop in the top scores.
“They will be more challenging,” Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. recently told reporters and editors at The Buffalo News. “We expect the number of students who earn 3’s and 4’s to be lower, but we also believe these assessments will give us a more accurate picture of where students are on the trajectory of college and career success.”
The tests are used as a measure of a school’s success but aren’t factored into a student’s grade. However, they now carry more weight than ever for teachers. This is the first year the tests will be used in teacher evaluations.
“Although I’m a supporter of assessments, all of this was a lot very quickly,” said Mark P. Mondanaro, superintendent of Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda schools. “We said that to the state, and they basically said to us, ‘we understand, but the kids can’t wait.’ ”
New York State is one of 45 states that have adopted the Common Core, a set of national educational standards developed by dozens of states to set out goals for the types of skills students should learn in math and English by the end of each grade level.
The state also is among the first to begin testing students based on those concepts, and officials are bracing themselves for a dramatic drop in test scores. In Kentucky, scores fell by more 30 percent when new tests based on the Common Core were rolled out last year.
“The standards are higher. The standards are fewer, and the standards are deeper,” King says in a video for parents. “They focus on developing the kind of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills students need for success in the 21st century.”
On English language arts tests, that means more nonfiction, tougher vocabulary and challenging texts that require children to closely read sections. One question on a sample exam for third graders, for example, included a passage about a gray hare written by Leo Tolstoy and included words such as “threshing-floor” and “caftans.” Sample questions required the students to determine the meaning of nonliteral uses of words such as snow that “glistened like sugar.”
For students taking the tests, that means discerning the mood and tone and making connections between scenes within a story. Students, Mambretti said, can’t just go back into the text and pluck out the obvious answer.
“In one sense, it’s designed to be more like the real world works,” Mambretti said. “Very few times in life does your boss come to you and say, ‘here’s a piece of data and here’s where the data is and I just need you to reiterate it to me.’ Most of the time, your boss comes to you and says, ‘here’s a problem and you need to figure out how to solve it.’ ”
Many schools are still working to align classes with the new standards.
“The Common Core standards are definitely about higher-level thinking,” said Jeanne Tribuzzi, director of English Language Arts at West Seneca Central School District. “It’s just that it’s going to take some time for schools to adjust their instruction to this.”
While state education officials point to the new tests as a way to measure whether students are on the path to college and careers, some question whether the new tests will contribute to student development.
“If you assert that simply by making it harder, I’m making it better, that’s not true,” said Mark J. Garrison, professor of education policy and research at D’Youville College.
Meanwhile, he said, things that attract children to school, like sports, arts and music, are being reduced.
“One of the major critiques of high-stakes testing is that it narrows the curriculum, and it does,” Garrison said. “It narrows the range of subjects, and it narrows the range of exposure within the testing subjects to what’s on the test.”
Aaron Fox, a Williamsville resident whose fifth-grade daughter took the English language arts tests last week, questions whether the tests are positive for children and worries that the pressure on teachers who will be evaluated by the tests is trickling down to students. His daughter, like other students, did not finish sections of the tests in the allotted time last week.
“We spend all year evaluating these kids, throughout the year, through multiple methods and then we basically take all that and throw it out the window for three days each of these subjects and treat it completely different, put all this high pressure on it,” Fox said. “What’s the benefit to the children?”
The tests also have prompted a small but growing number of parents to pull their students out of the exams because of their concerns, and have fueled websites to spread information and to raise questions about their usefulness.
Paul Hashem, interim superintendent of Grand Island Central School District, called the implementation of the new tests, along with teacher evaluations and the Common Core standards, a “recipe that’s going to be continuously tweaked” as school districts and the state work to get it right.
“The bottom line – what New York State is trying to do is keep increasing the graduation rates and ensuring college and career readiness,” Hashem said. “We’re starting it as early as we can, and that’s what the Common Core ultimately will lead to if we do our due diligence.”
So what are parents to do if their child is taking exams this week?
“Tell your kid to take a deep breath,” Mambretti said. “Do what they do. Show what they know. They’re going to go get what they get. Let it be an accurate reflection of what they do, but realize that it’s part of a much, much, much larger picture in terms of who they are and what they know and what their worth and value is as a person and as a student.”