By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis
Representatives from the American Federation of Teachers attended a shareholder’s meeting in London last week to present testing giant Pearson with a letter protesting a “gag order” they say prevents New York teachers from calling attention to sub-standard testing questions.
But both Pearson and officials from the New York Department of Education say that language limiting discussion of the questions designed to test the Common Core State Standards comes not from Pearson, but from the department itself, in an effort to keep test questions secure and reusable. And that type of language, say testing insiders, is fairly common.
The uproar over New York teachers’ ability to discuss test questions—and highlight those that some say are obtuse or developmentally inappropriate—was sparked by a New York Times Op-Ed written by an elementary school principal who said both her students and her teachers were baffled by some of the common core test questions her students saw on recent state tests, but she was unable to discuss specific problems because of a “gag order” she attributed to Pearson. The company has a five-year, $32 million assessment contract with New York.
Elizabeth Phillips, principal of Public School 321 in Brooklyn, told Education Week that she was not opposed to either assessment or the common core, but objected to a lack of both transparency in testing and the ability to let the general public determine whether test questions were flawed. She and her teachers observed questions that didn’t make sense, where multiple-choice answers aimed at 3rd graders were so similar even the adults couldn’t decide on the correct answers, and others that focused on developmentally inappropriate skills, she said.
“I had teachers in tears after the third day of testing, saying ‘This goes against everything I believe in. I don’t want to teach kids this way,'” Phillips said.
Phillips pointed Education Week to language in the New York administrator’s testing manual, which says educators must not “read, reveal, review, or duplicate the contents of secure test material before, during or after a test administration.”
In the AFT’s April 24 letter to Pearson, union President Randi Weingarten wrote that “by including gag orders in contracts, Pearson is silencing the very stakeholders the company needs to engage with,” and cited this as a threat to Pearson’s “reputation, brand and share price.” She also invoked parental trust issues as one of the downfalls of the recently defunct student-data-management company inBloom.
Pearson’s John Fallon, the company’s chief executive, responded by offering to meet with the AFT, and said he agreed that educators should be able to voice their opinions about tests and that states “should release test questions.”
Stacy Skelly, a spokeswoman for Pearson, said whatever language limiting teachers from discussing test questions “would come from the state department of education, not Pearson.”
A spokesman for the New York State Department of Education agreed. Dennis Tompkins said the language barring teachers from discussing test questions was geared toward test security and protecting test questions. Until 2010, New York consistently released its state test questions on its website and then received criticism that the practice allowed teachers to “teach to the test,” he said. Since then, the state only makes public 25 percent of test questions in an effort to keep questions secure and reusable, Tompkins said. That allows the state to save money on developing new questions from year to year, he said, noting that when a question has to be thrown out because it has gone public, it can cost more than $10,000 per eliminated item.
This is not the first time New York has found itself in the middle of criticism about test questions. In 2012, a student leaked a non-sensical test question that had to do with a pineapple and a hare. The question ignited a firestorm over the quality of test questions and the purpose of such testing.
And it’s also not the first time the AFT has raised objections to common-core assessments. In January, the New York State United Teachers’ board of directors passed a resolution withdrawing its support for the Common Core State Standards. And in February, my colleagues Andrew Ujifusa and Stephen Sawchuk outlined some of the objections the unions have to the common core and the assessments associated with them.
Tompkins said that educators with concerns about test questions have avenues to address those issues and can contact the state department of education to provide feedback. He also said test questions are reviewed each year to see if there is one or more items that seem to continuously give students problems, and that questions also consistently undergo reviews.
Barry Topol, the managing partner for the Danville, Calif-based Assessment Solutions Group, which helps state departments of education through the assessment procurement and management process, said state security measures to prevent educators and students from making test questions public are common. “Internal state education ‘gag orders’ are not that unusual,” he said, and are often issued both to keep questions secure but also to guard against over-reactions and public pressure that can take place when one question, like the pineapple question, are put under the microscope.
For her part, Phillips said she’d rather have New York officials continue to release the questions and instead shorten testing from three days to two days, saving money that way. A spokesman for the AFT said that even if the limiting language didn’t come from Pearson, it should still be scrapped and the company should meet with educators, parents, and stakeholders to address their concerns.
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