Saturday, May 4, 2013

Psst...Can You Keep a Secret?

In the last three weeks, I have been forced to sign two highly intimidating confidentiality agreements. These agreements have been a pre-requisite to my responsibilities at my job. Although I have not wanted to, I have had to pledge that I would not share any of the content I was presented in my tasks, or even speak about the tasks I had been asked to complete. I essentially agreed that once the task was complete I would metaphorically erase all knowledge of the experience to protect the integrity of the task. In fact, by even just publicly mentioning that I have signed these agreements I have probably already broken them, and could be held legally liable for my actions. You’re probably thinking that I have some high level government job, or that I work in a health care field where I am entrusted with protecting the confidentiality of my patients, but that is not the case.

I am a public school teacher who was recently forced to administer and score the New York State Common Core exams for 2013.       

By now you’ve probably seen the myriad articles criticizing this year’s high-stakes standardized testing. You’ve probably read about the problems associated with the test: the lengthy reading passages about arcane topics, the grammatical errors within the readings and the questions, the convoluted multiple choice questions with more than one reasonable answer, the lack of adequate time for students to complete the tasks they were given. 

Maybe you’ve heard about the anxiety and health concerns brought out by the high-stakes testing. Record numbers of school nurses have reported symptoms of dehydration during state testing, since schools will not let kids have water during their 90 minutes of testing for fear of accidental destruction of a test. There are reports of kids crying, and vomiting during the test. In fact, some states have had to formalize their official policy for what to do when a child vomits on the test. In my school we even had a student who had such a severe panic attack they had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. 

The criticism is not just anecdotal. Critical articles seem daily fare for the education sections of news outlets. The criticisms started before the tests had even been administered, and have not slowed since (Parents, teachers, and students have all spoken out. These are just a sampling of the responses that have been published in the past three weeks). And the problems are not limited to New York. In Indiana, Oklahoma, and Minnesota criticism of the actual test is being overshadowed by the reports of critical computer problems that made taking the exams impossible.

Any one of these complaints is reason enough to take a close look at our current obsession with standardized testing, but I want focus on the idea of the secrecy involved in the entire testing process. New York has signed on to a 5 year contract with Pearson Education, a contract that has cost the state $32 million dollars. One of the conditions of this contract is the these exams be "secure tests". The testmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that not a single word of these exams be leaked to the public. The tests are kept under lock and key until 1 hour before administration, teachers and test administers sign confidentiality agreements at every turn, and students as young as 8 years old sit through daily readings of a list of the contraband electronic devices they must surrender during the test. The concern over the security of these tests does not seem to relate to cheating, if it did wouldn't there be some demand that students be seated in rows, or that tests be administered in gymnasiums (like the SAT or other college entrance exams)? As it stands, students are still allowed to test in their classrooms or other "well-lit, well-ventilated areas", and test administers are simply given a charge to monitor for and report potential cheating to their principals. No, we are not trying to secure the student outcomes, we are trying to secure the actual test. We are not protecting student interests, we are protecting Pearson's interests.

Creating a rigorous, reliable, high-stakes exam that combines multiple stand alone and paired reading passages of authentic texts, multiple choice questions, short writing questions, and text based essays is no easy feat. First there's the actual test creation, followed by "field-testing" of exam questions to determine how the plan will fly when put in front of live children, and then the creation of scoring materials that use actual student responses to create a complex series of "anchors" so that live scorers can "align their thinking" and provide reliable scores. Each test presented to students in New York this year contained a number of actual assessment questions as well as built in "field test" questions, so in essence while Pearson was creating a high-stakes testing environment for the assessment of students and their teachers (as per the new APPR requirements that link student scores to teacher outcomes) they were also creating a lab where students were serving as guinea pigs for future tests. Only Pearson knows which questions were "field test" questions and which were actual questions. Based on the quality of what was put in front of students this year, teachers can only hope that about half of the questions will be thrown out as failed field test questions, but we'll never know, and thanks to our confidentiality agreements, we can't even talk about those questions.
Providing specific feedback on any reading sample or question, even for the purpose of helping to create a better exam in the future is in breach of the agreement.

I usually try to keep my cynicism in check, but in this case there is something suspect in this secrecy. To pilot an entirely new plan, or to "cross a bridge while we are still building it" as one key figure in ed reform has said, while simultaneously eschewing feedback on the process, product and long-term implications, feels disingenuous to the goal of free-thought and public education. Instead we have a system where protecting the interests of a corporation is trumping the protection of the interests of an entire generation of children. And that makes me tremendously uncomfortable.

Pearson has a lot riding on the success of these exams, $32 million in New York alone. And the response to this first attempt is lackluster. We can only hope that next year's plan fixes some of the problems that were brought out this year. But if it doesn't, it won't matter, since we still probably won't be able to talk about it.