Tag Archives: testing

What Happens When You Let Kids Shine?

The tests are in our rearview mirror, and with less than one month left in the school year, it’s time for kids to show what they really can do.

This week, my students completed their mural of New York City landmarks. Almost universally, my colleagues loved it and wanted to know who drew it! I gave physical parameters and did some very basic sketching. The kids did the rest.

They were invested from the beginning to the end and the product shows the fruits of their motivation. Who knew “these kids” could do it? Well, I did. HA.

When the test scores come in, they won’t be much. When the report cards are written, they won’t be much. A glance at the reading levels show that everyone is below grade level.

Blah, blah, blah.

The point? Give kids an opportunity to shine and, you know what?

They will.

Look what happens when we let kids shine.



Finding Meaning Through Projects and Themes

One of the unexpected pleasures of emerging from testing season with two months of time left is the fact that I’ve been encouraged to keep kids motivated through project-based learning.

What a breath of intoxicatingly fresh air. We know that creativity has less and less of a place in our elementary schools. The kids wear this knowledge on their sad little faces as they flop test prep packets onto the desk and fall asleep over highlighted pages of nothingness.

Our current literacy unit involves research. There are four groups in my class and each is responsible for a New York City landmark of their choice. I have three goals for the unit: 1) have students direct their own learning about the landmarks; 2) give them transferable skills; 3) keep them engaged and having fun.

So, while kids are doing research, they are also creating a mural. First, everyone in the class sketched their landmark, paying close attention to details. On a tri-fold board, I sketched general parameters for each image. Then, they each drew their picture on the board, creating a bit of a mosaic of New York City. Students used rulers and measurements to maintain neatness. They are also picking up some art skills as they mix the paints to create desired colors, learn effective ways to use a brush and paint small areas, and visualize how items must overlap in order to look the right way. Maybe most importantly, the mural involves a good amount of group work and cooperation that, for the moment, is more effective in art than in research.

Once the mural is finished, I will use it to extend our math unit, which is focused on multiplication and division. As an example, students will be asked to compute the number of windows in the Empire State Building on our mural (the windows are arrays, which is a current focus). They’ll be able to measure different elements on the mural and compute areas and perimeters. I’ll figure out a way to have them review fractions through the mural, too.

Until the mural is complete and ready for us to use it for math, we are working on multiplication and division in context, tying them to, what else, New York City? Word problems don’t say “Sally shared 21 cookies with 7 friends. How many did each friend get?” but they do say, “21 tourists got into 7 taxis. How many tourists got into each taxi?” They are motivated by the New York-centric theme and, if I do say so myself, I am seeing a nice output on their parts.

Given the license to go with projects, you better believe I’m going to drive with it. Students are getting their kicks and their concepts, and it’s phenomenal.

Fuzzy Math

Yesterday, two-thirds of the students in my school began taking the NYS English proficiency standardized exam. It was another chance for my students to try their damnedest to do their best, regardless of their inability to read above a certain level or keep pace with an insanely fast recording (which they were required to listen to for the whole test). In other words: they’d have done swimmingly in any other format.

Anyway, even before the test started, there was angst and anger. One of my students was nearly despondent to learn there was yet another three-day test to take (as third graders have already completed three days of ELA and three of math).

He reasoned thusly: “We already took 6 tests and now you’re telling me we have to take 9 tests? I don’t like taking tests. This is not fair.”

The best I could do was empathize and offer a sharpened pencil as a conciliatory move. Why would I argue with a 9-year old?

Field Tests Should Be Taken Out in a Field and…

I heard an enticing nugget today. After they finish the English proficiency exams (which are three days this week), the lucky little kiddies who attend elementary school in NYC still can’t move their desks out of rows or put down their number 2 pencils. Field tests are next.

A field test sounds like something scientific, educational, and even fun. “I wonder if this rocket I built will actually launch. I’ll take it to a field and test it.” “I wonder if this seed can grow in different types of soil. I’ll plant it in a field and test it.” “I wonder what the average temperature is here over 60 days. I’ll use a thermometer in the field and test it.”

In reality, though, there’s nothing fun or educational about a field test. A field test is much less meaningful than The Test. It is administered for the purpose of seeing what questions work on kids and what questions don’t. Field tests are hardly scientific. After all, what kid will truly put forth his best effort on another standardized test with a month to go, especially knowing The Test is over?

And why is it necessary to subject the kids to more of the same? My kids have a mural and a scrapbook to complete by the end of the year, but precious time will be lost to a field test.

Field tests serve one purpose, far as I can tell: to frustrate the kids. On the ELA and math tests, the questions colleagues and I figured were field questions were concepts we hadn’t yet taught and/or were significantly above grade level. Therefore, try  though they might have to answer them the best they could, kids were, invariably, agitated by searching their brains for an answer their brains didn’t have.

Why must we continue to sacrifice valuable educational time to serve the demands of non-educators who aren’t adding anything worthwhile to the causes we champion? It’s another example of school gone bad. As always, the main victims are the children.

A Letter Worth Reading and Sharing

The Answer Sheet is one of my go to spots for release from the education reform insanity. Valerie Strauss features a lot of sensical posts there, and I urge you to read it.

I am cross-posting a brilliant letter she shared today, written by a NY principal to State Education Commissioner John King, in which a series of exceptionally passionate points are made against the recent math test taken in grades 3 through 5. Each concern was one felt at my school, and no doubt, around the city and state.

Dear Commissioner King,

I implore you to initiate a thorough review of this year’s NYS Math Assessments in grades three through five. I have been an elementary principal for twelve years, and are quite honestly horrified by the content, format, language and presentation of this year’s exams. In addition, the scoring and reporting procedures and insistence that test items remain permanently undisclosed to the public suggest that the process is both unreliable and artificial.

The poor design of this year’s NY Math Assessments demonstrates complete disregard for the cognitive and emotional development of elementary children. Specifically, third, fourth and fifth grade test booklets have contained:

*Unfamiliar, untaught material

*Deliberately misleading questions & answer choices

*Ambiguous, poorly worded questions & answer choices

*Inconsistent directions

*Misplaced answer lines

*Omitted directional cues

*Multiple answers that could be correct

*Inappropriately sized work spaces

*Extended multiple steps (as many as 5 or 6) in single problems

*Incomplete/missing information

*Reading levels that are above grade


Each of these items has significantly impacted student performance on these tests. They have caused confusion, anxiety, miscalculations, distraction, misuse of time, and fatigue. Compounding these factors is the inordinate length of these exams, which is beyond the stamina and attention span of eight to ten year olds.

The embedded field test questions on this year’s NYS Assessments have had a particularly negative impact on the performance of our students. As the requirements for next year under the Common Core State Standards are very different from the expectations for this year, I assume that all of the unfamiliar topics are field test questions. These questions (which are very identifiable to adults familiar with the differences between current standards and the CCSS) are based on material to which children have had no exposure, thus rendering them useless as field test items. “Common Core questions” accounted for approximately 12% of the third grade, 8% of the fourth grade, and nearly 17% of the fifth grade questions. It is inconceivable as to why such a large portion of the tests should have been devoted to questions that obviously can provide no helpful information, since the topics are not currently required in NYS curriculum. (If these were not field test questions, then the test design poses an even greater problem, as the developers were not adequately familiar with current NYS Standards.) These questions caused additional anxiety for students who were already functioning under stressful conditions. Children, at all grades and ability levels, spend excessive amounts of time on these questions and became confused and agitated by their inability to answer them. Some of our brightest children reported to teachers after each day of the test that the questions made them feel stupid.

At the other end of the spectrum, the tests have been an emotional and physical assault on our special needs students and English language learners. Many of these children generally experience greater success in mathematics than reading, as they are knowledgeable and confident regarding the content and concepts. The reading levels, vocabulary and language structures made it impossible for them to access the tests and demonstrate their mathematical knowledge. In room after room, children could be seen twenty minutes into the test with their heads on their desks or staring blankly into space. When teachers checked on them, they simply said, “It’s too confusing,” or “I can’t do this,” and hopelessly gave up. Nearly half of my special education students cried at some point during these exams. It is unacceptable for eight, nine and ten year olds to be subjected to this kind of torment.

What is even more detrimental is that neither these children — nor their parents or teachers — will ever have access to their test booklets in order to understand how or why the child arrived at an incorrect answer. No benefit is extended to the child from all of these hours of testing if there is no thoughtful, comprehensive feedback. Likewise, I am unable to provide you and your department with clarification and examples regarding my initial list of concerns, as I am not permitted to speak about the content of the exams, or retain a test booklet for commentary. I find it disingenuous that you want teachers and principals to receive feedback, but want none yourself. It would seem that those of us who have spent our lives doing this work would have much insight to offer you.

I would hope that, as Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, you would aspire to an assessment system of which you can be proud. This is not that system. If you were to sit down and take each of these exams, I think you would be embarrassed that your department subjected children to them. I would expect that you, too, would see the flaws in these tests and want better for the students of New York State. This is not a testing system that should be used to evaluate students’ abilities, and certainly not a system that can determine teacher effectiveness.

I thank you for your careful consideration of my concerns, and would be happy to clarify them for you or answer any questions that you might have. Please do not hesitate to contact me.


Sharon Emick Fougner



Pc: Members of Board of Regents, NYSED

The Test is Over: Is the School Year, Too?

Actual words spoken by a third grader in my class on Monday as we began math:

“We don’t need to do math anymore. The test is over.”

Let’s take a step back and realize what this means. A 9-year old already has it in his mind that the only point of school is to take a test. Therefore, all learning and work that occurs in school can only be important if it comes before a test and/or appears on a test. That means that school ends when the tests end, and now, with over 30 days left, I am no longer a teacher, but a babysitter.

I am struggling at present to find any more damning indictment of the testing fervor that, with impossibly strong hands has choked the life out of education for an entire generation and is methodically killing off the joys of learning from more and more kids’ lives each day. From day one of the school year, kids are ingrained to believe that nothing matters more than the test.

With much math still to cover, the challenge now is to motivate the kids to do it by keeping it interesting. When working through organized list word problems today, we started by figuring out all the possible orders in which one could use the playground. The kids also found spontaneous joy in noticing – of their own volition – multiplication arrays around the room.

I find myself saying nearly everyday, “This isn’t going to be on a test, but it’s an example of how we use math every single day!” It works for some kids, but there are some who just can’t distance themselves from their rigid belief that nothing matters except for the test.

Another example of every child being left behind.

Brain Cookies

Kids psych themselves out so much the day of The Test that, much more than being a proctor or facilitator of knowledge, the teacher that day becomes a psychologist, too.

Part of the test-taking game is outsmarting the kids – making them feel it’s not such a big deal and that you have all the tricks to help them be successful.

So this morning, I’ll introduce this class to one of my great tricks: brain cookies.

Did you know peppermint gives the brain a boost? It does, and if you don’t believe me, it’s all over the internet (legitimately!)

Brain cookies are simple to make. Use any sugar cookie recipe and plop a peppermint candy on top before you bake it! Voila! A bite size brain boost for your students!

I’ll have my kids sniff them tomorrow morning and then let them eat them before the test. With the brain boost from the peppermint, they’ll feel more confident and ready to tackle The Test. Ain’t that sweet?

Brain cookies: proven to give kids a psychological advantage on The Test.

Sometimes Testing is Funny!

Quick story that, in the middle of testing season, made me chuckle…

Today my kids copied into their agenda: Math test Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

They were all copying when one kid came over and showed me her agenda. She said, “Mr. Ray, is it okay if I just write it like this?”

I looked.

She had written: Math Test WTF.

“Sure,” I said. “That works!”

So, How’d Your Kids Do?

“How did your kids do?” and “What did you think?” were the questions on everyone’s lips this week, replacing the far more pleasant and important, “How are you?” and “What’s new?”

I digress.

As my colleagues and I spilled into the halls in the hours following the conclusion of each session of the three-day 4-6+ hours ELA test, everyone was eager to share their opinions (few of which were favorable).

On one point we could all agree: The kids did their best. Confronted with what many considered inappropriately challenging passages and ambiguous, misleading, culturally-biased questions, the kids tried to make sense of it all and tried to make the most of their lot.

For my students’ part, I am happy to report that no one broke down over the pressure that could have crushed them if they let it. Some kids finished quickly and put their heads down for 90 minutes. Others took most of the time afforded them. My student on the lowest reading level dutifully fought through the texts 10 or more levels above her current reading level and answered each question. Those who couldn’t comprehend certain questions accepted that they had to do their very best on their own and they put down responses nonetheless.

So, how’d my kids do? When the grades come in, I suspect they won’t be exceptional. But there is a certain amount of pride to be taken – both by them and me – in knowing that no one gave up. I have to applaud them for that. What more can I ask for?


Dear Students: On the Eve of Your First Test

Dear students,

Today, tomorrow, and Thursday, I will try to treat the day like I would any other. Only thing is, despite my attempts at geniality and mirth, you’ll probably notice the heavy and dark curtain of The Test draped on the walls of every classroom and evident in the halls of every floor.

So, it is likely that you will enter into a state of nervousness, even self-doubt, both of which will be exacerbated – depending on who you are – by the horror that stirs when you’re confronted, on your own, with a booklet of passages that masquerades as meaningful, enjoyable reading. (In your mind, you’ll try to reconcile why such a fun activity has to be hijacked and turned into such an arduous one.)

I know I’ll probably see your faces turn various shades of green. Your lips might utter statements such as, “This is too hard,” or “I’m not going to do this.” You might say you’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re bored, you’re hot – anything to get yourself out of the unenviable position of having your status as English Language Learners with disabilities be used against you in a poorly-conceived plan to make you “proficient.”

You don’t need a test to tell you if you’re “proficient.” Are you doing your work every day? Hey, you’re proficient! Are you prepared and ready to try every day? Guess what? You’re proficient! Do you give your best effort all, or even just most of the time? Well then, you’re proficient!

Some of you asked me if this test is important. That all depends on what your priorities and values are. If you, like me, value a positive, can-do attitude and realize that you’ve improved in all subjects, then you already know what’s important. It’s like I’ve told you and your parents many times before: it matters that you are improving. No test score will give us the full picture of your growth or abilities.

This morning, you’ll find some items on your desk that I hope help you through day one of The Test. Of course, there will be a pencil (duh, how else can you bubble?). I’ll leave a highlighter, as well, since I know that helps a little when reading those big bad passage article stories. And I’ll leave a Rice Krispies Treat with a little note attached, because I promised you a snack and everyone is probably going to need a pick-me-up this morning.

Listen when I talk. You’ll probably find that I won’t say, “Good luck” nearly as much as I’ll say, “Do your best!”

Yesterday, with the realization that the desks would stay in rows overnight and you would enter this morning into what was once your classroom (now a test room), you stared straight into the terrifying eyes of The Test, trembling in fear as it scowled at you from a hundred feet high. Many of you wondered if it would swallow you whole and destroy you.

Do not be distressed, dear students. You can slay that scary monster just by doing what I’ve been stressing all year: your very best.