The NYS ELA Exam: What’s Working? What’s Not?

It’s been a week since New York State students in grades three through eight took their English Language Arts exams. As the dust settles and the tests get scored, it becomes more and more evident to me — and I venture to safely say for many other educators — that this standardized test has become irrelevant. Irrelevant you ask? Yes, you heard me — irrelevant.

ELA teachers spend significant time teaching our students the traits of effective writing. We spend tireless hours engaging our students in the reading and discussion of challenging texts and their deeper meaning. We hold students to a standard to which the currently-prescribed standards pale. Yet this one test produced by the State’s chosen vendor (Questar) is severely flawed and holds entirely too much weight. The scores are so skewed and out of alignment with the reality of what real writing entails that, in the spirit of justice and fairness, it should either be completely revamped by teachers or eliminated. Anything short of those two options is business as usual and the casualties of this educational warfare are the students.

I’ve been teaching, proctoring, and/or scoring the NYS ELA exam since 2010. I consider myself to be very well-versed in the components of the exam, particularly how it has changed over the years — and there have been many changes. Yet I can honestly say that for every positive change that’s been made to the test, there are other changes made that impact the students taking the exam negatively.

According to Chalkbeat in an article about the Tennessee state tests, “[i]n response to concerns about the length of the tests, the state cut English and math tests to two days each this year, dropping one testing day from each subject.” This sounds good in theory. NYS, in similar adaptations, now allows unlimited time to complete the test (which in my opinion is damaging and unrealistic — when do we ever have as much time as we want to complete an assessment?). The first day is all multiple choice questions based on the content of 7-8 reading passages and the second day is all writing:  short-constructed responses and extended responses/essays.

My students simply didn’t have the stamina to read 7-8 new passages and write about them for hours on end. It felt crammed and by the third or fourth passage and writing combo, many students were becoming frazzled and fizzled out.

There was also a shift in the types of passages students were given to read. Since the Common Core began rolling out in 2010, there’s been a push towards reading more informational, non-fiction texts; however, for the first time in approximately three or four years, some middle school grade exams were more heavy on literary passages and the students and teachers were blindsided.

The test is constantly changing. The components are elusive. For the past few years, the scores haven’t been tied to teacher evaluations. That moratorium ends in 2019. What changes will the powers-that-be make then? The constant switch-a-roo is frustrating and I’m a teacher who sees some value in standardized testing as one measure of student learning. But this? The ever-changing, State-prescribed bar (in terms of scoring the exam) doesn’t accurately measure what students know or don’t know.

I personally would love to see the test-creators bring back the listening portion of the exam. I think less passages is a better route to take. More current classroom teachers need to be involved in the integral test-making process from start to finish. The turn-around time for the dissemination of test scores needs to be more rapid. The barrage of changes to the test each year needs to be relaxed. I could go on and on.

I am becoming more and more dismayed by the relevance of the NYS ELA exam. In the solutions-oriented spirit in which I’m committed to functioning in all areas of my life, I welcome the opportunity to lend what I’ve observed over the past eight years of teaching ELA, coupled with administering, proctoring, and scoring the exam to the test creation process, to help improve this standardized test — once and for all.

What do you think?

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