State Tests Proved Difficult; Students Struggled to Finish

4:06 PM, May 3, 2013   |    comments
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By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau

ALBANY, NY-- Fewer parents decided to "opt-out" their children from last month's new state tests than superintendents had expected, and schools' concerns shifted to students' difficulty finishing the exams within the allotted time.

Third through eighth graders took assessments based on a new, more challenging curriculum, called the Common Core, in mid-April. Controversy surrounded the language arts and mathematics exams, with schools arguing they didn't have the time or materials to prepare students and parents lamenting what they perceived as too many tests.

The state Education Department has maintained that switching to the new tests was necessary to combat New York's mediocre graduation rates and even less impressive statistics showing college and career preparedness.

Particularly with the language arts tests, where students were required to answer questions based on reading passages, even high-achieving kids struggled to finish on time, school groups and some parents said.

"There is a concern about what are the implications of so many kids being unable to complete the test?" said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council for School Superintendents. "What does that indicate about how the tests was constructed, how much time was provided? Maybe the amount of time was not appropriate given the difficulty of the test."

His group polled district leaders during the tests and found many concerned about the time it took to complete the tests. Some students needed more time, while others were exhausted by the days of testing.

Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, said he heard the same complaints from teachers.

"There was unquestionably not enough time for students to deal with the material. The directions were lengthy," the union leader said. "The total number of hours dedicated to the testing was exorbitant for certain grade levels."

Some of schools' and parents' negative responses relate directly to the tests' level of difficulty, State Education Commissioner John King said on an Albany public radio show Tuesday.

They're more challenging -- and that's a good thing, he argued.

"The reading passages were harder to ensure that students get where they need to be with college and career readiness," King said on "The Capitol Pressroom." "The math questions required them to think more deeply to show their ability to apply their math knowledge to challenging problems."

Some parents had planned to keep their children home on test days -- there were six tests between April 16 and 26 -- and others sent their kids to school prepared to refuse the tests. But the buzz surrounding the "opt-out" movement mostly fell flat, Lowry said.

"We've had quite a few superintendents say there were fewer than anticipated, and that doesn't surprise me," Lowry said, "because most people follow the rules, whether they agree with the rules or not."

Kelly Chiarella, whose son is in seventh grade in Yonkers, said there was at least one day when he struggled to finish.

Students' nerves were raw on tests days, she said.

"I can't tell you how many parents told me 'my kid was crying on the way to school,' how many kids are praying on the way to school, getting sick," she said. "I'm hearing more test anxiety than I have ever seen before."

Asia Bonacci's daughter, a third grader at an Ithaca elementary school, took her first state exams last month. Bonacci said her daughter breezed through the math sections but struggled more with the reading.

"She definitely seemed more tired and kind of cranky those two weeks," Bonacci said of her daughter. "It's probably the first time she and all of her classmates have been expected to sit and do one thing for over an hour of time. They're still pretty little; they're just 8 and 9 years old."

Lisa Christoffel of Greece, Monroe County, was pleasantly surprised at how her seventh-grade son handled the tests.

She said he easily finished with time to check his answers.

"He can be overly optimistic," she said, "but I believe that if he thought it was easy, he's certainly going to be getting a halfway decent grade."

The tests scores are expected this summer.

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