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State-Ordered English Exam Included 'Terrible' Questions, Teachers Complain

By Amy Zimmer | April 4, 2014 12:12pm | Updated on April 4, 2014 2:56pm
 P.S. 321 teachers want testing giant Pearson to make the "terrible" English exam public.
P.S. 321 Protest of Pearson Standardized Tests
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PARK SLOPE — Fourth-grader Samantha Imhoff was stumped when she read one of the poems on this week’s standardized English exam and found a word she had never seen before.

When she asked her teacher at Park Slope’s P.S. 321 about the word — which the 9-year-old can no longer remember and the teacher is barred from disclosing — she discovered to her surprise that it wasn't even a real word.

“Some of the questions were easy but some of the questions didn’t make any sense,” Samantha said of the fourth grade standardized English exam prepared by testing giant Pearson.

Parents, teachers and staff at P.S. 321 have become the latest in a citywide battle over controversial state-ordered standardized tests that critics say contain age-inappropriate content and poorly-explained multiple-choice questions that seem to have no one right answer.

But teachers, principals and any other school staff who want to speak publicly about the specific errors on the test risk being fired as a result — prompting hundreds of students, parents and educators to gather Friday morning in front of the Seventh Avenue school to demand Pearson make the statewide test public.

“We need to demand the test be public after the scoring period. That was the case for many years,” said principal Elizabeth Phillips, who oversees the elementary school widely considered to be one of the best in the city.

Phillips called for “transparency” and added that her teachers and administration felt “truly devastated” by the “terrible test” and “how little it will tell us about our students.”

According to educators, the reason teachers and staff can't make the exams public after scoring is because Pearson embedded a selection of field-test questions that don’t count toward a student’s score on that exam, but could be used by the company in future exams.

The New York State Education Department, not Pearson, established the policy to keep the test confidential, a Pearson spokeswoman said. The education department did not immediately respond for comment.

Fourth-grade P.S. 321 teacher Alex Messer said some teachers were nearly in tears after the test.

“In some cases, adults — administrators, teachers who have been valedictorians or graduated magna cum laude — couldn’t agree on the answers,” he said.

The controversial third-grade test had a reading passage about a woman threatening to divorce her husband if he didn’t share a secret, according to the New York Times.

While some parents in the city have chosen to opt out of the testing entirely, fewer than 20 students at P.S. 321 opted out of taking the test, officials said, unlike nearby schools like the Brooklyn New School, where more than two-thirds declined to sit for the exams.

Several P.S. 321 parents said they didn’t feel comfortable having their kids skip the test since it’s competitive to get into their district’s middle schools and the fourth-grade exam results are critical to the admissions process.

Fifth-grader Isabelle Leguelinel didn’t think the exam was as difficult as last year, but she said there was one passage she had to reread five times to figure out an answer — which was her “best guess” in the end.

“It was really hard and stressful. Some of the questions weren’t understandable,” the 10-year-old said.

Her father, Franck Leguelinel, wanted to see the test for himself.

“The issue for me is if they want us to support the tests, they should make it public,” he said. “Otherwise it seems like they have something to hide.”