The No-Panic Guide to NY State ELA and Math Test Prep

Last week NYC Department of Education Chancellor, Dennis Walcott, hosted a live webinar to discuss changes to the Common Core State Standards and the New York State ELA and Math Assessments in 2013. The Chancellor stated that the tests have been reformulated and will be quite a bit harder this year because they will assess children on the new Common Core material. Math questions will have multiple parts and require more than one function. For example, students may have a word problem where they first need to add and then multiply in order to solve it. The tests are also moving away from multiple choice questions and within a few years will be completely essay based

My son's fourth grade teacher said that the math segment of the predictive test they took in January was so hard that a few students literally cried. Perhaps in response, it seems their class has done almost nothing except test prep for the past several weeks.

During the Chancellor's webinar, one parent asked why the DOE was putting the Common Core material in the tests this year—why not wait a full year before assessing them on the brand-new material? The Chancellor replied, "We cannot wait to raise our standards," illustrating that his team sees making the tests harder as raising the standard, rather than letting classroom instruction be the measure. I suspect most educators don't consider months of test prep as raising the standards of education. Even some who originally lauded the Common Core are now turning a more skeptical eye toward the assessment-based educational reform.

But as much as we may hate the high-stakes nature of the New York State Assessments, kids have to take them. So my goal here is to help parents navigate the situation our children are facing today. We can call for policy change, but in the meantime, our kids are dealing with these new tests now. As parents, we need to advocate for our children while staying cool and not increasing their anxiety over the tests.

As a mom who's been around the block a few times, many parents have asked me where I stand on test prep for the NYS ELA and Math Assessments. It's tricky because, like everything having to do with kids, the answer really depends on the specific child. I would like to say that test prep shouldn't be necessary. If students are doing well in school and have mastered the material, they should do well on the test. It should be a tool to help parents and teachers see where children are struggling so they can help them improve their classroom work, which will then lead to better test scores. However, it's not always that simple.

Kids test differently, just as they learn differently. Some children may not perform as well on tests as they do in the classroom because they have anxiety about being timed or the format of the test impedes their performance. Parents should use the third grade test as a true assessment. The scores don't count toward middle school applications or anything else that will impact the student (assuming the child doesn't fail), so there's no reason to prep for it. Schools may do some test prep with students to familiarize them with the test format, but parents should take the attitude that this is a test to grade the school, not the child, and try to help kids stay relaxed.

Once you get your third grade test scores back, in September of fourth grade, you can start to panic (just kidding). Use the third grade ELA and Math Assessment to see where students didn't do well. Does their performance in each area match their classroom performance? If the test scores don't seem to correlate, then it's time to try to figure out why. Students that have specific issues taking tests may be able to receive special accommodations, like extra time, that will help their test performance and better indicate their abilities.

Look closely at the results of the third grade test to see where your child's test scores should be higher. Once you identify where your child can use extra help, work with the teachers to figure out how to help your kid improve in those areas. I have found that teachers will not recommend outside tutors, so if you feel like your child needs additional help beyond school, you may want to find a private tutor or academic enrichment program.

Ideally, that would be that—we would use the tests as they should be used, to help assess students in class performance and identify areas where they need additional support—but the New York State ELA and Math Assessments are also used for some middle school placements and grade level promotions.

Is this when we freak out? The good news is that different middle schools use different criteria for admissions. There are excellent schools that use lottery systems or have their own assessments, so a bad performance on the NYS ELA and Math Assessments is not the end of the world. The fourth grade NY State tests may feel like a one shot deal, but if a good student has a bad day or doesn't test well in general, there are other alternatives.

Another reason to breathe a sigh of relief is that the DOE acknowledges that the tests are going to be harder this year, and the scores will be viewed with that in mind. Middle schools that use the fourth grade tests to screen for admissions will not use a cut-off score, but rather take the highest scores. And students who score a one will not automatically be held back as has been the policy in the past.

So don't panic. Try to see the assessments as they should be seen, as a tool for assessing how your child is mastering the classroom material. Help reassure your child that the tests will be harder this year, but they will be tougher for all children; that they are meant to be challenging and it doesn't reflect on them. Be smart and proactive, and make sure that your kids are getting the support they need in any areas where they may be struggling—so that they can excel in the classroom... and on the tests that are meant to assess their learning.

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