New York is the first state to “align” their standardized testing program to what they believe to be the intent of the Common Core State Standards. Their 2013 test, designed by Pearson, was administered over three days in mid-April to grades 3-8.

Within the first two days of testing stories emerged that students were in sessions crying, leaving rooms ill, and not finishing. Teachers complained of confusing questions and overly challenging passages that did not match the grade for which they were created. In one response, Merryl Tisch, the State Board of Regents Chancellor who oversaw the creation of NYS’s testing program, said she visited schools during testing and reported that she only saw “one” student crying and believes that children not being able to finish the test is a “healthy problem.”

The conversation: What we gain and what we lose with current testing

I am not [yet] suggesting all of this testing is terrible, because honestly I do not know. What we have gained since NCLB is that often ignored groups are getting more of the attention they deserve; for instance I see a national increase in concern for the education of students with IEP and English Language Learners.

However, I also see another side that has grown in recent years and as an educator feels absolutely inexcusable to me. Here I post the reflection of one New York State educator (with their permission and request to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) about a day of proctoring the test:

A view from the testing trenches:

I spent three hours yesterday and today with a group of special education 8th grade students who were taking the new Common Core English Language Arts exam. All of the students I proctored have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and all of them took the test very seriously. They were well trained by their English language arts teachers, their special education teacher and their reading teacher, and they all worked very hard. They underlined and highlighted reading passages, they referred back to them as they were struggling with the questions, they re-read to gain better understanding, and they (with the most polite attitudes possible) raised their hands with questions. As I came over to them, they often whispered, “What does this mean?” pointing to a difficult word in one of the questions. I whispered back, as proctors must, “I cannot tell you; just do your best.” They raised their hands again, and when I went to them, they whispered, “This is hard!” I nodded and said, “Do your best.”

I spent three hours yesterday and today with children who struggled valiantly to read what they could not understand, to bring everything they could to figuring out what they were being asked and to answer correctly. They applied elimination strategies to multiple-choice questions, dutifully trying to cross out the incorrect answer choices in order to narrow down the correct ones. They worked to plan answers to essays. They worked without ceasing. Aside from occasionally stretching, they did not take their eyes from their tests. Three hours each day, twice the amount of time given to students in general education classrooms, they worked. Three hours, when some of them needed twice that again. Three hours, when for some, thirty would not have been enough.

Yesterday, after the first three-hour session, two students had filled in only half of the answers; they had to randomly guess at the rest of them. “This is not fair!” they protested. Today, after the second three-hour session, where they were not even able to get to some of the writing tasks, they cried. Proud, hardworking young men, student athletes with tears rolling down their cheeks because they had not been able to finish. Boys who have known how difficult school can be from the very start, boys who have always had to work harder and longer than everyone else just to receive marginal grades, boys who have had to give up their summers to school sessions because their test scores are not deemed sufficient, boys who know what it is to be intellectually impaired and to try their hardest despite their difficulties; these boys cried.

I consoled them as well as I could. I promised them that doing their best was something to be proud of. I gave them time to compose themselves before they returned to class after three hours of giving everything they had to a task they could not complete. I told them I would call home to let their parents know that they worked as hard as they could.

When I left them in their classrooms, I talked to other teachers and learned that a student threw up, another child banged his head against the wall, and many other students across the grades could not finish their tests within the time allotted.

I thought about the third day of testing to take place tomorrow, another three hours of a test that these students cannot read and understand. I also thought about these boys and their small heroic acts of tackling tests so far above their ability that to even finish them became impossible, and I cried.

What are we teaching these children, and why?

My question, educators, is should this be valuable data as well? Should the reactions, feelings, self-perceptions of children who from eight years old and on face a battery of tests each year — ones that each year tell them what they probably already believe about their relationship to reading, math, science or social studies — be included in assessment reports? In evaluating this current system? What would this data comparison show?

Is all data bad data, no. As a profession do we want all children to succeed, yes. Are we willing to fight for these improvements at the expense of children we claim to being helping? That I just simply cannot agree to.

Christopher Lehman (@iChrisLehman) is an author, speaker and senior staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. He is author of several books for educators including “Energize Research Reading and Writing, and can be found at ChristopherLehman.com.

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