This is a powerful letter from a teacher in New York City who realized that the test mania has grown out of control and must be reigned in. Although, as she puts it, she is not a risk taker, she concluded that she had to speak out. This is her letter:
To the Parents of New York City Public School Children:
I must preface this letter by stating that I am not a risk taker. I have played by the rules my entire life and prefer it that way. Follow directions, work hard, get rewarded. But what do you do when you feel like you are playing fair and square against an opponent who isn’t? I’ve been a teacher in the New York City Public School System for 10 years. I’ve watched the emphasis on, and stakes attached to, standardized testing in New York State increase each year, while simultaneously I’ve witnessed the tests becoming longer and more challenging. And yet each spring teachers are expected to proctor these tests without contest or debate. I can no longer do that. It is my time to speak up, on behalf of the students and teachers of New York.
Many proponents of testing argue that these state assessments allow schools to follow students’ progress and watch how they are growing each year. The New York State Department of Education claims that it has “embarked on a comprehensive initiative to ensure that schools prepare students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and their careers.” Part of this initiative, is testing students in grades 3-8 each year to measure what students know and can do relative to the grade-level Common Core Learning Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics.
So, let’s look at the tests themselves, starting with the English Language Arts Tests. When New York State introduced the new Common Core tests three years ago, they argued “high-quality, grade-appropriate texts” would be used to assess students’ reading ability. What teachers and school administrators have found is that more and more of the reading passages and questions asked on these tests are actually above grade level standards. On last year’s 3rd grade test, many of the questions were examined by a teacher and former test-maker who normed them at a 7th and 8thgraded reading level! The same is true of the math tests, where the language is so tricky that many teachers argue that these assessments test reading comprehension instead of problem solving and mathematical ability. Too often, these tests are really focused on whether or not students can decipher the meaning of convoluted and confusing questions, not on showing actual reading or mathematical understanding.
When students have to select their answer to multiple choice questions, they have yet another challenge. The State argues that, “Answer choices will not jump out; rather, students will need to make hard choices between ‘fully correct’ and ‘plausible but incorrect’ answers that are designed specifically to determine whether students have comprehended the entire passage and are proficient with the deep analyses specified by the standards.” At our school, to prepare students, teachers emphasize healthy debate, where students are encouraged to prove that their answer choice is correct, using evidence from the text. On the test, however, students are only rewarded if they circle the correct answer choice. Thus, the student who grapples with an answer for 10 minutes, but makes the wrong choice, is not rewarded for his/her deep thinking and analysis. Not only is the test unfair, but it does not promote the critical thinking that teachers emphasize in the classroom.
Then, of course, there is the issue of time. Both the ELA and Math tests are administered over the course of three days in each grade. That’s six days of testing, for a total of six hours and 40 minutes for third graders. By fifth grade, the total testing time is increased to eight hours and 40 minutes. To put it in perspective, aspiring lawyers must sit for the LSATs for three and a half hours. Why is it that eight year olds must be tested for nearly twice as long? One has to wonder, are we really testing reading and math skills, or the ability to sit still and focus under pressure for long durations of time?
The issues of time and appropriateness, both developmentally and linguistically, are further exacerbated when we consider our Special Education students and English Language Learners. Most Special Education students get extra time to take these tests, which means that they could be sitting for up to 18 hours over the course of six days! English Language Learners are often recent immigrants but are still required to take the tests in English. One has to wonder if we are truly supporting these students.
But this is just the beginning. Test scores are also being used to evaluate teachers, principals, and schools. Tests, that we know are not fair, can help decide whether or not to fire teachers and principals or close schools. Governor Cuomo has even proposed that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on state test scores alone. As a result, more and more schools are increasing the amount of time that is spent on test preparation instead of real learning. While the New York State Department of Education and advocates of standardized testing do not support these “rote test prep practices” in place of quality instruction, teachers and principals often feel like they have no other choice when faced with an unfair test and incredibly high stakes. I’ve been in the system for 10 years and have seen the toll that these tests take on even our best schools. Our curriculum becomes watered down, and learning becomes a passive act. Thus, one cannot ignore the implications these tests are having on classroom culture and content of the curriculum.
As a teacher, my vision for the classroom is a learning laboratory, where students spend their days discussing and analyzing books with their peers, debating current events and social issues, solving real-world math problems with tools and visual models, conducting hands-on science experiments, diving into historical research with open-ended questions, writing stories, speeches, letters, informational articles, poetry and the works, exploring the worlds of drama, music, art and dance, and taking field trips around the city we all call home, all the while, linking such rigorous instruction and activities to standards. As a parent, you have to ask yourself, what type of education do you want your children to receive? It is imperative, that we all work together to ensure that our students receive the education that they deserve and that teachers can teach in way that fosters true engagement, independence and the desire for life-long learning.
Some smart people in our City’s school system are waking up to the fact that these tests are not fair and cannot begin to measure everything a child learns in school. Chancellor Farina has discontinued the usage of these tests as the sole criteria for student promotion to the next grade. Many middle schools are no longer using fourth grade test scores for admissions. This is start, but I fear that stakes for teachers and schools will only increase if we do not speak up as a collective force. Change happens when individuals rise up, gather together and let their voices be heard.
Last year 60,000 parents refused these tests for their children and “opted out.” They took a stance against the New York State Tests and hoped, that in solidarity, change would come. This year the movement is growing across our state.
However, the State Department of Education is not favor of opting out and is working hard to convince parents that it is a bad idea. At a recent superintendents conference in Albany, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch argued that, “Test Refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.” Ask most teachers if the test truly gives valuable information about students’ growth and progress and you will get a much different answer. One of the biggest frustrations for educators is how time-consuming these tests are, and yet, how little we learn about how our students are actually doing in school. We don’t get any useful data that truly tells us what skills each student knows and what we need to teach in order for students to be successful in school and in life. Instead, we learn whether or not our children are good test-takers. After 10 years of teaching, I can tell you that I learn the most about my students by conferring with them on a daily basis and looking at the work they produce in the classroom. All of these in-class assessments are standards-based and linked to a rigorous curriculum.
I understand the dilemma that parents are faced with when they make the decision of whether to opt their child in or out of the tests. I understand the concerns about going against the grain – after all I’m not a risk taker either. I truly believe that opting your child out of these tests is an act of courage and the single most powerful thing a parent can do to change the future of testing in New York State. When you opt-out of these tests, you make your voice heard. You stand up to demand a test that is fair and developmentally appropriate. You stand up so that teachers can teach and engage kids in rigorous discussions and debates instead of test prep. You stand up for English Language Learners and students with special needs, teachers and principals who are being unfairly evaluated, and schools that are being closed because of failing test scores.
To those of you who are worried that if you opt out, you are sending the message to your children that they can just get out of doing things that are hard, that they can give up before trying, remember that there is a difference between hard and fair. It’s not that the tests are too difficult, it’s that they are developmentally and cognitively inappropriate. To those of you who say, “What’s the big deal? Kids are going to take tests for the rest of their lives anyway, why not get an early start preparing?,” remember, this stance implies that testing as we know it is acceptable. Is that really what we want and value in our system of education? Is there nothing we can do to change it? To those of you who say, “My child is a good test taker, what’s the big deal?,” think for moment beyond your child. Think about all of the children, teachers, and schools who are affected by these tests.
Ultimately, you have to make the best choice for your child and your family. And as you make that decision, talk to other parents, engage in a dialogue about these tests, weigh both sides of the debate and do what you feel is right. Think about the education you dream of for your child and how to make that a reality.
New York City Public School Teacher