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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Averill Park Central School District Returns the Focus to Instruction

By Peter DeWitt — April 25, 2013 5 min read
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Like many school districts around the country, the Averill Park Central School District in upstate, NY. has seen its share of difficult times. Over the past four years, the school district has experienced major budget cuts, consolidation of buildings, and staff lay-offs. On top of these difficult issues, the New York State Education Department increased the level of accountability and number of unfunded mandates.

Funded Mandates - Schools are provided with money and resources to pay for mandates induced by state and federal agencies.
Unfunded Mandates - School are not given money to pay for the time it takes to complete the mandates (i.e. state-required progress monitoring, training for the Common Core State Standards, etc.).

School districts around the country have been grappling with the installation of the Common Core State Standards at the same time they are trying to meet the state mandates of the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR, evaluation), all of which is tied to state assessments that are much more difficult. Many state education departments however, will tell you it’s a “local decision.” It’s not a local decision if they have to be approved by the state.

Resolution on Testing
In an effort to bring attention to the increased use of high stakes testing as part of the accountability system in New York State, the Averill Park Board of Education (BOE) passed a resolution demanding that the state limit the amount of high stakes testing in schools. This comes weeks after the Saratoga Springs City School District BOE and New Paltz Central School District BOE passed resolutions expressing the same concern.

Chris Foster, the AP BOE President said, “I appreciate the need for Common Core implementation. It makes our students more prepared to leave high school and become productive citizens. Where I struggle is seeing how additional tests can be the only measuring stick the state uses to determine the readiness of our students.

Averill Park Superintendent Dr. James Hoffman said, “The result of the ongoing decision to use assessments as the measuring stick for teacher and student achievement is moving toward a catastrophic impact upon children and families. During the administration of the ELA assessment last week, we actually had students crying because they felt they did not do well enough on the new assessments, and they knew it meant that they were going to get their teacher fired. They were truly upset that their teacher would lose her job, and it would be their fault. The teacher did all she could to relieve their fears, but some were inconsolable.”

The Truth About Testing
For full disclosure, I am an elementary school principal in the Averill Park Central School District and I am very proud to have witnessed the board pass the resolution. The audience that attended the BOE meeting gave standing ovations to the board of education, high school principal Colleen Gomes and the Averill Park Teacher’s Association (APTA) President Michelle Smead after they provided heart-felt speeches that focused on why all of this testing is bad for kids.

As educators, we all know it’s important to challenge our students. School isn’t supposed to be easy. All students need to stretch their thinking. It’s how they learn new material, expand on previous learned material and challenge the way they think. Smead said,

“We need a balanced approach to measuring learning. Every teacher can show evidence of different levels of learning by the projects and assignments completed by students. That type of REAL evidence of learning needs a place in deciding whether or not a child is meeting a set standard or a teacher is an effective educator.

High stakes testing stresses those children we, as educators, work the hardest to protect. Our struggling learners and students with various learning disabilities are most impacted by the unfairness of this type of testing. They are not tested at their ability level and even if they have a year demonstrating tremendous growth, to NYS they are still not good enough because they couldn’t “pass” a test 2 to 3 years above their reading level or math skill level. High stakes testing is most harmful and unfair to these children.

The Common Core stresses close reading in ELA and true understanding of what is read (Suggesting several readings of the same text), so why assess common core learning with an assessment that students have to speed read passages and questions in order to finish?
Educators in our district would like to see the state use some of its enormous testing budget to restore countless programs lost for our students and the 80 plus teachers this district has lost in the last four years due to a significant decrease in funding from New York State because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.”

In an interview with N.Y. State Education Commissioner John King for a forthcoming journal published by the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS), he said “The work on the common core is about changing instruction, and of course you want assessment to be in-line with instruction. It wouldn’t make sense to have assessments that didn’t reflect the standards. However, it’s really about changing teaching and learning.”

That is flawed thinking that we all cannot possibly believe. Data driven instruction, done with integrity, is about changing instruction. Student-centered approaches are about encouraging different pathways to learning. High stakes testing, however, is tied to teacher and administrator evaluation and it is not about changing instruction. It’s about holding educators accountable.

In the SAANYS interview, King went on to say, “Unfortunately I think in education policy debates the focus on scores distracts from the focus on instruction. And so our challenge, your challenge, the selective challenge of the education sectors, is how we can return the focus to instruction.”

The Averill Park Central School District Board of Education, students, staff and parents just provided the New York State Education Department with a way to meet the goal of returning the focus to instruction. The ball is in their court now...

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.