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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

Dear Parents: It’s High-Stakes Testing Time

By Peter DeWitt — April 14, 2013 4 min read
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Dear Parents,
We are entering a stressful time in the public school system. In a few days, your children in grades 3 - 5, will be taking the NY State ELA and math exams. 4th grade will continue on and take the NY State science exams in May.

I have never been a great test-taker, so I tend to be sensitive around exams. Many students feel test anxiety, but high stakes testing brings high stakes test anxiety for students, staff and the principal. As you may or may not know, the exams this year will be tied to the Common Core State Standards, as well as teacher and administrator evaluation.

The NY State Education Department has warned, “New York State, for the first time, will be reporting student grade-level expectations against a trajectory of college- and career-readiness as measured by tests fully reflective of the Common Core and, as a result, the number of students who score at or above grade level expectations will likely decrease.” However, they are trying to reassure us that the percentages of teachers and administrators who fall in the Effective and Highly Effective range will not change from what it was last year.

We know that you most likely are hearing more and more about testing. As parents, you now understand that high stakes testing is more about teachers and administrators than it is about your children. That shift happened as soon as they were tied to our evaluations. It all comes under the umbrella of accountability.

We want to assure you that we have always been accountable. Whether it is our names on your child’s report cards or the goals setting and observation practices we have been doing for many years, we have tried to improve our practices.

As a practice, one thing we would never do is subject your child to sitting for 90 minutes to 2 hours without talking at the same time we ask them to take an exam they are not completely prepared for. It’s why our centers and rotations tend to be 20 minutes before we get them up and moving to another center or rotation. Asking them to sit still for 90 minutes or longer seems to be abusive, and it is definitely not a practice that we believe is best for them.

Testing Dates
The English Language Arts (ELA) testing for grades 3, 4, & 5 will take place on Tuesday, April 16th, Wednesday, April 17th, and Thursday, April 18th. As I stated earlier, the tests range from 75 minutes in length to 90 minutes in length. If your children gets special education services they will get 2 to 3 hours to complete the test because the state believes that although the lexile score for the test is written well above your child’s lexile score (300 points or more), somehow adding extra time will help them be successful.

Math testing for grades 3, 4, & 5 will take place Wednesday, April 24, Thursday, April 25, and Friday, April 26 in the morning while your children are fresh. However, we understand that they already had a week of testing and some students who were absent had to take make-ups on Monday and Tuesday which exposed them to a state test per day. All of these dates were specifically chosen by the New York State Education Department.

Clearly, these are very long tests for children between the ages of 8 and 11 to take three days a week over a two week period. We are doing what we can to alleviate the anxiety or exhaustion they may feel from taking high stakes tests. It is our goal that we educate the whole child and do not overly focus on testing, which is why we have not given test prep for homework and tried to minimize the amount of time your children had test prep during the day.

In addition, New York State does not offer an opt out option for the test, so if you choose to have your child opt out, we are required, as a school to force them to sit in their seat with the exam in front of them for 90 minutes without anything else to do. They cannot leave the room, and cannot be provided with other work. Although we understand that this seems to be the state’s way of putting your child in a “Time-out” to punish them for non-compliance, we will do what we can to make your child comfortable.

We are asking that your child arrives at school on time on these days. It is also important to be sure that medical (and other) appointments do not interfere with the test schedule because we have limited days, per the New York State Education Department, to provide make-up exams. In addition, children who take make-up exams feel an added amount of pressure because they need to be pulled out of their classrooms.

We recommend that students get adequate sleep on the nights before the test, so please make sure you do not get your children all excited close to bed so they don’t fall asleep. Eating breakfast is also beneficial on these days, so perhaps something besides cereal filled with sugar, like eggs and an English muffin.

We will make sure to take the time to focus on other things we value, like recess, having fun and inquiry-based learning. Your children are so much more than a test score, and they prove that to us every single day. It is our hope to not get lost in a test that is more about politics than about seeing what students truly know.

Thank you for your assistance.

Good luck to everyone this year. Let’s try not to let the tests define us. The public school system is better than that.

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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.