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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

N.Y. Principals Speak Out Against State Testing

By Peter DeWitt — October 29, 2013 5 min read
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As school leaders, we wanted to write a letter to parents because they need to know how we feel about N.Y. State tests. So much is said behind closed doors, in meetings between administrators and teachers. Unfortunately, even those who disagree with the direction N.Y. State has gone where state tests are concerned, do not speak out because they feel they can’t or they don’t want to put themselves in the line of fire. So we did...

Dear Parents, We are the principals of your children's schools. We serve communities in every corner of New York State -- from Niagara County to Clinton, Chautauqua to Suffolk. We come from every size and type of school, with students from every background. We thank you for sharing your children with us and for entrusting us to ensure that they acquire the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their dreams and your hopes for them."

This past weekend, 8 principals from around New York State released an open letter to parents. I am one of the co-authors along with Carol Burris, Sean Feeney, Sharon Fougner, Tim Farley, Katie Zahedi, Andrew Greene, and Elizabeth Philips. The letter, which can be read here, focused on the validity of state testing in N.Y. State, and the fact that our present era of testing has gotten out of control.

Critics accuse us of hating assessment. Nothing can be further than the truth. We all believe that assessment can be very powerful. Over the years many of us who wrote the letter have researched the positive implications of formative and summative assessment. Effective assessment can help drive instruction in a positive way.

But state testing is different.

State testing is not an assessment. It is nothing more than a political game and your children are in the middle. We believe that is not only unfair, but it is also harmful. Assessing children to see what they have learned and what they have not is a natural part of the educational process. Forcing them to take tests that are 90 minutes in length for three days one week, and 90 minutes in length for three days the following week does nothing to show what our students, and your children, have learned.

Fourth grade students have a more negative reality when it comes to state testing. They not only have to take ELA and math exams, they also have to take state science exams as well. And all of our students have to succumb to field testing in addition to their state tests. Those field tests come as stand alone exams at some point in the year as well as questions that are embedded in an all of their state exams.

Do state education leaders, governors, other politicians and adults who make these exams, not see how philosophically wrong this all is? They are children as young as 7 years old taking rigorous exams and being forced to participate in test prep in elementary school. In elementary school? Principals and teachers are no longer the only ones who see how developmentally inappropriate that is...parents are seeing it as well.

Cover Your Own...

Many reformers believe that teachers and administrators are just protecting their own interests. Perhaps, in some cases, that is true. They do not want these tests, that have been plaqued with issues, tied to their evaluations. Why would they? They do not get to see the material before they administer the test and do not see the end results. In addition, on the first state test that was aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), students and teachers were not provided with the proper resources and did not have a full-year of curriculum tied to the Common Core under their belt.

That would be like asking a sprinter to run a marathon without the training and expecting them to win....or at least finish.

In a letter to superintendents, Commissioner John King wrote,

While the number and frequency of state assessments has remained relatively constant over the last decade (and is largely dictated by requirements in federal law), the Board of Regents, the State Education Department (SED), and I recognize that a variety of pressures at the state and local level may have resulted in more testing than is needed and in rote test preparation that crowds out quality instruction. Of course, testing is an important part of the instructional cycle and necessary to monitor student academic progress and contribute to decisions at the classroom, school, district, and state levels. However, the amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making. Test results should be used only as one of multiple measures of progress, and tests should reflect our instructional priorities."

We are tired of letters from the commissioner. There is no dialogue. After cancelling forums sponsored by the New York State PTA, the commissioner is now on a “listening” tour. We have not seen any elements of listening.

As for writing that these are “largely dictated by requirements in federal law,” he forgot to mention that there is flexibility. In this interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Education Nation (where I sat in the audience and heard the question) Dick Iannuzzi, the President of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) asked the secretary if he would offer a moratorium on testing for the next three years so educators and parents could get used to the CCSS. The secretary answered that they provided states with the necessary flexibility to do that.

In addition, Commissioner King wrote, “The amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making. Test results should be used only as one of multiple measures of progress, and tests should reflect our instructional priorities.” With all due respect, this contradicts the role that state tests play in the lives of teachers, students and school leaders. We get no information except for a cut score, which does not help us guide instruction. This is another reason why state tests should never be referred to as state assessments.

The Letter

In our letter to parents we outlined what we know and what we do not know. The following lists are better defined in the formal letter to parents.

Here’s what we know:

  1. NYS Testing Has Increased Dramatically
  2. The Tests were Too Long
  3. Ambiguous Questions Appeared throughout the Exams
  4. Children have Reacted Viscerally to the Tests
  5. The Low Passing Rate was Predicted
  6. The College Readiness Benchmark is Irresponsibly Inflated
  7. State Measures are Contradictory
  8. Students Labeled as Failures are Forced Out of Classes
  9. The Achievement Gap is Widening
  10. The Tests are Putting Financial Strains on Schools
  11. The Tests are Threatening Other State Initiatives

Here’s what we do not know:

  1. How these Tests will Help our Students
  2. How to Use these Tests to Improve Student Skills or Understanding
  3. The Underlying Cause of Low Test Scores
  4. What to Expect Next Year
  5. How Much this is Costing Already-Strained Taxpayers

In the End

We are at a crossroads in education, not just in New York State, but across the United States. There is debate about the CCSS and whether they will truly prepare children for their future. Unfortunately in New York State, the perception of the CCSS has been clouded by the fact that they were tied to state tests before teachers and students were ever prepared to take them, which meant that our students, your children, were forced to take tests on information that they didn’t know or ever had the chance to learn.

We have students, many students, who think they are unworthy because they received a 1 or a 2 on the state test, and Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch, remarked that the low scores, “Are not a sign that we are doing something wrong, but a sign that we are doing something right.”

And we are all wondering how that can be beneficial to students and schools now, as well as when they are preparing to be career and college ready. Students deserve different pathways to learning, and they should not have to be followed by a number...especially one that represents a tests that they were destined to fail in the first place. Public education should be better than that.

If you would like to sign the letter, please click here.

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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.