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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

State Assessments Tell Schools, Students and Parents Nothing

By Peter DeWitt — October 11, 2013 5 min read
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Assessment is not bad. When done properly, assessments can tell students, parents and teachers a great deal about learning. But state assessments, at least in New York State, focus solely on achievement and accountability.

When international educational leadership expert Michael Fullan wrote about the drivers that create school improvement, he focused on the right drivers and the wrong ones. He referred to accountability, which includes testing, as one of the wrong drivers. In this article he wrote that accountability was the wrong driver. “Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs. capacity building.”

John Hattie understands it as well. In Visible Learning Hattie noted that using standardized tests to show student achievement offered a very low effect because in most cases teachers and students do not see an itemized report with a breakdown of where the student did well and where they did not. And he wrote, “We require much more, however, from our schools than mere achievement. Overly concentrating on achievement can miss much about what students know, can do, and care about.”

Millions of teachers and principals know it as well but they often get the response that their opinions are self-serving rather than looking at the fact that out of those millions of people there are probably many who don’t agree with how standardized tests are being used in this era of accountability.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m annoyed with the conversation about state assessments, or just fed up with state commissioners who think their tests add anything productive to the conversation about education. In New York, where I am a principal, state testing would be a joke if it weren’t so taxing and harmful to kids.

In a time when we should be promoting and exploring student autonomy, they are being used as a pawn in a political game. They are receiving scores of 1’s and 2’s and being told not to worry about it because they really aren’t failing...at the same time the political conversation focuses on how schools are failing. So basically it says, “Don’t worry students. It’s not you. It’s just that your teachers are inept.

Diane Ravitch, Carol Burris, Anthony Cody and many others talk about it...write about it...debate about it...and rally against it. And yet, many people, including teachers and parents, sit back and passively accept it as something we have to get passed. Wake up! In most states, high stakes testing tells teachers nothing. In a conversation with Diane Ravitch she said,

The tests have no diagnostic value because teachers don't get timely feedback and they are not allowed to know how each student did. The teacher gets no information about what students learned and what they didn't learn. The best tests are made by teachers, who can test what they taught, grade the tests promptly (instead of waiting for months to get feedback), and use the test results to identify which children need extra help. They can also use the feedback to find out where they need to improve their teaching skills. The state standardized tests provide nothing of value, nothing to help teachers help students, nothing to inform teachers about their strengths and weaknesses. They are worthless."

By some silly rule (or state education law) teachers and principals cannot open the tests until an hour before the test begins. They send them out after the test is finished and are not allowed to look at them. Schools and parents never get results until the summer....or in the case of this year in New York State....the end of September.

And even those results come as a number. Nothing else.

Parent Notification

Over the past few days parents in New York State have been receiving the results from their child’s ELA and Math state exams. Some of those parents happen to be in the school that I lead and they ask for insight into how they can better help their children do better on the next test. They ask me where their child did well and where they need help.

I’ve got nothing.


We do not get a breakdown of how children did. We, meaning teachers and principals, were only good for making children sit at a desk for 90 minutes a day taking the ELA test for three days in one week. The next week they had to take a math test for three days. Special education students who get time and a half or double time (per their I.E.P), for a test they can’t read in the first place, had to sit for up to 3 hours.

Tim Farley, a principal in Kinderhook, N.Y said, “We do get data on individual students, but the data lacks context as the tests are “secured”. We don’t know if a student did poorly on inferencing because she has difficulty inferencing or maybe the question was poorly worded, used inappropriate vocabulary, the question was near the end and she was fatigued...”

My question...is the test about what your child knows or about the state education department proving a point?

Buffalo Parents Rally

Recently, more than 2,500 parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and students showed up for a rally against standardized testing. It was sponsored by the Summit for Smarter Schools. In the Buffalo News, which you can read here, Dale Anderson quoted an attendee who said,

“We’ve had a lot of quote-unquote educational reform in the past decades aimed at poor schools in the cities,” Ryan said before the session started, “but now all schools are feeling the pain, regardless of their previous performance. This is why you see a lot of suburban parents here tonight. They’re all being treated poorly. They’re mad about these tests.”

Anderson went on to write,

Tonawanda Principal John McKenna argued that testing doesn’t take into account differences among students and communities, a point illustrated by Naomi Cerre, principal of Buffalo’s Lafayette High School, who talked about the difficulties of getting resources to work with and test students from 30 nations who speak 45 different languages.”

Opting Out and Sending Back

In western New York, as well as other parts of the state, parents are choosing to opt out of state tests. Others who did not opt out sent their test results back to the state education department last month. Thousands of parents participated in “Send Those Scores Back” at the end of September.

In his Chalkface blog, Chris Cerrone wrote, In a state-wide effort to protest the lack of validity, loss of instruction time, and educational harm caused by mandated state assessments, New York State Allies for Public Education has called for parents to “send the scores back”.

Cerrone went on to write,

“Parents will receive their child’s test score sometime between late August and early October. On the front of the envelope be sure to write “INVALID TEST SCORES ENCLOSED”.

In the End

For the past few years, although there have been countless complaints about the validity of standardized tests being used in New York State, many parents and teachers have passively stood on the sidelines while students were exposed to tests that were getting longer and harder. Other teachers and parents were taking a different path by opting out and speaking up.

Most parents, teachers and school leaders have been concerned that opting out would result in the loss of funding for their schools. But that has come into question lately. Non-Title 1 schools cannot lose funding when their students opt out, and for Title 1 schools the funds will be reallocated.

The bottom line is that the research experts are telling us that using standardized tests in the way that we are is not useful and very harmful to kids, but policymakers continue to follow that path. Perhaps it is time that more and more parents take the lead of some very strong people in Buffalo, and some very strong principals in Long Island.

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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.