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Finding Common Ground

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

Testing Frustrations? It’s Up to You to Separate Fact From Fiction

By Peter DeWitt — August 11, 2014 3 min read
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For the past few months I have been living under the premise that most people engage in monologue and not dialogue (Hattie. 2012) when it comes to education. We have all been battling through testing, accountability, mandates, budget cuts and how some very powerful people ultimately would like to privatize pockets of public education.

I don’t think powerful people are in the position to take over all public schools, because there are some very strong public schools that will fight back. However, there are some other schools that have hardships all the way around and cannot fight as hard as they would like to, so the state and national reform efforts are squeezing them to death day by day.

Unfortunately, many of the issues we face come back to the adults in the room, and some of those issues are perpetrated from adults who have spent little time in classrooms or no time at all. These issues do not really have much to do with children, and one of the issues that has little to do with children, except to make them pawns in a very adult-centered argument, is standardized testing.

Nowhere is testing of children more political and absurd than in New York State. Recently, New York State Education Commissioner John King sent out a memo to public school principals across New York State. In his memo King wrote,

As you know, frustrations around testing and test prep, along with questions and concerns about educator accountability, generated considerable public dialogue last year, some of it productive and some of it counter-productive. It falls to teachers and leaders like you to help separate fact from fiction, to ensure that all voices are heard and, most important, to help the families and children we serve understand why our efforts are necessary to improve our schools and raise student achievement."

As a former school principal the fact is that schools get very little effective feedback from state testing. The tests are 3 days one week for about 80 minutes a day, and 3 days the next week for the same amount of time. That, of course, does not include the test prep and the time to make sure desks are separated, students are given the rules, and the fact that some students take longer than others and the class needs to remain silent until everyone is finished.

The other fact is that schools are provided little information about how students did on the tests in a timely fashion...getting results six months after the tests have been given is ridiculous. This means students are in new grade levels and some may be in different schools (i.e. middle school, new school because parents moved, etc.) by then. The tests simply do not offer teachers any new information about student learning needs.

There are many unfortunate issues about John King’s memo to school leaders. First and foremost is that King still doesn’t get it, or he chooses to ignore it. The reality is that NY State had more opt outs than ever before, which means that there are parents who disagree with testing. Yes, some of those parents may solely be listening to their child’s teacher, friends or school leaders who oppose testing, but they feel strongly enough that they do not want their children exposed to those tests.

The other unfortunate issue is that King consistently provides proof that he does not seem to care what teachers, school leaders, parents and students in New York believe when it comes to educational reform. Although he writes, “It falls to teachers and leaders like you to help separate fact from fiction, to ensure that all voices are heard,” what he really means is agree with him or you will be seen as an enemy of the state education department.

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Lastly, when King writes, “to help the families and children we serve understand why our efforts are necessary to improve our schools and raise student achievement,” it shows that he cares about achievement alone. Unfortunately, our students who achieve a high grade on a test have shown at other times that they are not making growth. They understand how to take a test but they don’t know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

We should stop talking about achievement and start having real dialogue about growth. Achievement means that leaders like King only care about the adults in the room (teacher evaluation), and his lack of experience in the classroom doesn’t help him understand the importance of getting students to become assessment capable (Hattie. 2012).

Focusing on growth will help students become assessment-capable, college and career ready, 21st century learners. Until King discusses growth and not achievement, and can provide schools with feedback that is “Just in time and just for them in a timely manner that matters most (Hattie)” he will just be sending out another memo that infuriates school leaders and gets deleted in much quicker fashion than it took to write.

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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.