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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

This Is Not an Implementation Dip. It’s Just Bad Practice!

By Peter DeWitt — October 04, 2012 6 min read
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To keep moving forward with so much collateral damage is educational malpractice on the part of those in charge.

A few days ago the Niagara Regional PTA (Resolution) in upstate New York passed a resolution to be introduced at the New York State PTA Convention. The resolution calls for a moratorium on 3rd -8th testing and the elimination of using test scores on teacher and principal evaluation. Thankfully, this shows yet another large group in the public school community who understands how harmful the focus on high stakes testing has been in America, and other PTA’s should consider showing their support.

In New York, Governor Cuomo used Race to the Top as a chance to swing his bat at public school education and things have not been the same since. Fortunately for those of us in public education this may be offering us a unique opportunity to finally have all the stakeholders in public education be on the same side.

Wantagh, New York Elementary Principal Don Sternberg recently sent a letter out to the parents of his elementary school providing his opinion about the current educational system. The following is only one paragraph from the excellently written letter (Dear Parents).


Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments.

This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them.

Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come”.

Coming Together
Recently, a group of parents contacted me about opting out from the state exam in the spring. It was the first time I have ever been approached by parents. There will always be students who do well on testing because they are great test takers and some of their parents believe the test is something to get through while others think it’s a roadblock to learning because of the time it takes away from teaching.

Voorhesville, N.Y. Superintendent Teresa Snyder in a recent letter to parents said, “Child growth and development is not a race, it is a journey. There are hills and valleys, straight roads, and unexpected curves. Certainly, we can benchmark certain elements of growth - physical, social, and cognitive - in the same way we map a journey. We just have to remember that the map is not the journey and the benchmark is not the goal. The children in our care every day are not finished - there is nothing summative about them.”

There are many students who fear testing for a variety of reasons and their parents try to console them at the same time they get angry that their children have to sit and take a test for hours at a time. Harvard has not come calling for 3rd grade test results but many students have certainly left our school systems believing they are a 2 when we know they are more than that.

Parents, teachers and administrators are now on the same page on the issue of high stakes testing and evaluation and that can be a very powerful thing for schools. For too long teachers and administrators fought about issues that no longer seem very important. Now they are fighting the same argument and parents are beginning to join in that fight.

Parents - We have always had parents who know very little about the test and others who believe it is important. However, there is a large percentage of parents who have seen the testing craze get more out of control year after year and they want a different experience for their children. For those who haven’t paid attention to state testing, show them a passage by Tolstoy on the third grade test and they’ll understand our angst.

Teachers - When standardized tests began to happen in states many teachers looked at it as an opportunity to see what their students learned. Unfortunately it took so long for state education departments to return the test results that teachers often got the results after the students were no longer in their classes.

The results typically showed that students had issues with comprehension or inquiry based thinking. This was not new information for teachers. As the years went on, the tests became more and more important. The scores were announced through the media and parents chose houses based on how well schools did on the test. After awhile, parents understood that the test just provided one view into the school. Hopefully they learned that it’s the school culture that affects learning and the test is now beginning to affect that school culture. The test has become the tea party of public education.

Principals - “Raise those scores!” Principals had a stake in how their schools did on the test. If there were multiple schools in one district, it was often a competition between schools to see who would do better and no one wanted to be on the bottom-end. After years of going through a few weeks of testing that will put any budget process to shame, principals understand that the test is simply a wild card. It’s something to get through, not learn from and that shows how pathetic the relationship between state education departments and public schools has gotten.

Principals are tired of telling their teachers to prepare for a moving target. No one knows what will be on the test and schools cannot keep any copies of the test (even though they are blank) after the test. Many states education departments do not send back the student booklets, just the results. The trust is gone and now even the administrators who used to enforce test prep and testing are tired of the game.

In the End
High stakes testing has gotten out of control. Policymakers, state and federal education departments aren’t on the sidelines. They are making decisions from remote locations. These decisions are coming from people who care more about money and shame than they care about children. Unfortunately, children are the collateral damage in this new test-taking era.

Education should be about learning, educational resources and building relationships with students and families. It should not be about testing. So many stakeholders do not understand the amount of money that is given privately to companies creating high stakes tests. They hear about money coming from the lottery or from Race to the Top and truly believe that each school district shares in that pot when that is just not true. It takes millions of dollars to pay for tests made by companies and that money could be better invested where it is needed most, which is in our students.

It’s time for policymakers, politicians and state education departments to wake up and see that the complaints about high stakes testing is not part of an implementation dip, it’s just bad practice. Many states have been giving high stakes testing for almost fifteen years and it has done little to help public education. To keep moving forward with so much collateral damage is educational malpractice on the part of those in charge.

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Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody and thousands of other educators will be sending a letter to President Obama on October 17th. If you are interested in writing a letter to President Obama regarding the state of education, please click here.

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.