NEW YORK—According to fifth-grader Naomi Henry, the beginning of test prep signaled the end of worthwhile schooling.
During fourth grade last year, Henry and fellow classmates at Brooklyn’s P.S. 217 started preparing in October for April state tests, causing many of the aspects of learning she looked forward to the most—including independent reading—to be “smothered.”
“I was feeling that it wasn’t exactly doing anything to help me as a student,” she said. “I think that actual students—their personality, how they learn, watching them work in class—that means so much more than a test.”
Henry now goes to the Brooklyn New School because it is “anti-test prep,” said Johanna, her mother.
More Rigorous, Longer Testing
Tests are getting harder in line with a shift to Common Core State Standards, a standard-based reform model, including an emphasis on more difficult questions.
Concurrently, critics have expressed disapproval of an increasingly heavy reliance on test scores to measure teachers, principals, and schools performance, saying it has caused a bigger focus on preparing students for tests, at the expense of types of learning that are hard to quantify.
Progress reports for schools are primarily based on students’ test scores. Under an agreement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state teacher’s union, approved in February, evaluations of almost all teachers and principals will use tests to account for 20 to 40 percent of the grading, pending local agreements between departments of education and teachers’ unions.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Department of Education use test scores as measures of success. “There’s no question our students are headed in the right direction,” Bloomberg said in a statement in July. He was lauding a three-point gain in the percentage of students meeting the state’s bar for proficiency in math and English.
“New York City school students have once again risen to the occasion,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in the same statement, adding that “we have much more work to do” preparing students for more rigorous testing.
The city’s Department of Education declined to comment on whether too much focus is being put on test scores and thus test prep. The mayor’s office did not return requests for comment.
Downfalls of Testing
The roots of the current wave of testing can be found in the No Child Left Behind Act that started when George W. Bush was president, according to Dr. Aaron Pallas, professor of Sociology and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
The act began with good intentions that of uncovering sub-groups within schools that weren’t performing well, and promoting universal proficiency. But instead the focus it brought to accountability has wrought consequences that include a false sense of precision and reducing the performance of teachers to a number.
Teacher evaluations, such as the no-longer used Teacher Data Reports, are based on test scores. The numbers can entice people into thinking they have some validity, but really mean nothing, according to Elizabeth Phillips, principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Phillips said wildly fluctuating evaluations for her teachers indicated the scores are not an accurate measure of success.
Phillips has signed an open letter—along with more than 1,510 other principals and more than 6,300 other concerned citizens and educators across the state—criticizing the new Race to the Top system approved in February.
On the other hand, 91 percent of the school districts in the state have submitted a Memorandum of Understanding, “confirming their support for” the new system and confirming plans to implement it, according to the state Department of Education.
Pallas and Phillips spoke at a forum on Oct. 3, where panelists discussed the “use and misuse” of high-stakes testing. Though welcoming accountability, many said the reliance on tests is too much.
“We need accountability—it’s essential—but when it’s in the dominant position, it causes people to do anything and everything to reach a quantitative number,” said Kathleen Cashin, regent with the state Department of Education, and former principal at P.S. 193 in Brooklyn.
Curriculums should broadly incorporate different subjects into each other, Cashin said, such as strong vocabulary in social studies, and having students read books and write reports about the subjects they’re learning.
“What I’m concerned about is that the social, emotional, [and] mental education is going down the drain, because we are desperate for test prep,” Cashin added.
Before the panel, Marc Parr, a special education teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 273K who has a son in middle school, said the assessments are absurd and being “rammed down everybody’s throat.”
“Everybody knows they have absolutely no value, as far I’m concerned,” Parr said, adding that the focus on test prep has pushed back other things such as writing development.
Fixing the System
Conditions of reform mandated by the federal Race to the Top program spurred the agreement between the governor and the state teacher’s union in February. The agreement outlines the new and controversial accountability measures for teachers, known as APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review).
The federal program awarded $700 million to the state’s Department of Education. New York City received between $250 and $300 million.
Assemblyman James Brennan said last Wednesday that the legislation for the new performance review system was delivered to the Assembly at 3 a.m., when members were exhausted, two days before the budget was adopted.
Now he is trying to fix what has been done by sponsoring two new pieces of legislation. One would make the system a pilot program through 2015, including not making decisions about teacher employment based on the system until then.
Brennan said it would be difficult to persuade the governor that he is making a series of mistakes when it comes to education, but not impossible.
Approximately 314 districts have submitted plans to the state Department of Education, and 107 have been approved.
New York City’s Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers (the teacher’s union) are still in negotiations about the new evaluation system. Both declined to comment.
The teacher’s union president, Michael Mulgrew, said at the panel they would only approve of a deal that makes 20 percent of the evaluations under negotiation based on “real student work,” such as projects and homework, instead of tests.
Another 20 percent is mandated to be based on state tests, and 60 percent is still based on observations by evaluators and principals, and could include aspects such as student feedback.
Tests Need to Improve
One of the problems of relying on test scores is uncertainty about the quality of the tests. This issue was raised earlier this year when ambiguous parts, such as a story about a hare and a pineapple, were uncovered before being removed from the tests.
Tests today are better than ever, but they still don’t focus enough on telling us how students are thinking, what their thinking processes are, what it is they have yet to learn, and test aren’t designed in a way that gives teachers feedback they can use, said Richard Colvin, visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in a phone interview.
Colvin has been studying assessment systems and sees the future of tests as being embedded in teaching and learning instead of being viewed separately.
“Students will learn while they’re taking tests, and teachers will be happy to have kids doing tests, because it will be exactly the kinds of activities they want them to do to learn,” he said. “So testing will become much less visible, but it will become much more powerful.”
The future of testing is being researched, said Colvin, including by game developers.
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