NEW YORK—By the end of a three-hour-long meeting, the Panel for Educational Policy had voted on a $20 billion school budget for next year, dozens of contracts with prekindergarten providers, 10 school co-locations, and a new grade promotion policy.
Then, Ethan Marcus raised his hand. “I promise I’ll make this quick,” he said.
Marcus is a senior at the Lab School for Collaborative Studies and one of two student members of the panel. The rest of the panel is comprised of 13 mostly education advocates and parents and led by the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña. Most members can cast votes and are appointed by the mayor.
But Marcus, a nonvoting member, had one more issue on mind.
“I know this is a little off topic,” he said. “But about two or three weeks ago I, like many other students across the city, had to take one of twice-a-year assessment exams to analyze my progress in English language.”
“The exam itself has no weight on my grade,” he explained. “It does have weight however on the evaluation of the teacher.”
This year, for the first time, teachers are going to be evaluated partly based on the test scores of their students. To this end, the city’s Education Department (DOE) devised a test in English and math, which was administered in the fall and spring.
Marcus said he has a wonderful English teacher and he respects her a lot, but a lot of her students “felt it was unnecessary for themselves to write out the long essay” that, according to Marcus, “was very redundant.”
“It was a little disheartening to see how … her quality of teaching is being linked to this exam that the students have no investment in,” Marcus said.
The results of the test comprise 20 percent of a teacher’s rating. Another 20 percent is based on the regents state high school tests. The rest stems largely from classroom observations, but if a teacher fails the test part, he or she automatically fails the evaluation. A teacher can be fired after failing two evaluations.
This is not the first time the test in question has been criticized. The main problem seems to be that its one size does not fit all—at all.
A month ago a dozen teachers at the International High School in Prospect Heights refused to administer it. International high schools serve students that have spent less than four years in the country and many were bound to fail the English test.
On the other hand, students from elite high schools may have been offended by its simplicity. “I personally felt, when I took the exam, it was a waste of my time,” said Marcus, who picked Princeton out of five colleges that accepted him. He thus ignored the essay’s topic and wrote “a stern letter” protesting the test instead.
“In my school, students are very disdainful of the test, myself included,” seconded Jessie Wang, a senior at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School and another student member of the panel.
She said the test doesn’t even fit all students within one school, as there are regular classes, honors classes, and Advancement Placement classes, all with different levels of proficiency. “For [advanced] students to get the same exact test, it is kind of a slap in the face,” Wang said.
Wang suggested using a “portfolio assessment” instead, rating teachers on the sum of materials his or her class produced over the year. “There’s just so much material that we have already and its all well-rounded, in-depth material,” she said. Unfortunately, the state law doesn’t allow such an option.
Too Much Testing
Another critique was that the test adds to a barrage of existing high school tests. “Give ’em a break,” said panel member Laura Zingmond, an author of over 300 school reviews on the InsideSchools.org portal. Her daughter goes to NYC Lab School as well.
Zingmond asked the DOE to consider that high school sophomores may need to go through five regents exams, the PSAT and SAT, subject SAT, ACT, and AP tests.
The newly added test created a “logistical nightmare” for schools, Zingmond said. “A lot of quality instruction time, I think, was lost to it.”
DOE Chief Strategy Officer Josh Wallack said at the panel meeting that people shouldn’t think that the test serves only to evaluate teachers. “The ultimate goal of the assessments that we’re giving right now is to make sure we’re tracking what students are learning, how well they are learning, so that we can adjust our instruction to best meet the needs of our students,” he said.
That seems to be the only motivation for students to give the test their best, apart from not getting their teachers fired.
As for quality of the test, Wallack repeated multiple times it’s the first time it’s been administered. “We hope [the test] will get better over time,” he said.
Dawn of Change
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she wants to reduce the stress of testing. “I don’t want to hear kids crying and I think a lot of that comes from the stress in the classrooms from test prep,” she said.
“Good teaching will get you where you need to be,” she said. “Test prep will make you a robot and not get you where you want to be.”
Also, following requirements of a recent change in the state law, Fariña reshuffled middle school grade promotion policy so it no longer depends on standardized test scores as a primary factor.
But when it came to the testing itself Fariña noted state and federal regulations require it. On the contrary, she said if teachers spend time studying the test results, they can improve their instruction.
Still, Fariña’s overall tone was appreciated. “I’m really elated by what I’m hearing,” Wang said. And Marcus agreed. “As a student, as a product of the system, this is a huge breath of fresh air,” he said. “This is definitely a good first step in a series of steps that should be taken to really de-emphasize the high-stakes testing.”