June 11, 2012

Testimony: The Evolution of Student Assessments

Source: NYSUT Research and Educational Services

Testimony of Andrew Pallotta, Executive Vice President, New York State United Teachers and Maria Neira, Vice President, New York State United Teachers to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Senator John J. Flanagan, Chair, on the Evolution of Student Assessments: Where We Started; Where We Are Going; and Where We Should Be Going on Testing in Grades K-12

June 11, 2012

Senator Flanagan and members of the Education Committee, on behalf of the 600,000 members of NYSUT, we want to thank you for holding this hearing on the evolution of the state testing program. As an organization of educators, we have real concerns about recent changes in the state testing program and their effect on students and the impact on their learning.

We want to be clear: Standardized tests are not inherently bad. Combined with other measures of student learning, standardized tests can be a useful diagnostic tool for teachers to use. However, when standardized tests are overemphasized, or misused, we must say enough is enough. We have reached that point.

Evolution of State Testing Program

New York has a long history in state testing. Our Regents Exams are known around the country as the gold standard for high school exit exams. The reason these exams have been of such high quality is the process used by SED to create the exams. Teams of educators have been brought together by SED to write the questions used on the exams. This tradition of teachers writing Regents exam questions began in 1906 and has served us well. Teachers know what needs to be taught and how best to assess student learning.

Unfortunately, the advent of No Child Left Behind and federal test mandates brought about a significant increase in testing in grades 3-8. Prior to the NCLB mandate, New York tested once a year in 4th and 8th grade for ELA and math. Now, there are at least two statewide assessments in ELA and math each year in grades 3-8, plus science exams and field tests.

Most states, including New York, have turned to big testing companies to produce the high volume of tests needed to meet the mandates. The tests produced by these companies measure very little of what students really need to know - neither do these tests alone provide the valuable information needed to spur meaningful changes in teaching practices. Contrary to some reports, teachers have no approval role in the state's selection of standardized tests. Regrettably, the practitioner's voice of experience is not sought or heard.

The high stakes nature of these tests has exacerbated the growing fixation on testing. Using these tests for promotion and graduation has increased the stress on students and parents. The consequences attached by the state and federal governments to poor performance on the tests have intensified the stress on teachers and administrators, turning many schools into test prep factories and narrowing the curriculum. Even test developers will tell you the assessments were not created to be used for high stakes decisions.

When teachers are forced to "teach to the test" and eliminate meaningful lessons, students lose out on a rich and full education. Research clearly tells us that high-stakes standardized tests are poor measures of high-quality curriculum and learning. Narrowing the curriculum fails to engage students in subjects needed for a well-rounded education - and certainly does not prepare college- and career-ready students.

As national education expert Diane Ravitch noted, "… excessive test preparation distorts the very purpose of tests which is to assess learning and knowledge, not just to produce higher test scores." In short, a school's scores may benefit from excessive test prep - but at what cost to students?

Time Spent on Testing

Federal requirements have now significantly increased the number of tests students will take in their K-12 career. Standardized testing time for New York students in grades K-12 now begins in grade 3. A student who took all the required tests would have a minimum of 4,440 minutes or 74 hours of testing. This includes taking each of the five required Regents once. It does not include any extended time for students with disabilities or English language learners.

The schedule of time on state tests is attached to this testimony. It does not include any assessments the district might administer, or specialized tests such as the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) taken by English language learners, or field tests that are required by SED. Even more statewide tests are on the horizon: SED envisions a new 9th and 10th grade ELA exam as part of the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments being developed by a multi-state consortium, as well as new social studies exams in grades 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Teachers report that too many administrators, concerned about the ramifications of lower-than-expected scores, are stressing "test prep" at the expense of real learning. On top of the minimum 74 hours of testing, students are too often losing three to four weeks of quality instruction per year to make room for "drill and kill" test prep.

No country tests its children as often as the United States, notes national education expert Linda Darling-Hammond. The highest achieving nations often have few or no tests until the end of high school. Furthermore, the tests that are used in top-rated nations like Finland, South Korea and Singapore are open-ended essay and oral exams. Most top systems also expect students to design and conduct extended research projects and scientific investigations.

Problems with this Year's Assessments

In addition to our concerns with time, we are extremely concerned about the quality of commercial tests. In all of my years in education, I cannot recall a year when the state tests included so many errors. During our annual convention in late April, we heard disturbing stories about the negative impact the tests have on students - often caused by poor test construction.

  • •Our members reported students breaking down in tears, becoming restless over the excessive length of the tests and expressing frustration over the consecutive days spent on testing.
  • •Many special education teachers and teachers of English Language Learners expressed angst over students who were required to sit through 90 minutes of grade level tests - beyond their current ability and/or the goals of their Individualized Education Plans. One teacher said she could only tell her student with special needs to "do your best" as he struggled with a seventh grade math test, even though his education goal for the year was to master fifth grade math skills. Students are being forced to run a "one-size-fits-all" testing gauntlet that is demoralizing and inappropriate.
  • •Teachers reported that increasing numbers of parents are questioning why their children must sit through hours of test prep and testing; and why SED is spending more than $32 million of taxpayers' dollars on commercially produced, flawed standardized tests when those funds could be invested in programs to help children learn.

With so many questions thrown out, our members are questioning the validity of these tests. After all, in order for tests to be used to measure student growth, or to compare similar groups of students or schools, the tests must be reliable and valid. Unlike past years, the new round of tests will not be published, making it difficult to independently verify their reliability and validity.

NYSUT Surveys

Following this year's assessments, NYSUT conducted a phone survey of a random sample of grade 3-8 ELA and math teachers as well as on-line surveys open to all grade 3-8 ELA and math teachers. More than 2,400 educators took part. Results of the phone survey including written comments are attached. Some of the key results include:

  • Half of the math and one-third of the ELA respondents say the difficulty level of the assessments was not grade-level appropriate, rather it was too high, making it especially difficult for many students with disabilities.
  • Sixty-four percent of math respondents and 53 percent of ELA respondents said the assessments were more rigorous than last year.
  • A majority of the respondents in each survey (65 percent in math and 60 percent in ELA) classify the appropriateness of the assessments for students with disabilities as "to a low degree" or "not at all."
  • A majority of the respondents to the ELA survey describe the appropriateness of the assessments for English language learners as "to a low degree" or "not at all."
  • When asked if all the questions had clear, concise answers, nearly half of the respondents in math and almost 80 percent of the ELA respondents said no.
  • More than half of the respondents to each survey said the rubrics for determining grades were not accurate measures of student performance.

Parents are concerned about the testing fixation, too. In a NYSUT-commissioned poll conducted by Hart Research Associates in April of this year, 63 percent of public school parents said too much emphasis is placed on standardized tests in schools today.

NYSUT's Recommendations

NYSUT has long voiced concerns about the time spent on assessments, test length, scheduling, content and more. Teachers are not opposed to assessing student performance, nor are we afraid of accountability. We support good assessments that measure what students need to know. However, the fixation on standardized testing has caused us to lose track of the most fundamental goals of public education. We must provide students the capacity to learn more on their own and help them develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to our democracy.

Several months ago, before all of the controversy surrounding this year's grades 3-8 tests, the NYSUT Board of Directors developed a comprehensive resolution titled "Student Assessment: Getting it Right" for consideration by our delegates at the 2012 Representative Assembly.

The problems with this year's tests reinforce the need for the recommendations from the resolution, which was adopted overwhelmingly by delegates and is attached. The resolution demands an end to the current system of testing that harms our students and hinders real learning, and affirms our support for multiple measures of student achievement through assessments that are accurate, fair and appropriate.

The resolution also notes:

  • We believe SED must lessen the focus on the use of the current standardized tests and place greater emphasis on other measures of student learning, such as authentic assessments including performance-based assessments, student portfolios and data-folio style assessments.
  • NYSUT will work with parents to urge the Regents and SED not allow a single test score to measure a student's performance. Our mantra is: A student is more than a test score.

Clearly, the current testing system has flaws. It is also clear that simply getting Pearson and SED to fix these flaws within the existing system is not the real solution to the testing dilemma in New York State. While some say we are moving too fast, or too slow, we firmly believe it's more a matter of getting it right.

At a time when we're shifting to a common core curriculum and a new generation of tests, this is the perfect opportunity to re-examine what we're doing, make changes, and get it right. First, we need a realistic timeline that provides teachers with a new curriculum before we can assess appropriately.

Next, we must restore a balance to public education by prioritizing high-quality instruction informed by appropriate and useful assessments. We need a new system that is balanced and relies on authentic performance assessments developed by teachers to measure the learning of all students.

Authentic assessment constitutes the core method educators use in classrooms. These assessments recognize the wide range of student learning styles that standardized tests fail to take into account. Authentic assessment is like a thoughtful documentary, while standardized tests are a single snapshot in time.

Teachers know how to develop assessments and what students need to know to be successful. It is time to let teachers do their job.

As you consider the current state of testing in New York and the concerns you have heard today, it is critically important you act now to protect teachers from media abuses if data from these tests are linked to teacher performance and made public.

Divulging that information through the media will corrupt the intent of the new teacher evaluation system, especially when the data that is likely to be created through the current system of testing in New York is as defective and imprecise as we have outlined.

We ask you to approve legislation that will clearly prohibit the media and general public from having access to teacher/principal evaluations and other personnel information. We all witnessed the shameful media exploitation when the New York City Board of Education released grossly inaccurate and unfair teacher data reports of approximately 12,000 public school teachers.

Let's not make that mistake again. Let's instead work together to ensure student testing data is used to help improve teaching practice and student learning - not to publicly shame teachers and principals.

Thank you for holding this hearing and for allowing us to shine a light on the problems we see with the current fixation on testing. It is time to restore a proper balance to public education, and to ensure that assessments, as important as they are, inform - not impede - teaching and learning.


Time Spent Taking State Tests

Grade 3

  • ELA exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • Math exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes

Grade 4

  • ELA exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • Math exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • 75 min Science performance test
  • 60 minutes for Science written test

Grade 5

  • ELA exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • Math exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes

Grade 6

  • ELA exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • Math exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes

Grade 7

  • ELA exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • Math exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes

Grade 8

  • ELA exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • Math exam 3 days @ 90 minutes = 270 Minutes
  • 45 min Science performance test
  • 120 min for Science written test

Grades 9-12

  • Five required Regents tests at 3 hours each equals 15 hours or 900 minutes.