June 11, 2012

TESTING: Enough is enough

Source: NYSUT Communications
Caption: Left to right: Vice President Maria Neira and Executve Vice President Andy Pallotta present testimony on student assessments with educators Jane Fox of the Albany Public School Teachers Association and Hilary Llewellyn-Southern of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Even the State Education Commissioner wouldn't give the state's current testing system a good grade. When pressed at a legislative hearing by Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan, SED Commissioner John King said he would give the state's testing system a 6 or a 7 out of 10.

Others testifying before the committee were less generous. There were grades of zero, 3, 5 - and nothing higher than the commissioner's barely passing grade. One superintendent gave the testing system an "incomplete."

NYSUT officers Andy Pallotta and Maria Neira called for a major overhaul of the current testing system, saying they are deeply concerned about the overemphasis and misuse of standardized tests. "We are looking for a balance - prioritizing instruction, not tests," Neira said.

The NYSUT officers were joined at the legislative hearing by three teachers, Hillary Llewellyn-Southern, an eighth-grade teacher in Schenectady; and June Fox and Heidi Sabatino, both middle school teachers in Albany.

"I think the commissioner's score is high. I'd (give the testing system) a five," said Llewellyn-Southern, who noted that there were many problems with this year's tests that went well beyond the publicized errors.

Llewellyn-Southern said several of the questions on the English Language Arts tests had more than one correct answer. Fox agreed, noting that she and her co-teacher discussed some of the ELA passages and were unable to agree on a definitive answer on the sixth-grade exam.

The vocabulary on the tests, such as words like "beneficial" and "advantageous," was difficult, especially for English language learners, Llewellyn-Southern said. "These tests are measuring what our students can't do, not what they can."

The teachers decried this year's exhausting testing schedule, which for many schools started just as students returned from spring break. One state test followed another, with ELA, then math, then a four-part science test. "On top of that, we just finished math field tests," Llewellyn-Southern said. "We've been testing every week since the beginning of April!"

Neira noted teachers are not getting test results on a timely basis so teachers can modify instruction or start intervention services. This year, test results are not expected until August or September.

The teachers all told lawmakers that students would be better served by teacher-created authentic assessments. "We need student-centered learning," Sabatino said. "We need other measures to test very important skills," such as cooperative group work and high-level thinking.

The teachers also injected a dose of reality into SED's contention that the state could move to computer-based testing by 2014.

"How can you talk about computer-based testing when the computers in my classroom are missing keys?"" Llewellyn-Southern said.

Fox, agreed, saying there was no way her Albany middle school would have enough working computers to administer tests to 625 students in a single day.

"Some of our rural schools don't even have the capacity for broadband," Neira said. "Equity should be a big concern."

Neira and Pallotta said the average student in New York is spending at least 74 hours on standardized testing during his or her K-12 schooling, plus many hours of test prep, field tests and other tests administered locally. Neira noted NYSUT polling shows about two-thirds of public school parents agree there is too much emphasis on standardized tests.

Given all the problems with the state's testing system, Pallotta urged lawmakers to act now on legislation that would shield teachers' evaluations from the news media and general public. "We must ensure that student testing data is used to help improve teaching practice and student learning," Pallotta said. "Not to publicly shame teachers and principals."