Delegates were tough, yet respectful, as they asked State Education Commissioner John King a series of questions about why his department is overemphasizing standardized tests and moving so fast on Common Core assessments. Their questions focused largely on what the state's obsession with testing is doing to their students.
"It's not about Common Core implementation - it's about testing next week when we just started teaching it this September," said Donna Verbeck, Riverhead Central FA, during a question-and-answer session following King's brief remarks. "Why are we giving these tests now if [students] are not ready?"
She said one of her brightest students took a Common Core-based exam recently and was extremely anxious that she didn't finish. "She said, "I don't think I'm going to college," Verbeck said. "In fourth grade!"
"I understand that concern," King said. "The transition to Common Core is not a one-year experience." However, he said, the department and the Regents decided to offer the Common Core-based state assessments in English language arts and math this spring because the new instruction is under way.
NYSUT has strongly made the case that this spring's grade 3-8 ELA and math tests should not be used for high-stakes decisions involving students or teachers. Most states are waiting until 2014 to begin Common Core-based testing.
Indian River TA's Cheryl Smith quoted from the commissioner's March 25 letter assuring educators that while he expects scores to decline significantly, there would be no negative impact on schools or student growth scores.
"The effect on morale will be devastating," Smith said. "I'm talking about the morale of students who have worked so hard to do their best and will be getting 1s and 2s. The impact of getting 1s and 2s will be felt for years by students who care so much."
King said he shares that concern, and that's why it will be important to "frame the message" when children take the tests on Tuesday, and again, when the scores come back.
"The message is that these assessments are an opportunity, not a judgment of failure," King said. "It's an opportunity to see how we do against something that is challenging ... after all, we want students to become adults who are courageous about taking challenges."
Peekskill Faculty Association member Mary Boyle, a reading specialist, said the research says children should be tested at reading level, yet the Common Core testing is written at higher than grade level.
"This is the worst possible practice if a fourth-grade reading test is written at a seventh-grade level," she said.
King said part of the vision of Common Core is that students must be able to read text at a higher level, so the pace must change. When he visited a North Country BOCES, he learned the national electric code is written at a higher complexity than the majority of high school level text. "Students have been underchallenged in vocabulary and complex sentence structure," he said.
Kara Popiel, Yonkers Federation of Teachers, inquired why professional development has been neglected. "There's a lack of resources and support. A lack of materials and human resources," she said. Yonkers has no librarians in elementary schools, very few reading teachers, and limited support services, while class sizes are at 30. She said it is "heartbreaking" to watch students and English language learners forced to take grade-level exams.
King said federal law requires ELLs and students with disabilities to take grade-level exams but he hopes that is re-evaluated when federal laws are reauthorized.
"I do think, over time, with computer-based testing, there may be an opportunity to think differently about this," where students will be able to take individualized exams. As for resources, he said he and the Regents have advocated for more support, but school aid is determined by the Legislature and the governor. He noted professional development should not be viewed as a luxury, but a necessity.
When several delegates remained at the mics when time ran out, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi urged delegates to submit their questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.