July-August 2012
June 26, 2012

Testing: Enough is enough

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: From left, Albany teacher Heidi Sabatino and NYSUT officers Maria Neira and Andy Pallotta testify before the Senate Education Committee. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Seventy-four hours — or 4,500 minutes. That's how much time the average New York student spends on state standardized testing between third grade and graduation.

State lawmakers were stunned to hear that startling number doesn't even include the estimated four to six weeks per year on test prep, field tests, national exams like the SAT, or other tests administered locally.

"We are looking for a balance, prioritizing instruction, not tests," NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira told members of the Senate Education Committee at a public hearing on the Evolution of Student Assessments. "This fixation on standardized testing may profit giant testing companies, but it's cheating students out of a rich and full education."

Armed with a comprehensive resolution approved earlier this year by NYSUT's Representative Assembly, Neira and NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told lawmakers how members are deeply concerned about the overemphasis on and misuse of standardized tests, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind testing mandates.

"The high-stakes nature of these tests has exacerbated the growing fixation on testing," Neira said. "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 test performance — sometimes even closing schools — have intensified the stress on teachers and administrators, turning many schools into ‘test-prep' factories and narrowing the curriculum."

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

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!"

The teachers noted there were many problems with this year's tests that went well beyond the publicized errors. This is the first year the tests were administered by Pearson Education Inc., which was awarded a five-year, $32 million contract.

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 urged a reduction in the number of standardized tests and said 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. Fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests teach students there is only one answer, not multiple or creative solutions.

Sabatino noted state tests fail to give teachers information they need to improve instruction. "We get a score. That's it; we don't see the students' strengths and weaknesses."

At a time when the state is shifting to a common core curriculum and a new generation of tests, Neira said this is the perfect opportunity to re-examine what the state is doing, make changes and get it right. "First, we need a realistic time line that provides teachers with a new curriculum before we can assess appropriately," Neira said. "We need two to three years of practice with the new curriculum before students are held accountable for common core standards."

The teachers also injected a dose of reality into SED Commissioner John King's contention that the system will be improved once the state moves 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."

Given the problems with the state's testing system, Pallotta urged lawmakers to act immediately on legislation that would shield teachers' evaluations from the 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."

Pallotta reminded lawmakers of the shameful media exploitation that resulted when the New York City Board of Education released inaccurate data reports for more than 18,000 city teachers.

Throughout the day-long legislative hearing, Senate Education Chairman John Flanagan, R-Suffolk, asked educators, administrators, school board and parent representatives what grade they would give the state's current testing system. There were grades of zero, 1, 3, 5, incomplete — nothing close to a passing grade. Even SED Commissioner John King gave the testing system "a 6 or 7 out of 10."

"It's time to restore a proper balance to education," Neira said. "We need to ensure that assessments, as important as they are, inform — not impede — teaching and learning."