November 2012
October 26, 2012

Getting it right: A student is more than a test score

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Sayville TA Second Vice President Nicole Barile, right, uses NYSUT's toolkit to inform PTA leaders, from left, Eileen Tyznar, Donna Cooley, Patty Yonkers and Marisa Milo about the need for more authentic assessments. Miller Photography.

Sayville teacher Nicole Barile is extremely concerned about the growing fixation on standardized testing. In her 12 years of teaching, she's watched the testing pressure intensify on students and teachers alike. Something's not right when a 9-year-old sits for tests that are longer than the SAT and GRE combined.

After many years as a fourth-grade teacher, Barile hoped the test prep stress might ramp down when she moved to second grade two years ago — but that was definitely not the reality.

"The kids are overwhelmed and exhausted. Even in second grade, we have to get them ready for testing next year," she said. "In kindergarten, we're expected to teach 4- and 5-year-olds test-taking strategies and work on endurance."

So Barile spoke from the heart at a recent meeting with PTA Council leaders as she explained how she wished she had more time for more meaningful assessments. Instead of all the test prep and test-taking, she would much rather spend time on engaging projects that would actually give her a better picture of how her students are doing and where they need help.

"Rather than a standardized test, there are so many better ways for students to show us what they can do," Barile said. "Depending on a student's learning style, a portfolio or a project might be the best way to let them shine. Most of all, we want to keep learning fun. Isn't that what school should be about?"

Barile said she found the parent leaders to be natural allies. "They share our concerns and want what's best for kids," said Barile, second vice president of the Sayville TA. "We all know there are much better ways to assess students — to move beyond standardized testing."

Barile, using a new toolkit developed by NYSUT for leaders, explained to PTA and school board members what an "authentic assessment" is and why it can be more valuable than the typical standardized test. "When you explain it, they completely agree," she said.

The morning after Barile's meeting with the PTA Council, parent leaders emailed Sayville TA President and NYSUT Board member Tim Southerton, suggesting Barile give her presentation at each school building in the Suffolk County district.

"They said, 'What can we do to help?'" Southerton said. "The conversation was very productive."

Barile used materials in a leader toolkit put together by NYSUT to help advance the union's statewide message that a student is more than a test score. Developed in response to a resolution at the 2012 RA, the toolkit helps educators make the case for a balanced approach to assessment.

"Our strategy is to engage in grassroots efforts, initiated by the union and 'owned' by the community," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who rolled out the toolkit to local presidents right before school opened. "The conversation in Sayville is exactly what is needed ... We need to engage parents and community members in active conversations about alternatives to standardized tests. Together, as partners, we can advocate for a balanced approach."

Around the state, union leaders are initiating conversations about alternatives to standardized testing and highlighting the needs of the whole child. This year, students are experiencing more testing than ever as districts start phasing in the new evaluation.

"The toolkit items helped give us a starting point, to offer some solutions to what everybody knows is a problem," Southerton said. "It's not us preaching to the community. We don't need to do that. It's about helping parents and others learn more about student assessment and moving forward with using multiple measures to assess student learning."