Local union leaders gave Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia a heart-wrenching reality check of what the state’s testing regime is doing to students and teachers. Fresh from a painful first round of grades 3–8 state testing, educators at a Q&A with the commissioner described widespread student frustration, exhaustion and tears – and a disastrous foray into computer-based testing.
“I am a mandated child abuse reporter,” said Kathy Occhioni of Churchville-Chili EA, to much applause at the pre-RA session with local presidents and retiree leaders. “We probably should have been reporting what happened to our kids. After three hours of testing, more than half of my students were still taking the test. After five-and-a-half hours, I had five students still testing … That’s a crime.”
Occhioni and others said the State Education Department might have technically reduced the number of grades 3–8 ELA testing days from three days to two but, in reality, students spent even longer sitting for tests after time limits were removed.
“If you go from three days to two days, then the tests should be one-third shorter,” said math teacher James Kinnier of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor. “Instead, it was 2.8 days of testing in two days. Students spent more time sitting in two days than they would have in three.”
“I have teachers in tears. They are crying in their rooms,” said Mike Lillis (pictured above at mic), president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers. When Elia tried to tell Lillis the tests are required under federal law, he said other states have more reasonable cut scores and don’t expect their students to score among the top third of test takers in order to succeed.
Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, told Elia about a different kind of brutality inflicted with testing: Retaliation and punishment against students whose parents chose to opt their children out of state testing.
While students who took the tests were treated to ice cream socials, students whose parents opted them out of state tests were not allowed to go, Rumore said. Students who sat for state exams were allowed to go on field trips and entered for chances to win a mountain bike, Rumore said, while those who didn’t participate were not. Even worse, Rumore said some principals called parents to try to dissuade them from opting their kids out.
“We need a directive from you saying you’ve got to stop doing these things,” Rumore said. “Imagine you’re a third grader whose parent has chosen to opt you out. Think about how these students feel.”
Elia agreed and said she has made it clear that there should be no retaliation against students whose parents opt them out of exams. She said SED is reviewing the reports from Buffalo.
Other local leaders shared widespread difficulties with computer-based testing, where students were unable to log in, lost work or had to repeat entire tests.
“Our students are being tortured,” said Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Samantha Rosado-Ciriello, describing a litany of problems with computer-based testing which was piloted this year in nearly 300 schools statewide. “Students were given A-B-C-D options that all said ‘system failure.’ Students took notes and they disappeared and they had to start all over,” she said. “A two-day test turned into an interminable test ... because many of our kids are still not done.”
Elia acknowledged there were serious technical problems and said the state’s new testing company, Questar, will be held accountable and work to correct the problems in the future.
Rosado-Ciriello noted needy students are dramatically disadvantaged in taking computer-based testing because they don’t have access to computers and the Internet at home. She urged Elia to keep in mind that districts need additional resources before the state plows ahead on computer-based testing.
She asked Elia if it’s true the goal is for all schools to offer computer-based state assessments by 2020. “There is no mandated schedule for computer-based testing,” Elia answered. “There’s no question we will get to that place, but there is no mandated timeline for 2020.”
“When you are crafting policy, keep in mind the fiscal realities,” said Minisink Valley TA’s Ezra Clementson, who said his district’s technological budget has actually been cut. “You’re crafting policy off of wishes, not reality.”