December 2012 Issue
- Testing/Assessments & Learning Standards
November 20, 2012

Tell it like it is! Educators lay it on the line in letters to commissioner, Regents

Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi encourages teachers, including Ginny Seaman, a seventh-grade science teacher, left, and Tracey Jachnert, an eighth-grade math teacher, both Arlington TA members, to "Tell it like it is" in their classrooms. Seaman and Jachnert are using NYSUT's online letter to State Education Commissioner John King and the Board of Regents to set them straight about the impact budget cuts and the testing obsession have on students and the learning environment. Add your voice! Go to Photo by Michael Weisbrot.

Wow. An avalanche of heartfelt letters that "Tell it like it is" to State Education Commissioner John King and the Regents is pouring in from educators around the state who are frustrated over the state's obsession with standardized testing and unrealistic pace of the Regents reform agenda.

Their compelling, personal stories detail how the state's budget cuts and testing fixation are hurting students. Many also offer thoughtful, commonsense solutions to address their concerns.

"While NYSUT continues to tell policymakers that 'A student is more than a test score,' we know it's our members' personal stories and anecdotes that really hit home," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "We need to keep up the pressure and let State Ed know what it's really like in today's classrooms."

NYSUT offers a new online vehicle — www.nysut/tellit — that allows members to communicate directly with state education policymakers.

It's urgent for members to send letters right now, as key decisions affecting educators and students are made in Albany every day. We need to convince education policymakers to give teachers the time, trust and resources to do what's right for students.

This effort to "Tell it like it is" builds on a NYSUT Representative Assembly resolution approved this spring that calls for an end to the current testing system in favor of one that is fair, accurate and appropriate.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and Neira, in testimony before the New NY Education Reform Commission this fall, documented how few resources have been dedicated to help educators implement the new Common Core standards and teacher evaluation system the right way.

"Our number one objective is to ensure the commission hears the realities from the field," Neira told the commission.

What's also missing, she said, is a respect for and a trust in teachers as professionals, and adequate time to make the intiatives work. Their clear message: "Frustration is boiling over."

That's proving to be an understatement.

Thousands of letters that "Tell it like it is" are being sent to the commissioner and Regents from educators in districts big and small.

The common theme: Educators want to do what's best for students.

Educators worry about how the testing pressure is hurting students, especially our youngest and those with special needs. They're anxious about how the testing fixation is taking the joy out of learning and squeezing out so many things kids love about school, like music and art. Many express fear for their own children and grandchildren — and call for policymakers to simply "stop the madness."

The educators worry about their own morale as they try to implement new curricula, a new evaluation system and administer assessments.

What follows are excerpts from letters that convey these very sentiments. They are printed with the permission of the authors; one name was withheld as requested. We hope they will inspire YOU to add your voice to the conversation! It's simple! Go to www.nysut/tellit to fill out the online letter. Write as much or as little as you like, and hit send. Your letter will be delivered to the commissioner and the Regents.

Fixation on testing does not improve learning. Students are stressed from testing pressure.

How sickening is it that we have to force our students to fail something right at the start of a school year? Some came home crying because they have never failed anything in their life ... they felt completely depleted and discouraged. Whoever thought of this brilliant plan left out the most important factor ... the students' well-being!

Administering tests that students are going to fail in their first week of school sets a tone for students that is unhealthy for them academically, socially and emotionally and does not achieve the end goal of greater teacher performance!

Andrew Palumbo, Jamesville

My son is stressed to the point of crying himself to sleep the night before a test, which seems to be often. He is a straight A student. He plans to go to college. He is a hard worker. Beyond all of this he has wonderful teachers. He does not need to be tested to find out what he doesn't know or to be able to give his teacher a score.

Let local boards and administration be responsible for their schools. That is why we pay taxes and elect our school boards. We do not need you to tell us how to do it.

Teacher and parent of an Allegany County school student

I am an instrumental music teacher. I needed to give an SLO assessment this year. I had to ask students to play scales I know they have not studied yet. I know this because I am their teacher for three consecutive years. I told the students I did not expect that they could answer all of the questions. The look in their eyes when I asked them information THEY know I know they don't know was heartbreaking. [Students] trust us to use their time wisely and to ask them questions they have the possibilty of answering correctly. They trust us not to humiliate them!

I was told in training for developing the SLO for band that I could not evaluate students using any materials they had seen before. I do not know of any situation in music where that is a requirement for success. The whole concept behind music is: We learn by investing time in learning something complex. We learn to have a relationship with the material we are working on through the time spent in concentrated practice.

I am also the mother of a second-grade student who has always been a happy, confident learner. After weeks of pre-testing that are now required in school, she came home and said, "Mama, I hate myself. I'm not even good at math anymore."

I have to ask, does this sound like a situation that is creating a positive learning environment in our schools? Does this sound like a situation that helps children feel empowered in their learning? Does this sound like a situation that will create the desire for life-long learning? I think not.

Shannon Chamberlain, Lowville

My students have stopped investing in their own learning and knowledge. Instead of using their knowledge to support their own individual thinking and ideas, they want to know how to answer questions to get the highest score on the state exams.

The question they ask when a new concept is being introduced is "Will this be on the test?"

Learning for its own value is vanishing in the classroom due to these exams.

Testing is only one tool to assess a student's knowledge and growth. After teaching for over 20 years, I know which of my students will perform well on the tests. This does not mean that they are my brightest or most productive students. Some sort of portfolio or teacher recommendation is needed to truly understand a student's growth.

David Gestwick, a Long Island middle school teacher

Already I see significant growth in students I have known for less than 30 days of instruction, yet some will be defeated by the bar that's set so high for student performance at the end of the year. The new Core Standards are a positive change, but the bar has to be raised incrementally with increased support for teachers to unpack what the standards mean.

Students in my third-grade class have not had adequate exposure to prior learning experiences to lay the foundation for this type of learning. This transition to a new curriculum and evaluation has produced too much stress for children to effectively learn and for teachers to develop high quality activities in all areas of the elementary curriculum. Parents do not have adequate information about the changes to support their children.

The process has to slow down and adjust for acclimation to the changes. Children are missing out on something they can never retrieve — their childhood.

Lynn Grainger, Millbrook

Already, many students have expressed stress because they don't want to be responsible for their teacher getting a low rating. (One of our high school students has already sent every administrator in our district info on the film "Race to Nowhere.")

Other students know the pre-test can't count in their grade, so they make patterns on their Scantrons with their answers, rendering their baselines meaningless. On top of that, teachers have gotten very little training on the many changes to our profession.

Little kids don't understand what a baseline test is and think they've suddenly become stupid. I heard about an entire class of kindergartners weeping at the unfamiliar work on the pre-test. What will their attitude toward school and testing become?

Likewise, kids with disabilities won't comprehend the idea of a baseline. They will feel frustrated and stupid as well. Please look at what you've created and consider how it makes students feel about learning.

Jane Weinkrantz, Centerport

The directives to constantly test are causing a great deal of stress for the students. There are many ways to check for understanding and testing is just one. We are spending so many hours developing tests that good instruction is coming secondary. The amount of time being spent in meetings and workshops talking about RTTT, APPR, SLOs, mandates, standards, indicators, observations ... is draining energy and morale. It needs to stop now. Leave decisions to the local level. If a school is in good standing, why destroy what is making it successful?

Elise BeaulieuSaranac High School

Teacher morale is suffering. Parents are upset.We need to slow down!

Teachers are worn out. Between planning for their regular classes, creating SLOs and scrambling to make up lost instructional time due to the test requirement, we're just beat. Beat and demoralized. If we felt all of this testing was meant to improve instruction, that would be one thing. But the truth is, it's being used to evaluate teachers.

Base teacher evaluations on actual observable teaching and learning, not test scores.

Can a test evaluate how a student has gone from barely showing up at school to showing up more? No.

Can a test show how a teacher has helped a student advocate for himself? No.

Can a test show how a teacher helps build up a student's self-confidence? No.

Can a test show how a teacher counseled a student or prevented him from harm by directing a problem to another counselor or social worker? No.

Teaching is so much more than numbers. It's a shame SED and the Board of Regents don't seem to recognize that.

Larry Tuxbury, Guilderland schools

For the past 40 years, Plainview-Old Bethpage has been a high-achieving district. Our students go off to the finest colleges and succeed. Why would anyone think that all of the state tests they are forced to take and the time spent preparing them would improve their learning in any way?

Parents, too, are upset at the amount of time their children are spending on state test-related issues. There is a growing chorus of parents talking about keeping their children out of school on testing dates. That's how frustrated they are.

The only question is whether the state limits its testing in some sensible way, or will a coalition of teachers, administrators and parents grow to where they can bring irresistible political pressure on their leaders to end the testing obsession in our state?

You are destroying the ability of our district to deliver superior education to our children. You must end this madness now.

Morton Rosenfeld, Plainview

Instruction can improve with commonsense solutions. Let us have input! Trust us!

  • Teachers are professionals and we are the ones in the classroom. Ask us more for input.
  • We all need to realize that children are not robots — they are human and are much more than a test score.
  • Focus on the Common Core and good programming.
  • More services for students "in need." Please don't pretend that this is not a problem. Poverty adds many different problems to education.
  • Teachers should NOT be evaluated on things they have no control over.
  • ~Teachers need more training and support.

Pamela Thoreck, Syracuse city schools

While the Common Core would have us teach students to become creative, independent thinkers, capable of tackling difficult college courses and the careers of the future, constant and rigid assessment requires that we teach to the test, and disallow creativity. Students cannot learn to solve problems or explore subjects of interest, because their test scores are the one and only standard of good teaching.

Instead of rigid pre- and post-testing that defines the ability of a teacher, I suggest that students be allowed to pursue paths that help them become open-minded, enthusiastic learners. Through problem-based learning, teachers can follow the Standards of the Common Core and encourage students to excel at subjects that are of interest. With the support of strong school libraries, students can have the resources to reach beyond memorization, and learn to solve problems independently.

I beg you to reconsider what constant testing is doing to the morale and quality of our educational system.

MaryAnn Karre, school librarian, West Middle School, Binghamton

There is less time for project- based learning. We are racing the clock to get to every one of those Common Core fluencies in math and ELA. There is no time for Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein or anything "playful" anymore. In fact, there are days when my first graders don't have TIME TO PLAY! This is developmentally INAPPROPRIATE!!

Stop using flawed, recycled, secret "GOTCHA" tests to evaluate our students. Eight-year-olds do NOT need to sit for nearly six hours for a teacher to be able to identify where the child has gaps or strengths.

TRUST that, as professionals with master's degrees, we can identify issues better than a bubble test or a computerized test. We KNOW our KIDS!

Michelle Enser, West Valley schools

I think we need to change a few things in the education system. First, how about we mandate kindergarten. Secondly, let's change the entrance age from 5 by Dec. 1 to Sept. 1.

Third, how about we mandate that students can no longer drop out of school at 16. Fourth, how about we start to think logically about the false notion that all children should be able to perform equally. This world is not made up of robots that can be programmed to all succeed in the same way. We all have different gifts, talents and intellectual abilities.

That in no way means that all kids can't learn. However, it does mean we need to stop expecting more than some kids can give.

Lastly, I want to say that I love my profession and will continue to do the best job I can regardless of the craziness that surrounds me. I will not break or be defeated by the lack of common sense state leaders seem to possess.

Lucy Hawthorne, kindergarten teacher, Fulton city schools

Stop listening to people who have no experience in the classroom. Our children's education should not be co-opted by publishers and lobbyists out to make a buck. Put money into the schools to allow for the arts, computers and library, so we are developing well rounded, thoughtful people, not people who can only bubble in a scan sheet.

Evaluate teachers in things that matter, such as how they foster independent thinking and creativity. Having standards and rubrics posted around the room means nothing to students. They don't read them. Those kinds of things are only for the "evaluator" so that she/he can walk in and out of a room and check a box on the checklist of the evaluation.

Allow teachers to be a part of the evaluation process. It shouldn't be something done to them, but instead with them. Stop micro-managing us!

Invest in programs that allow future teachers the time to student teach for a full school year. Like a residency program doctors go through. I have student teachers who spend only six weeks in my classroom. That is barely enough time to go through one unit of study.

Kathleen Nolan-Kasal, first grade teacher, PS 226, Queens

Students with special needs have to be given greater credit for how hard they work.

I teach special education. I have a self-contained class for children with autism. Many of these students have social deficits as well as cognitive challenges. They already experience anxiety, and to add additional layers of "assessment" to the daily work is making them uncomfortable and they are beginning to express themselves in inappropriate ways. Having them take grade level pre-tests on material they are not familiar with makes them feel "stupid" and quite frankly, is a waste of their time. It does NOT drive instruction. As most of my students are functioning one or two years below grade level, I teach them where they are, not where they "should be" according to their chronological age.

I believe students with cognitive disabilities need to be given credit for how hard they work to make small gains. They may not learn, or demonstrate learning, the way their typical peers do, but they clearly make progress and learn to survive in a community of learners. The professionals who teach them move mountains to ensure students get the individualized attention and time they need to learn skills. These students should NOT be subjected to "grade level" assessments, and the scores they might get on these "assessments" should not be added to the mix of the typically developing students.

Siouxzanne Harris, Arlington schools

My roster includes more than 100 students who are categorized as ESL/ELL. They range in English proficiency from newcomer to intermediate levels. They arrive with little to no English, little to no educational experience in their home countries (Somalia, Burma, Nepal, Kenya, Sudan, etc.), and little to no basic skills in science.

Yet, these hard-working students are held to the same goals and expectations as those of native-born students. They also are held to accomplish those tasks in the same amount of time.

Most of my students will take the Regents exam multiple times without success. However, I do not believe it is the science that is causing the difficulties. I believe the test is written at too high an English level for them to apply what they do know.

My students, however, never give up and will stay after school for tutorial every day, repeat the test as often as allowed, sit in my class during study halls and study for hours all year. Most are very dedicated to graduating and going on to college and/or career.

My suggestion is to create an exam that tests my students' knowledge in science, a test written at their level of English ability. I suggest that the exam be read to students as they do not always recognize the written word but may when they hear it. We do this for students with special needs. Why can we not do this for ELL? Do they not also have special needs?

Patricia Metzger, Utica