Indian River teacher Cheryl Smith opened the dialogue at NYSUT's "Tell it like it is" forum in Watertown by reading a passage from Eve Bunting's Terrible Things, an allegory of the Holocaust that illustrates what happens when people fail to challenge what's wrong.
"You have to stand up for what you know is right ... If you look the other way, terrible things can happen," Smith read aloud. "If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil, would this have happened?" The fifth-grade teacher urged her colleagues to take that message to heart - and to push back together against the State Education Department's obsession with standardized testing and rushed implementation of Common Core testing.
"What they are doing is hurting kids and offending us as professionals," Smith said. "We're being forced to be quiet - the fact we're not allowed to even talk about the tests is absolutely absurd!" "You've clearly been through two weeks of hell," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, referring to the two weeks of state assessments in April. "That's why it's so important for us to keep pushing back and make a powerful statement June 8."
Iannuzzi was referring to the upcoming rally in Albany when activists, parents, students and community members are expected to arrive by the thousands to speak out against the over-use of high-stakes tests and to fight for the future of public education.
Nearly 200 educators from around the North Country attended the forum at Case Middle School, the ninth stop on the statewide listening tour by NYSUT leaders.
Educators lined up at microphones for more than three hours to offer poignant examples of how the recent rounds of English language arts and math state assessments were hurtful for students and teachers.
They said the tests were too long, questions were too wordy and students were frustrated because they had a difficult time finishing them. Joy Seymour of Lyme Central Schools said it was ridiculous to schedule exam weeks back to back, right after vacation - and to make them even longer with additional field test questions.
"I'm offended by the word standardized," she said. "It's not standardized. It's Pearsonized."
Heather Streeter, Belleville Henderson TA, spoke as both an educator and the parent of a kindergartner. "Continuing to participate in a process that hands down changes, with very little thought on their impact, no training and no support, is no longer acceptable," she said. "We don't have to stand for this."
The obsession with testing and severe budget cuts are narrowing the curriculum and "warping" education, Streeter said. She worries about her daughter's future: "Will she learn more than English and math? Will there be art, music programs, or extracurricular activities of any kind?"
Several teachers spoke out about new SED policies that bar teachers from grading their student's tests and force them to sign confidentiality statements. "It's time to stop bullying our teachers and trust them as professionals," said Copenhagen TA's John Cain. Adirondack TA's Jim Chase said he is being forced to give his grade 9 global history final exams in May because teachers can't grade their own exams, creating huge logistical problems.
"They've created a situation where less teaching is being done, and in some cases it's up to a month," he said.
Iannuzzi said the two policies show how far from reality SED has drifted. "Once again SED is demonstrating a lack of trust," he said. Not allowing teachers to have access to or discuss test questions prevents them from knowing what students need to work on, Iannuzzi said.
As a longtime fourth-grade teacher, Iannuzzi recalled how he would review students' spelling test errors to find out what he needed to reinforce, such as long vowel sounds. "That's just good teaching practice; where the test can be a teaching tool," he said. Iannuzzi said the new confidentiality agreement was a result of the contract with Pearson to save money by keeping questions secure. He said SED made a bad decision when it decided to cut corners instead of exercising sound educational practice.
"The best defense SED can give is that we want to use these test results as a baseline... but it's a baseline that doesn't connect to anything that is being taught," Iannuzzi said. "We are using students as guinea pigs to test the test. And the baseline we're going to get is useless."
Iannuzzi said NYSUT continues to press SED to use this year's state exams only to evaluate the implementation of the Common Core Standards - and not for high-stakes decisions that would personally impact students or teachers.
When several speakers said the frustration level is causing many to leave the profession, or to urge their own children not to enter teaching, Iannuzzi implored them not to give up.
"The last thing we want to happen is to let our enemies drive the best out of our profession," Iannuzzi said. "If we drive the best away, we invite destruction."
DO IT YOURSELF
Let Commissioner King and the Regents hear from you. Tell them how the state's obsession with standardized testing is narrowing the curriculum and shortchanging students! Tell them what's happening in your classroom - and offer them solutions to get it right.
Go to www.nysut.org/ 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.