State testing not what’s best for our students

Monday, February 22, 2016
This op-ed first appeared in Newsday on Feb. 22.

When it comes to advocating what is best for our students, I try hard to push back but not push buttons. It’s difficult not to push buttons.

To date, the U.S. Education Department will not relent on requirements to test students on English Language Arts and mathematics in third through eighth grades. In December, it reminded New York State that federal funding could be at stake if too many children don’t take the tests. Because parents of 240,000 students opted out of state assessments last year, hundreds of public schools fell below the 95 percent participation rate. This year will be higher.

Here are the facts for the testing season this spring:

  • State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have said parents have the right to opt out their third- through eighth-graders of assessments.
  • Assessments of third- through eighth-graders will not count for students and teachers for the next several years
  • This year, assessments in ELA and mathematics are still designed by Pearson. The state Education Department did not extend its contract with the company in July. In 2012, Pearson-made tests included errors, such as an absurd reading passage with the illogical theme “Pineapples don’t wear sleeves.”
  • The state Education Department has pointed to significant changes in this year’s assessments. The new assessments are now untimed and have fewer questions. It may sound like something significant, but the devil is always in the details. In a memo to superintendents, Deputy Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green highlighted the “significant changes.” For example, the third- and fourth-grade ELA tests will have four reading passages (one fewer than last year) and seven short essays (one fewer than last year).
  • The assessments are age-inappropriate and aligned with the Common Core standards, which won’t exist as we know them in New York State in the future. In December, Elia said new standards would be designed and rewritten over the next few years. In fact, she said, “We’ve already started it.”

Knowing this, why would any student take these assessments? Over-testing students with invalid and unreliable state assessments is not what’s best for our children. The answer is to swing the testing pendulum back toward reality — focusing on the whole child. This includes the social, emotional and academic growth for all our students. This means more play and recess for children. We can do this as we hold students, teachers and school districts accountable.

There is value in appropriate and varied assessments for different purposes that inform students, parents, the school district and community. But assessments should never be attached to teacher performance. For assessment to have any value, it needs to move away from the autopsy model to a daily checkup. This in turn will allow teachers and principals to continuously identify student strengths, accomplishments and talents so we can design the ideal learning experiences that meet student needs. Preparing students for the workforce takes a back seat to preparing our children for success in life.

School districts with high opt-out rates should not be penalized with loss of federal education funds. These students need resources the most. In fact, school districts with the highest opt-out rates should be rewarded because that exemplifies that we value our children.

The next few months will set the stage for the next 40 years in public education. To get to the root of the problem, we first must define it. We don’t have a child problem. The problem is the adult leaders who influence and set policy and mandates for school districts related to perpetuating the autopsy model. These adults make decisions that reduce our children to numbers, and the “substantive changes” proposed by state education officials are fixes that fail.

Pushing the pendulum back to focus on the whole child is what’s best for all children.

Michael Hynes is the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District.

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