Op-Eds

Testing overkill and its consequences

New York's mindless embrace of high-stakes exams has produced widespread confusion

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Daily News on Oct. 1, 2018.]

What is the percentage of New York City elementary and middle-school students proficient in reading? 69 percent (in 2009)? 27 percent (in 2014)? 46 percent (in 2018)?

The answer: all of the above.

The confusion comes from the fact that New York City and State fell prey to the movement that made standardized tests in reading and math the only important measure of student and school success. In thousands of schools across the state, social studies, art, music and other non-tested subjects all but disappeared from classrooms as teachers were pressured by administrators to raise test scores at all costs.

What happened next was no surprise. In the 1970s, social scientist Donald T. Campbell predicted that “…when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process.”

Schools became test-prep factories. Children sat through hours and days of test-taking strategies rather than real learning. Children’s results were factored into a mysterious “value-added” algorithm that claimed — without solid evidence — to be able to evaluate the quality of teachers and schools.

Focusing all this attention on a single flawed measure appeared at first to work. Scores did rise, but then fell dramatically when the state decided that the tests on which so much time and energy had been devoted had become too easy to game.

Finally, tens of thousands of parents pulled their children out of the process, joining teachers in rebelling against the test-and-punish regimen beloved of hedge-fund charter school supporters, former Mayor Bloomberg and other advocates of school “reform.”

Since then, the state has shortened the testing days and the number of questions children have to answer. While this was the right move, this has ensured that the scores of one year of testing — including the most recent — cannot be compared to previous results.

Even under these circumstances, the fact that New York City reading scores are slightly higher than the state’s is a very positive trend that began in 2016. That success is a tribute to the hard work of students and their teachers.

In contrast to the previous administration, which amplified its bogus claims of success, the de Blasio administration has not overstated these recent gains.

But the unfortunate reality is that the testing regimen that still afflicts millions of New York students continues to have a political rather than an educational purpose: to give the public the illusion that policymakers are keeping a close eye on schools.

It’s ironic that lost in the debate over this issue was the fact that all these tests have been of little or no use to the people who need the results the most. Most teachers I know would welcome the state’s creation of timely diagnostic tests that would help them do their jobs — to identify each child’s strengths and weaknesses in time to help remedy them.

The current system, with students tested in the spring but results unavailable until late summer or early fall, serves no one’s real needs.

New York has begun to undo the legacy of lost instruction and parental anger brought about by the school “reform” movement. Testing has been somewhat reduced, and standardized test results have become less punitive for both students and teachers. But we have a ways to go to create a real culture of support for the schools and teachers that our children need.

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