Testimony on the impact of standardized testing on students

Testimony of UFT Vice President for Intermediate and Junior High Schools Richard Mantell before the New York City Council Committee on Education

Good afternoon. My name is Richard Mantell and I am the vice president for junior high and intermediate schools for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of our 200,000 members, I want to thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

The rapid proliferation of standardized tests in our schools has had a deleterious effect on our children. Meaningful teaching and learning has too often been replaced by mindless test prep — an unproductive exercise that teachers derisively call "drill and kill." While the Bloomberg administration and so-called education ‘reformers’ promote testing and test-prep as the end-all and be-all to ensure accountability, the real effect is that weeks of valuable classroom instruction time are lost every year.

Compounding the problem is that tests have become high-stakes. Standardized test results now determine everything from whether or not a student moves to the next grade to the level of funding that schools receive. The scores also factor into a portion of evaluations for administrators and teachers. Our children and our teachers cannot be reduced to a test score.

The testing craze has gotten so completely out of hand that we’re now seeing students in kindergarten, first and second grade forced to take exams with bubble-in answer sheets. We all know that this is developmentally inappropriate. Students in the primary grades often lack the manual dexterity or other test-taking skills necessary for such an exam. Just think about it for a moment — kindergarteners who haven’t even begun to transition from those big thick crayons to holding a pencil or who haven’t yet learned how to stay within the lines on a drawing are being asked to sit still and take fill-in-the-circle tests. The NYC Department of Education and the state Education Department both deny ownership on that initiative, but the fact remains that it’s going on in dozens of schools.

For the so-called ‘reformers’ obsessed with testing, only data matters: it’s all about producing numbers in the name of accountability and the result is a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Forget the totality of a student’s portfolio of work over the course of a year, and forget too whether or not the student had a bad day or doesn’t test well. That stuff just doesn’t compute.

More and more, however, the flaws in that failed strategy are coming to light. The most notable example was the precipitous drop in test scores earlier this year once standards were raised. What those test scores revealed, of course, was that prepping for a test does not work. All it does is prepare students for a test, not for deeper critical thinking. It wasn’t enough for the Bloomberg administration or the State Education Department to make a mad scramble at managing expectations about the test scores. What they should have done is held a real dialogue with parents to properly explain the scores. More than that, they should have put supports in place to address the needs of the lowest-scoring children.

But the state and the Bloomberg administration failed to do either and as a result the high-stakes tests are now threatening the future of the higher standards that we’re trying to achieve in our classrooms. One need only look at the video from Poughkeepsie, or listen to the news reports out of Long Island, or talk to teachers in our own city to know that high standards are under threat because of high stakes have been attached to them.

Parents worry about the pressure on their children who suddenly feel like failures. Teachers are pressured to produce better results without a curriculum. And children bear the brunt. The standards are not the real problem, it’s the high stakes that are attached to them. Regardless of what one thinks of the Common Core standards, higher standards are vitally important for our students, and we do them great harm if we fail to ask them to reach high.  But how can you raise standards when the short-term bottom line, test scores, has come to define who our children are?

The expansion of testing has also become a lucrative venture for the big companies that make millions of dollars developing and printing the exams. Those multimillion dollar contracts have unfortunately come hand-in-hand with a long list of well-documented problems, including tests with nonsensical questions or wrong answers and inaccurate scoring. Many tests that schools used were off-the-shelf products that had   students only solve single-step problems or repeat writing passages rather than do any analysis or performance tasks.

It’s small wonder that the backlash against the so-called ‘reformers’ continues to grow, as more and more teachers and parents are revolting against the misguided testing craze by rallying in the streets and having their children boycott the tests. A Siena College poll just last week showed that more than half of New Yorkers now believe there is too much testing in schools.

The backlash has also finally motivated the DOE to begin rethinking its own failed strategies. In a forum on accountability hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, a DOE official was forced to acknowledge that the department’s obsession with test scores has stifled creativity, stalled new programs and caused schools to narrow their curriculum and instead prioritize test prep. The DOE’s acknowledgement is a good first step, but there’s a lot of work ahead to undo years of bad policies.

Moratorium on using standardized tests for high stakes

The UFT’s highest representative body, the 3,400-member Delegate Assembly, has passed two major resolutions in recent weeks to address some of the major testing issues facing our schools.

The first resolution is a moratorium on attaching consequences to standardized tests. Since our union’s founding more than 53 years ago, the UFT has remained committed to ensuring that teachers have the ability to help every child achieve, which includes making sure they get the materials, training and support they need. But some teachers have still not received curriculum or training for teaching the Common Core standards. It’s unfair and unacceptable for teachers to be judged on tests for which they cannot properly prepare their students because they lack the necessary curriculum resources, student reading materials and training.

Our resolution states that “attaching high-stakes consequences to the new state exams at this time would be reckless and damaging to our public schools in light of the failure of the city to ensure that schools and teachers received adequate resources and professional development prior to the start of this school year” "We have therefore called for the moratorium “until representatives of all interested parties — including parents and educators — have worked with members of Congress, the state Legislature, the state Commissioner of Education, the Board of Regents and the New York City Panel for Educational Policy to carefully examine how well the new curricula, professional development and tests align to the Common Core standards”.

The moratorium is both prudent and reasonable in light of the huge problems the DOE and SED have had in rolling out the new standards and curriculum.

Ban on standardized tests for students pre-K to second grade

The UFT, along with parents and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) have also called for the ban of standardized testing for children in 2nd grade and younger. We believe these tests not only take away valuable time that should be used for teaching and learning, but also put at risk children’s love of learning at an age when they are just starting their classroom experience. As we all know, negative school experiences can stay with us for a lifetime.

What can bubble tests possibly capture about what young children know and can do? Every 5-year-old is developmentally unique. Informal assessments that tell parents and teachers where they are at a given moment are great. They help us move kids forward.  But how do we pass final judgment on whether students are above, below, or at some arbitrary standard of what it means to be 5? How many bubbles make a 5-year- old “just right”? We need more than test scores to understand the developmental levels, needs and strengths of 5-year olds.

Bubble tests don’t accomplish anything at a young age, certainly nothing remotely close to helping to develop cognitive thinking or problem-solving skills. Teachers have other ways of establishing student baselines. Teachers have always assessed K-2 students for purposes of instruction and promotion, but never using standardized tests. New Yorkers understand all this, and that’s why more than 10,000 people have signed our online petition in a week’s time, with hundreds more signatures pouring in every day. The ban is just common sense.

Using tests as they are intended — as tools

Teachers have been giving tests forever to assess students, and rightfully so. When they’re used correctly, a quiz here or an essay exam there, tests can be an important diagnostic tool for a teacher designing an educational plan for his or her students. “Tool” is the key word.

Since each student is unique, teachers differentiate instruction. Tests can be a useful tool for this by helping teachers determine whether students are ready to move onto new material or whether they need academic intervention or added scaffolding. Teachers can also use test results to make adjustments to their own approaches and presentation of content. Students, meanwhile, can use tests as safe avenues for exploring the depth of their knowledge and for practicing their skills.

In other words, testing can be used in a positive and beneficial way to enhance a student’s education. Testing does not have to be a high-stakes ‘gotcha’ game in which children, teachers or school communities face the potential of being labeled as failures.

Sadly, we’ve gotten away from a commonsense approach to testing thanks to a single-minded DOE that has repeatedly and willfully ignored the research and advice of experts and educators alike. Testing now is all about “accountability,” not real learning. That mentality is wrong, and it’s harming our students. 

The UFT stands with parents, advocates and elected officials who are taking a stand against high-stakes testing. After 10 years of increased standardized testing, the achievement gap is the same. The testing strategy is not working. Now with the rollout of the Common Core standards, we need students and teachers to feel positive and invested in their schools, not stressed and afraid of being labeled or set up to fail. It’s time to end the excessive use of standardized tests and allow teachers to focus on what really matters: teaching s in a comprehensive and holistic way for students to develop the critical thinking skills they need to grow and succeed in life.

To that end we support proposed Resolution Number 1394 calling for the 'New York State Education Department, the New York Legislature and the governor to reexamine public school accountability systems and to develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment that do not require extensive standardized testing. We thank Councilmembers Jackson and Brewer for their leadership on this issue.

As it relates to Proposed Introduction 925, the UFT is strongly committed to arts education in our public schools and we believe that the reporting called for in this proposed legislation will shed important light on the availability of arts instruction and student completion of arts requirements. We support the proposed legislation and thank Councilmember Jackson and the other sponsors for their leadership on this issue.

Finally, as it relates to Proposed Introduction 1091 requiring the DOE to provide information to all student families about college savings plans, we think this would greatly serve families and students in preparing for college. We support the proposed resolution and thank Councilmember King and the other sponsors for their leadership on this issue.

Thank you.

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