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The limits of testing

New York Teacher
Michael Mulgrew Promo Image Headshot 07-19
Michael Mulgrew

A related column on the same topic appeared in the New York Daily News on Oct. 1.

It was a satisfying way to start the school year: For the third year in a row, New York City showed greater gains than the rest of the state on the state tests in math and English language arts for grades 3 through 8. The gains reflect the hard work New York City public school teachers do every day to help their students achieve success in the classroom.

New York City widened its slight advantage over the rest of the state in ELA from a .8 percentage point advantage in 2017 to a 1.5 percentage point advantage this year. On this year’s exam, 46.7 percent of city students were proficient in English versus 45.2 percent in the rest of the state. New York City is also closing in on the rest of the state in math; it’s only 1.8 percentage points behind the rest of the state this year, compared with 2.4 percentage points in 2017. In math, 42.7 percent of New York City students were proficient, compared with 44.5 percent statewide.

This year’s test results set a new baseline since the tests changed significantly from 2017 to this year. But these comparisons are meaningful and important because they are not about the passing rates, but about comparative gains. Overall, however, the lessons we can learn from this year’s results are limited. Last year, the state decreased the number of testing days and the number of questions children had to answer. It was the right move but meant that this year’s scores cannot be compared to the previous year’s scores.

The fact is we are still living with the fallout from the long infatuation with high-stakes testing, which made standardized tests in reading and math the only important measure of student and school success. As we all know, social studies, art, music and other non-tested subjects all but disappeared from classrooms during the Bloomberg era as teachers were pressured by administrators to raise test scores at all costs.

We also know that a test score is just one snapshot of a student’s abilities, and pass/fail results on state tests tell even less. Standardized tests do not tell the whole story about a student’s performance in the classroom.

The state’s three-year moratorium on the use of state ELA and math exams to rate teachers in grades 3–8 ends in June 2019. We are still waiting for Albany to pass a bill that would permanently cut the required link between state standardized test scores and teacher ratings and delete these scores from students’ permanent records.

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.

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

We’re not there yet. 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 State has begun to undo the legacy of lost instruction and parental anger brought about by the testing craze championed by the school “reform” movement. The amount of testing has been reduced, and standardized test results have become less punitive for students, schools and teachers.

But New York still has a ways to go to create a genuine culture of support for the schools and teachers that our children need.