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President's Perspective

Testing students and teachers

New York Teacher

New York finally has the opportunity to end its obsession with and misuse of state standardized tests.

Albany may revise the state’s teacher evaluation system so it does not hinge on how a teacher’s students perform on high-stakes state tests, or, as has often been the case, does not rate a teacher based on how students in her school who are not even in her class perform.

The bill passed by the state Assembly on May 2 would eliminate the requirement that school districts use student results on state standardized tests to evaluate teachers. It would also prevent these scores from being part of a student’s permanent education record. Under this legislation, the use of state standardized tests in teacher ratings would become a subject of collective bargaining in each school district.

Now we’re waiting to see if the Republican-controlled Senate will do the right thing and pass it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled that he would sign the legislation if it comes to him.

For years, the UFT has been dogged in its effort to create a teacher evaluation system that provides teachers with meaningful feedback and opportunities for professional growth. We favor the use of multiple measures so a teacher’s rating is not dependent on the subjective judgment of a principal.

Right now in New York City, teacher evaluation and observation are toxic in too many schools. Principals are not using observations to give productive feedback, and it’s getting worse. Whenever a teacher gets observed one day after they speak out about something, that administrator is abusing his or her power. It’s a perversion of the process and needs to stop. Evaluation should be about supporting the work we do in the classroom. It should not be a gotcha system.

Student learning measures, when these are authentic assessments of student performance and growth, empower teachers to take ownership of their work in the classroom rather than leave their fate in the hands of potentially biased administrators.

In March, I hosted a discussion at UFT headquarters with Dr. David Koretz, the author of “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.” Koretz was eloquent in framing the issue. His book is not an anti-testing book, he said, but a book that criticizes the overuse and misuse of standardized tests. Koretz cited more than two decades worth of research that shows the nation’s obsession with high-stakes standardized tests has not created a rich education for students.

Testing at its best is a monitoring tool to guide instruction. Authentic assessments tell us what students need and help teachers get students to where they should be. But when standardized testing is placed above all other measures of learning, teachers and students are shortchanged.

It’s become a cliché to deride “teaching to the test.” But that’s because the phrase captures so well how the emphasis on standardized testing can degrade teaching and learning. We want to empower teachers to be creative in how they teach and reach students who have different capabilities and learning styles.

We know the variety of children we have in a single classroom. They all deserve the chance to succeed and thrive. The focus on high-stakes tests shuts the door on that opportunity for many of them while pushing art and music to the side.

Thanks to Gov. Cuomo and the state Board of Regents, we have a four-year moratorium that bars the use of state exams in ELA and math for grades 3–8 to rate teachers. But that moratorium ends in June 2019. Under the new legislation, the use of all state tests, including science and social studies tests, as well as high school Regents exams, in teacher evaluation would no longer be required by law.

Three years ago, Gov. Cuomo was on the opposite side of this issue. Your voices made the difference. I can’t think of a better example of the difference that a union makes in the political arena and in the quality of education in our public schools.