My daughter and my son had the same teacher for third grade. When Lissie was in her class, they did several creative, exciting projects that stuck with Lissie for a long time. When Josh had her, three years later, many of those fabulous units had disappeared.
What was the difference? New York State switched their ELA tests from only being given in fourth and eighth grade to every year from third grade to eighth grade. The result—teachers being encouraged to teach to the test and much of our more innovative curriculum gone.
This week is ELA week in New York State and I’m hearing a lot of frustration from parents. Our children have been drilled on this all year and each year the stakes are getting higher. While previously, they were a general measure of how a school was doing, they have now become a tool to rate individual teachers and are often used for student placement, both of which put more pressure on the teacher and the children.
I know it's important to understand how our children are doing, but in districts like Clarkstown, our teachers have a very good feel for their students' abilities. Most of the time, they don't need a test to tell them who is struggling and who is thriving--they can tell from the daily classwork.
Allison Jaynes pointed out that, “Our schools are getting crushed by the pressure to maintain high scores on these exams. The recent isolated DINI (District in Need of Improvement) rating in CCSD put even more pressure on the district and therefore teachers due to these tests. I know that programs like the French Exchange were trashed in order to make sure kids were prepared for the tests. It’s awful.”
Several years ago, one of Clarkstown’s building principals was accused of altering her schools tests, a temptation that many teachers and administrators face when so much is riding on the results. This has happened in other districts around the country, most notably in Atlanta, where close to 200 teachers were implicated in cheating on their state’s standardized tests. Ironically, the Atlanta school superintendent, Beverly Hall, had been named National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, largely due to test score gains in her district.
As Susan Lee-Chong said, “Because the results are linked to teacher's merit pay and their own evaluations, they are putting a lot of pressure on the kids. I was thinking this morning, how many teachers are going to be caught changing their students’ answers before they hand the test in? Cynical, I know, but it has been done by a lot of teachers who know their kids could do better than what their scores are...Trying to make a system of objective norms when the students, teachers and circumstances are all SUBJECTIVE, this is not the way to evaluate schools, teaching and students.”
Several students I spoke with yesterday after the first day of testing, reported the test to be extremely difficult. In the words of one eighth grader, “The test made even the 9H kids (students who are a year ahead in honors English) feel dumb.” My son said there were several questions that felt like they had no right answer and other students said they struggled to pick from several seemingly right answers.
Why are we doing this to our children? My daughter still has standardized test anxiety and I would link it to the worry she felt in fourth grade. Julie Weinstein said that her eighth grade daughter had a nightmare before the test.
Test prep colors the structure of the English classes for the entire year. “It’s pretty sad when our bright children are made to be anxious over these tests,” said Margaret Gillespie. “The English quarterly exams are totally ELA-based rather than the subject material from that quarter.”
“In my four years of experience with this test, I never remember teachers stressing them so much,” said Melissa Siegel. "They used to be a non entity, now both of my kids were stressed. Is it because CCSD scores were down and our reputation is on the line? Is it because teacher reviews are now tied to their students' performance? Both? Whatever the reason, I feel general education has been compromised due to so much extra devoted to test prep.”
Laurie McDermott agreed. “I think we've lost sight of how to actually give these kids a good education. They have lousy vocabularies, can't think for themselves and worry about the grade rather than comprehending the subject. The tests need to be reevaluated and rewritten.”
Patti Zodda felt that while the tests can have value, she’d like to see them administered less often. Debi Margolies wished that the same guidelines that are given to our children during test weeks were applied to the entire school year. “It always frustrated me that the teachers would stress ‘get a lot of sleep,’ ‘eat a good breakfast,’ etc. And my favorite—‘no homework tonight due to the ELA!’ Why don't they give the same importance to a math or English test that is part of their normal school work? My kids always had homework in addition to a ‘big math test tomorrow!’”
Not only are the tests stressful, they are also very disruptive to the regular learning and the school day. “It’s not just 90 minutes a day of testing for sixdays,” Allison Jaynes said, referring not only to this week's ELAs, but next week's math assessments. “The rest of the learning day is lost because teachers don't want to move ahead with their curriculum because the other classes that don't have that subject on that shortened day would be behind. So mostly they just sit around and read or watch videos. So make that six full days of instruction lost.”
Patch Mom’s Council member, Sheila summed it up, “I want my children to love learning, not dread exams.” In this environment, I think that will happen less and less. I hope things turn around and changes are made, but I’m not optimistic."