Parents right to push legitimate testing concerns

Frustration isn’t such a bad thing if you mix it with hope and initiative. That’s the case with the Petrova Parents Club.

This PTA-style group does the same kinds of things as others of its kind, such as organizing student activities and fundraising for school equipment, but recently it did something different – something many parents are hungry for, something that drew at least one parent from Plattsburgh and a teacher from Keeseville to the school auditorium. The club organized a forum to discuss problems with the way New York state tests elementary school students.

A panel of teachers, principals and superintendents, including the local BOCES superintendent representing the state Education Department, shared their perspectives and answered questions from a sizable audience. Not everyone went away satisfied with the answers, but it’s important that dozens of people got together to seriously question mandates that came down from Albany and Washington and which affect our kids.

It’s even more important that these people are following it up. Petrova Parents Club President Zoe Smith closed the forum by asking who would be willing to meet about forming a local advocacy group on this matter, and many people raised their hands. They’ve since met and formed a separate advocacy group, the Saranac Lake Parent Faculty Education Alliance. Expect to hear a lot more from them in the future.

Testing students on what they’re supposed to have learned isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Neither are national standards, even if they’re harder than what we’re used to. There’s much to like in the new national Common Core, for instance; however, it would have been better to phase it in over three years instead of one. This spring’s state tests will be shockingly harder they previous ones, a sign that somewhere along the line, kids were not state education officials’ top priority.

That’s not the only cause for concern with the way New York state carries out its testing, beyond the overall “teaching to the test” tunnel vision that’s become a sad new normal since No Child Left Behind became federal law 11 years ago. Here are a few of the problems:

-“Field questions”: Scattered among the legitimate test questions are off-putting experimental ones: seventh-grade-reading-level questions on a fifth-grade test, for instance, or multiple-choice questions with no right answer, or no wrong answer. They don’t count on children’s grades, but because the tests are timed, it’s easy for a kid to waste five or 10 minutes struggling with one of these and then not finish the exam, losing points for the unanswered questions.

-Length and frequency: The annual standardized tests have sprawled onto multiple days, each with lengthy exams, for grades 3 through 8 – and then Regents exams in high school. Worse, shorter tests are needed, often multiple times a week, to prepare students for the big ones. That takes away a lot of teaching time and flexibility, forcing teachers to conform to a pattern that isn’t always best for them or their students. It doesn’t make sense to cram in so many tests that there isn’t time for teachers to help kids improve.

-“Academic Intervention Services”: So many more kids now have to do AIS due to low grades on math or English tests that they’re missing out on science, social studies and other subjects.

-Control sold: New York has farmed the testing out to the Pearson company for $32 million and thereby given up some important controls. Pearson, for instance, doesn’t provide samples – unlike the Regents or SAT, which let people practice with past years’ tests. The company also collects test booklets afterward, so parents, teachers and students don’t get to see how the kids did on each question. That again makes it hard to help a kid improve.

-Tying teacher pay to test results: What about when a great teacher gets a tough class? What about when a lousy teacher gets a smart class? What about when a group of kids hates a teacher – maybe an excellent one, whom they resent for holding them accountable – and decides to play a nasty trick by intentionally flunking to drive down the teacher’s pay? Teachers do need to be graded, and that’s where administrators come in. It might even be fine if those evaluations took into account student and parent surveys, but including test scores just isn’t fair.

These initiatives are coming down from Washington, with Race to the Top funds being given with strings attached to enact reforms the Obama administration wants. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has bought right into it, over the objections of teachers’ and school administrators’ unions.

These executives are at war with the unions as much as they’re trying to help students. To be fair, these unions do deserve some comeuppance, in that they fought too bitterly for things that don’t help students and communities: generous pay and benefits, defense of lousy teachers, and seniority over quality.

Gov. Cuomo says he’s bypassing the unions to help kids. It’s admirable that he’s able to push past their stubbornness, but it’s legitimate to ask, does he really know what kids need? Does he know what parents want? What about the unintended consequences? Is his medicine poisoning some of what’s good about our schools?

Those questions are what the new Saranac Lake Parent Faculty Education Alliance has to deal with. It’s a big deal, and their efforts are appreciated by parents everywhere.