Tests spark stress statewide
BUFFALO – New York state education officials have been sounding the alarm for months: English and math tests that schoolchildren will take this week and next will be harder than before and scores will drop.
“In fact, we expect them to be lower,” warns a video released Thursday by the state Education Department.
The tougher tests awaiting New York’s third-through-eighth-graders are aligned with the Common Core standards, a national set of guidelines intended to boost academic rigor.
While students across the state have spent hours drilling for the annual tests, a small but vocal group of parents is planning to boycott them, saying those hours could have been better spent.
Teachers and some school boards, too, have taken issue with the time spent on testing and the lack of time they’ve had to incorporate the new standards into lessons. Teachers received practice tests aligned with the Common Core last summer and fall so they could begin preparing their students, but many districts don’t yet have the necessary books and materials to teach them. In New York City, the largest public school system in the nation, schools are ordering Common Core-aligned materials now for the upcoming school year.
But top officials like state Education Commissioner John King and New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott say students can’t wait to master the harder exams if they want to compete in the global economy.
Fifty-five percent of New York students met the English Language Arts proficiency standards in 2012 by scoring at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 4, and 65 percent scored at least a 3 on the math tests.
The state Education Department says the 2013 test questions will be more advanced and students will be challenged to perform more complex tasks in line with the Common Core standards that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The standards have faced criticism from conservatives who fear federal control of schools and from some educators who oppose the standards’ emphasis on nonfiction texts at the expense of fiction.
For the written portion of the English tests, students “will need to answer questions with evidence gathered from rigorous literature and informational texts,” the department says. Students will be asked to solve math problems “rooted in the real world, deciding for themselves which formulas and tools (such as protractors or rulers) to use.”
While school boards in Saranac Lake, Kingston, Saratoga Springs, New Paltz and other districts have adopted largely symbolic resolutions opposing high-stakes testing, others have scheduled pep rallies to stoke enthusiasm for the tests. At Public School 169 in Queens, third-graders performed “Test Me Maybe” to the tune of “Call Me Maybe” for Walcott on Friday.
“Hey, we can do it, and this is crazy,” they sang. “But I’m determined so test me maybe.”
But critics fear that students and teachers will be penalized for bad scores on tests they are ill-prepared for, and some parents are refusing to let their children take the tests.
Brooklyn resident Jinnie Spiegler says her fifth-grade daughter has been spending hours of class time on practice tests. Spiegler was unimpressed by some of the advice sent to New York City parents: “Explain to your child that most of the jobs she will want when she grows up will require her to be a good reader and writer.”
“Am I going to tell my 10-year-old that?” Spiegler asked. “They shouldn’t be burdened with the idea that ‘I’m not going to get a job if I get a 2 on my test.'”
Eric Mihelbergel of Kenmore, near Buffalo, called the tests “excessive” and said his 11-year-old daughter won’t take them.
“If my daughter had a standardized test, say, in third (grade), and then eighth, maybe high school, I probably would be OK with that,” Mihelbergel said. “But it’s because it’s become so excessive to the point where teachers don’t enjoy their jobs, kids hate being in school. … It’s creating so much more bad than it’s doing any good.”
Bianca Tanis of New Paltz said she will instruct her third-grade son to refuse the tests.
“It defies logic and common sense to align a test to a curriculum that hasn’t been fully unpacked yet,” Tanis said. “For children to be presented with material they can’t answer is very demoralizing.”
Children who skip the tests won’t be punished, but schools face sanctions if less than 95 percent of their students take the assessments.
“Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying, ‘I don’t want to know where my child stands, in objective terms, on the path to college and career readiness,'” said Dennis Tompkins, spokesman for the Education Department, “and we think that that’s doing them a real disservice.”
But with anti-testing backlash becoming more organized in the past year, since the 10th anniversary of the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandated testing, administrators have found themselves fielding more questions.
“On websites, blogs and social network forums, many groups have provided template letters and resources for parents to use in drafting such requests,” read a memo from New York State Association of School Attorneys released this week to guide districts through the issue.
Fears that 2013 scores will plummet are based partly on the example of Kentucky, where 30 percent fewer students were labeled proficient based on last year’s Common Core-aligned tests.
A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Education Department said the assessments are not yet tied to teacher evaluations so no teacher’s job was jeopardized by falling scores. But union leaders worry that in New York, where teacher evaluations are based in part on student test results, teachers will be blamed for low scores.
Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she supports the Common Core, but New York should have implemented it fully before testing students on it.
“Teachers are scared,” Weingarten said. “They know these new tests are different. They’re scared for their kids, and they’re scared for themselves.”
Karen Matthews reported from New York City.