First Person

Is testing taking over our schools? An entire faculty says yes

Imagine your first day at a new school. You are surrounded by new faces and new teachers and are navigating a new building. What are you concerned about? Making new friends? Liking your new teachers?

When they enter our school each fall, our sixth-graders write about their hopes and fears for middle school. This year, 35 percent said their greatest fear was failing the state tests. At one of the most socially difficult times of their lives, over a third of our children have more anxiety about standardized tests than any other issue.

What has happened?

We — the teachers of a public secondary school in New York City — are writing because we wish you to join us in asking this question about what’s happening in our schools. We ask you to consider our experiences and the experiences of our students in a world where schools face more standardized tests and increasing pressures related to their outcomes than ever before.

This year in our school, as in schools across the country, we have seen the number of standardized tests we are required to administer grow sharply, from 25 to more than 50 (in grades 6-10). In the next six weeks alone, each of our sixth-graders will be required to take 18 days of tests: three days of state English tests, three days of state math tests, four days of new city English and math benchmark tests, and eight days of new English, math, social studies and science city tests to evaluate teacher performance. Additionally, students who are learning English must spend two to three more days taking the NYSESLAT test for English Language Learners — a total of 21 days in just the next few weeks.

Consider your own education. Yes, high-school students have always faced college entrance and graduation exams. But as elementary or middle-school students prior to the federal No Child Left Behind law and Race to the Top competition, you likely had no more than a few days of standardized testing every spring (if that). For today’s students, however, these standardized tests have become a centerpiece of their educational experience. Time spent on these tests is time not spent on learning or teaching. The centrality of testing should be shocking, but instead is somehow accepted as commonplace.

One teacher at our school asked her seventh-graders how they felt about the tests. The word “scared” came up multiple times, as did the word “hate.”

“I feel nervous,” said one, “because you think you’re not going to pass.” Another protested, “I don’t think tests show our learning, and they don’t show our growth.” A third stated, “It makes it more possible to fail.”

If this seems overly dramatic, consider that in New York City, 70 percent of students last year were labeled “failing.” This is not, as many believe, a function of low performance, but a deliberate decision by the state to increase the number of students labeled “failing” in a move that has created more pressure on teachers and schools, and public support for new — untested — reform initiatives. We question the collateral consequences of such a mechanism for educational change.

Let us be clear at the outset: as a staff, we are not opposed to all standardized tests and believe that, used sparingly, such tests can provide useful feedback to schools, teachers and possibly students. We are instead concerned about their vast and increasing number and — just as disconcerting — outsized influence. The tests are no longer about feedback. The stakes attached to them now commonly include school funding and evaluation and closure, teacher pay and evaluation and firings, and of course student promotion and self-perception. It should come as no surprise that many schools have chosen to focus more and more of the school year on what is often called “test prep.”

Consider the case of two of our U.S. history teachers who sought to engage students in a case study about Fred Korematsu and the ways in which the rights of U.S. citizens have been suspended in times of war. At the last minute, worried about the impending Regents Exam, these teachers felt compelled to drop this important, in-depth investigation that would tap into student passions and diversity. Instead, they made the difficult decision to “cover” a broad and sanitized survey of U.S. foreign policy from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cold War.

As it turns out, the thematic essay on last year’s U.S. History Regents test was on American foreign policy, and the vast majority of our students passed the test. Did we make the right decision?

What does it mean to “test-prep” students as a means for teaching them to read and write? It means to teach without context or commitment, without personal connection or application. It means to teach using excerpted writing passages and scripted questions. David Coleman, architect of the Common Core standards that serve as the basis for the latest tests, shared his opinion that “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” A curriculum based on standardized tests implies that our students’ lives, our lives, and the vibrant lives of our communities just don’t seem to matter.

In contrast, as teachers we recognize every day that there is no true curriculum without students’ lives, engagement, and voices.

One of the central characteristics of our school has been that all content and skills are embedded in real-world curriculums. We have a common understanding that students produce better work when they believe it is meaningful, when academic work spills into the world and back again. Our students make presentations to elementary-school students about bullying and to hospital institutional review boards about medical research proposals. They work with the Metropolitan Transit Authority on bus engine design, and with the Queens Memory Project on interviewing and preserving immigrants’ stories in Queens.

They may spend weeks on a single case study, developing nuanced understandings of complex problems. In this work, they are evaluated by school-based assessments that, in contrast to standardized tests, take the shape of diverse projects and presentations. Standards, including the Common Core, are a central part of our curriculum work, but they are only one of many considerations embedded in the work our students do.

As external pressure increases to sacrifice curriculum for the sake of “test prep,” all of us have been forced to make difficult decisions. We often hear policymakers tell us that a strong curriculum will result in strong test scores. This is simply not true. Standardized tests are, by definition, tests removed from student engagement and context; they require a particular kind of teaching that is antithetical to what most of us believe education should be. Many of us as teachers think of test prep as unprofessional and unethical. All of us believe curriculum should never begin or end with standardized tests.

This year, we took a stand on this point by subverting the evaluation of our teachers based on standardized tests. A new mandate in New York City — an indirect result of Race to the Top — requires each teacher to be evaluated by two standardized tests, most of us for at least one subject we don’t teach (the city recommended that schools evaluate their music teachers, for example, based on English and math scores). It also dramatically increased the number of tests and used tests that had never been piloted. We found this untenable.

When the city asked us to choose two standardized tests for each teacher as part of her or his evaluation, we all agreed to assign ourselves the same tests wherever possible. For one of the tests, all of our middle-school teachers will be evaluated on the state English test for all of our students. The result: students will take the minimum number of new tests, and teachers will all receive the same score. If our students fail, all of us will fail together. In this decision, we affirm our belief that we are a teaching community that collaborates and shares curricula, not a collection of individual good or bad teachers. We will not have our entire school community bound to a barrage of tests.

It is a small but important act of resistance.

So how might all of us, as citizens with a stake in our schools, resist the narrowing of curriculum and students’ lives? First, it is clear to us that our elected officials must hear from more than principals and teachers that creating new tests and tying more consequences to those tests cannot be the core of any education reform plan.

Second, some of us are also supportive of the opt-out movement that is growing across the country, wherein parents have creatively removed their children from standardized testing. In doing so, they refuse districts and states the data with which to evaluate students, teachers and schools based on standardized tests.

Some of us are more ambivalent about this movement. But we all know that to move forward, we must do more than say no to a system in which we do not believe. We seek systems where assessments can be effective at supporting students, systems where assessments are valid, reliable and fair. Based on our experiences, we have come to believe that these systems must be built through the work of individual schools, not through large-scale standardized tests.

We suggest that policymakers begin by moving resources away from standardized test creation and toward supporting the development of quality assessments in schools. Perhaps they might create incentives for schools to design their own school-based assessments, or encourage schools to move toward performance- and project-based assessment practices shared strategically among schools (see, for example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium of schools).

We cannot emphasize enough that any school’s capacity to develop is profoundly related to the allocation of school resources. Our school invests in lower student-teacher ratios, increased hours of teacher collaboration each week, and a week of paid curriculum development before the school year begins. Each year we struggle to find this funding, and we have often fallen short of our goal.

This week, as our school enters another season of testing, our sixth- and eighth-grade teachers have chosen to read to students a principal’s letter that one parent posted online: “We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique … the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.”

Our students cheered. That they could be seen as individuals with interests and friends and dreams — not just as a set of numbers — deeply resonated with them.

At the end of the day, we hope students see their educations not only as a means to graduate, jumpstart their careers or get into college, but as a means to investigate, interact with and innovate in a rapidly changing world. As John Dewey reminds us, “Education is not preparation for life, but life itself.” We believe in a curriculum that is rich and personal — that is, for the living. To treat curriculum and schools otherwise is to demean education, reducing it to no more than training or indoctrination in a world that needs people to be so much more.

This piece was jointly written by the entire faculty of P.S. 167 – The Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School: John Atorino, Jen Avellino, Robin Baumgarten, Tarin Baxter, Sarah Bever, Randi Bivona, Yazmin Brigido, Matthew Brownstein, Dan Cassagne, Lesley Crawford, Christine DiLapi, Emily Edwards, Alyson Emmett, Amelia Eshleman, Ari Feldman, Eric Fergen, Mica Fidler, Shayna Garrison, Melissa Glantz, Hannah Goodman Brenman, Ilana Gutman, Paco Hanlon, Ambar Hernandez, Adam King, Court King, Rebecca Kleinbart, Allison Maxfield, Kara Melley, Hillary Mills, Sybille Moss, Adreina Nuñez, Evan O’Connell, Seyi Okuneye, Leslie Pinto, Erick Roa, Elyse Rosenberg, Hilary Rosenfield, Matthew Satriano, Kimberly Scher, Abigail Sewall, Laura Shectman, Eric Shieh, Joshua Stein, Michael Stern, Sara Ston, Thea Taylor, Kimron Thomas, Ali Wexler, Brooke Winter-DiGirolamo, Claire Wolff and Jenna-Lyn Zaino. This piece originally appeared on the Hechinger Report.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.