With new teacher evaluations, spring brings more tests than ever

Just days after students finish shading in answers on the state math exams next month, many will sit down for another round of official assessments.

The new tests are tied to the city’s new teacher evaluation system, which rates educators partly on their students’ learning progress. To measure those gains, schools must administer a battery of tests at the beginning and end of the year.

Now, the end-of-year assessments, known in city parlance as “Measures of Student Learning,” are cutting into class time and introducing logistical headaches for schools at a time when test stress is already high.

“You can think of it as another whole round of state tests,” said Deanna D’Onofrio, a teacher at Brooklyn’s M.S. 447. “It’s so disruptive.”

The new assessments include a wide range of school-selected measures, from computer-based tests to essays to oral reading exams. The city’s calendar ensures that they do not overlap with the state’s math, reading, or Regents exams, but administering the new tests is so complicated that principals got a 79-page guide to scheduling and grading. They were even told they could ask to let students out early to give teachers time to score the tests that are being used only to judge them.

Depending on the school, students could end up sitting for several extra hours of tests this spring related to the teacher evaluations. Middle school students face an especially large exam load since they must take new tests in social studies and science, for those teachers’ evaluations, in addition to the six days of math and English state exams. For all students, the new assessments are in addition to periodic assessments the city requires schools to give, sample standardized tests that students take to aid test makers, and the final tests that teachers give.

The faculty at P.S. 167 in Queens calculated that in the coming weeks its sixth-graders will sit for required assessments on 18 separate school days. Students with disabilities and English language learners spend even more time testing, the educators noted.

“This time of year is crazy,” said P.S. 167 teacher Eric Shieh.

Schools must give and grade the evaluation assessments by June 6. Considering all their other testing duties, several educators said they will have to scramble to meet that deadline.

Some schools are using new city-created written exams, which administrators must print and teachers give students about 90 minutes to complete. Other schools are using oral reading exams, called running records, that must be administered one-on-one. During that test, students read increasingly difficult texts while teachers track their reading ability and understanding in order to determine the students’ reading levels.

At Manhattan’s P.S. 116, that means that a “SWAT team” of reading specialists must pull about 350 lower-grade students out of class one at a time, give them the roughly 20-minute assessment, then enter the results in a tracking system, said assistant principal Gary Shevell.

At P.S. 63 in the Lower East Side, where construction has limited after-school staff meetings, students got an extra period of recess so teachers could receive training on the running records. Later, the school will pay for substitutes while teachers administer the individual exams.

“It’s something that’s not only time-consuming, but it’s also expensive,” said principal Darlene Cameron.

The education department has said schools should set aside at least three hours of professional development time each month for teacher evaluation work, which includes grading the assessments. But the spring testing surge demands more time than that. Certain days when classes are not in session can also be used for that purpose, or schools can request to add early dismissal days or make other calendar changes to find more time for scoring, according to the school leader handbook. Schools have also received extra funding to pay for testing materials or overtime for staff to grade the exams.

Even with the additional resources, educators said they have been hard pressed to find time to score the new assessments. Complicating matters is the evaluation law, which prohibits educators from grading their own students’ final exams.

At Queens’ P.S. 167, teachers said they expect to spend up to three staff meetings, each about two hours long, grading the exams, plus several hours of paid overtime. The Bronx’s M.S. 331 is planning for scorers to devote four full days to grading some 320 written exams for English, social studies, and science.

Nancy Amling, principal of Manhattan’s Hudson High School of Learning Technologies, said she was confident her school would have the time and money to score the exams, and added that teachers would benefit from evaluating student work together. She is more concerned about the ever-expanding load on teachers.

“We keep putting things on the plates of teachers,” she said. “When do we start taking things off?”

Despite the logistical hurdles, several educators said the new assessments provide useful data about student learning. Unlike the state exams, some of the new assessments are paired with beginning-of-the-year measures, so educators can pinpoint which skills students learned or still need to.

M.S. 331 principal Serapha Cruz said the rubrics that teachers used to evaluate the new written exams students took at the start of the year were closely tied to the new state standards. That helped teachers see clearly what kind of work students should be able to produce by year’s end.

“It raised the level of instruction overnight,” she said.

An education department spokesman noted that most of the new assessments are meant to mirror typical classroom work. But he said the city recognizes concerns about the number of exams students take.

“We’re in the first year of a new, state-mandated teacher development system across more than 1,600 schools,” said the spokesman, Devon Puglia. “And we’re constantly seeking feedback and always looking for ways to improve.”

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