P.S. 321 teacher Alex Messer described the perils of over-testing at a forum in Brooklyn.
P.S. 321 teacher Alex Messer described the perils of over-testing at a forum in Brooklyn.

Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, couldn’t wait to read a city report a few years ago that promised to quantify his impact on students.

He had just led them in a rousing discussion of the British economic policies that provoked the Boston Massacre. He taught them to use “ubiquitous” and other “staggering genius” words, as he and his students call them. He knew he was a good teacher.

But when he opened the report, his heart sank: he was ranked in the 18th percentile. He called his mother that night for support. Later, he logged onto a job-search website.

“All I knew was that I had failed,” Messer recalled this week. “I was ‘18 percent.’”

As the state exams have become tougher, many critics have decried what they see as the tests’ spirit-crushing toll on children, even as officials and others argue that the assessments are needed to make sure students meet the higher standards. (Less than a third of city students passed the harder English and math exams this year.) But fewer teachers have publicly described the way testing can color the look and feel of their practice.

Messer and other members of a new group called Teachers Talk Testing aimed to fill that gap with a forum Tuesday evening at P.S. 321 where educators told their tales of a data-fueled drive for accountability that they say has run amok. The group, which grew out of a longtime parent committee at P.S. 321 focused on testing, formed this fall and now includes about 30 teachers from a handful of schools, mostly in high-performing District 15, according to Messer, who is also a union chapter leader.

Part of the group’s purpose, Messer said, is to provide firsthand accounts of testing to concerned parents who, on Tuesday, talked about opting their children out of the state exams.

“Whatever they decide to do surrounding testing,” Messer said after the forum, “I think it’s important that their actions are informed by teachers and our experience.”

The speakers — who included four teachers and the principal from P.S. 321, along with two other Brooklyn teachers and a professor — described mind-numbing exams of questionable quality that devour class time, sap the joy from teaching, and reduce instruction to helping students choose answers on a bubble sheet.

“Once we get into test prep, there’s no real conversation, just practice answering these questions and maybe we’ll analyze why ‘B’ is the right answer,” said Ronda Matthews, a 5th-grade teacher at PS 321 who said standardized-test work consumes about a month of class time per year.

Anxiety about test scores — which factor into student promotion, school grades and teacher ratings — drives many teachers to the lower, less-tested grades, Matthews said. In the past two years, seven new teachers have taken over 5th-grade classes at P.S. 321 as veterans flee the high-stakes grade, she added.

Julie Cavanagh, a special-education teacher at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, said she has watched the number of testing days multiply from six when she started teaching in New York in 2001 to 15 days in recent years. Meanwhile, her students with disabilities who found test days frustrating and boring received a perverse “accommodation,” Cavanagh added: extra test time.

“It sounds like hyperbole, but I really felt like I was participating in child abuse,” she said.

Many of the panelists mentioned problems with the state tests themselves: confusing passages, erroneous answers, above-grade questions and too little time. As for the so-called teacher data reports, like the one Messer received, those suffered from wide error margins and wild fluctuations. (Messer, for example, moved to the 70th percentile the year after he was ranked in the 18th.)

Liz Phillips, P.S. 321’s longtime principal, who has spoken out against the test-based teacher reports and the tests themselves, said she recognizes the value of assessment.

“What I’m strongly opposed to is the misuse of the data from the testing,” Phillips said Tuesday, “and the ways in which this questionable data has such high stakes for children, for teachers, for principals, for schools.”

An audience of parents and educators filled the auditorium at P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Tuesday.
An audience of parents and educators filled the auditorium at P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Tuesday.

P.S. 321 parent Diana Berger said she had become so “sickened” by the school system’s emphasis on testing that she was considering enrolling her daughter in a private school. But during the question-and-answer portion, she wondered if there was a way to fight the tests from within the system.

“My question is: should we opt out?” Berger said.

A teacher from the East Village’s Earth School, where about a third of parents opted their students out of the test last spring, said she expected a similar response this year. Another teacher, from M.S. 447 in Boerum Hill, said her school decided not to use test scores as an admission factor — an apparent boon for opt-outers.

But Phillips and others noted some drawbacks to the opt-out movement: students still are required to take a time-consuming alternative test that must be administered individually; and few parents from low-income and immigrant communities have so far joined the movement.

Teachers Talk Testing, which formed this fall with educators from P.S. 321 and a few other schools, has circulated a petition that calls for the incoming de Blasio administration to “lower the stakes” on testing by removing test scores as the main determining factor in student promotions, school admissions and school report cards.

The group is also asking teachers to submit videos with their thoughts on testing to its website, which it hopes will inspire families to take whatever actions they feel are necessary.