Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s latest message to principals encourages them not to go overboard in their preparation for state tests that begin in just three weeks.

It’s a message she has delivered before in her weekly note to principals. Just two weeks ago, she suggested that they read the book “Testing Miss Malarkey” to add levity to the stressful testing period.

In the latest message, Fariña passes along a story about a teacher who was so concerned about preparing students for the tests that she was stunned by her principal’s suggestion that she take students on multiple field trips. “This exchange reminded me that test preparation in moderation is fine, but preparing for life is living it,” Fariña writes.

She goes on:

As educators, most of us know that the best preparation for the test is a rich, thoughtful, engaging curriculum that awakens curiosity in students, inspires them to ask questions, helps them explore complex problems, and encourages them to imagine possibilities. We understand that the best classrooms are lively places where students are immersed in conversation, debating ideas, and developing perspectives and viewpoints. …

So, with the test season approaching, let’s try to remember what is most important about teaching, learning, and the school experience, and let’s try to help those in our charge do the same. I know I can count on you!

City officials last year said that test prep would be less useful now that the tests are aligned to new standards that favor the kinds of work that Fariña prefers. But the new standards apparently did not end the culture of test prep: Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core panel recently recommended limits on how long teachers can spend “teaching to the test.”

Many schools devote the weeks before the state tests to practice tests and other forms of preparation, drawing criticism for focusing too heavily on basic math and reading assignments during that time. Their concern is well founded: In New York City, state math and reading test scores are used to determine whether students are promoted, and this year, for the first time, the scores will be used to calculate teachers’ annual ratings, too.

Fariña has said she is open to untying test scores from promotion standards, but so far the Department of Education has not announced any changes.

Fariña’s complete note to principals is below:

Dear Colleagues,

A few days ago, a colleague told me about a conversation she’d had recently with a principal. The principal explained that she had suggested to one of her teachers that instead of a one-time field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Bronx Zoo, which can overwhelm students, the teacher might consider a series of two or three shorter visits to allow students time to focus on one or two exhibits or key ideas and then consolidate their learning. The teacher seemed stunned; she couldn’t possibly take that time out of the classroom with tests coming up – she needed to prepare her students for them.

This exchange reminded me that test preparation in moderation is fine, but preparing for life is living it. As I visit schools and talk to principals and teachers, I often hear the same stories about how “real” teaching, engaging projects, and exciting trips are put aside to accommodate test prep. While I certainly understand the anxiety that children, parents, and teachers feel about standardized testing, it is important for all of us to keep the tests in perspective. Ask adults what they remember about their own schooling, and you will hear about the project they worked on for the science fair, the interview they conducted for an oral history project, the day an author came to visit the class, the trip they took to a battlefield, or the scenery they created for a theater production. It is rarely the day spent preparing for a test, memorizing vocabulary words, or bubbling in answers to multiple choice questions. All of those tasks may play a role, but they are not the activities that make students enthusiastic about coming to school. They are not the events that foster a sense of well-being and they should not be the heart and soul of the school experience for our students.

As educators, most of us know that the best preparation for the test is a rich, thoughtful, engaging curriculum that awakens curiosity in students, inspires them to ask questions, helps them explore complex problems, and encourages them to imagine possibilities. We understand that the best classrooms are lively places where students are immersed in conversation, debating ideas, and developing perspectives and viewpoints. And, because the single best way to improve reading proficiency is to read, and read, and read, students in these classrooms are reading plenty of authentic literature in addition to nonfiction. Literature is helping them to understand themselves, and to make sense of the world and their experience in it. They can lose themselves in books, and find themselves as well. And, research says that along the way, they are also becoming more empathetic human beings.

So, with the test season approaching, let’s try to remember what is most important about teaching, learning, and the school experience, and let’s try to help those in our charge do the same. I know I can count on you!

With admiration,

Carmen Fariña
Chancellor