An interesting recent article in The New York Times reveals that New York State “will seek to ease the burden of testing.” Apparently state officials, led by state education commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr., are waking up and realizing what parents, teachers, and this writer have been saying all along – the testing linked to the new Common Core State Standards is excessive and intrusive. Its very nature does nothing to enhance the educational atmosphere in schools and, in fact, inhibits best instructional practices.
Of course, don’t plan to run the flag up the pole and have a celebratory parade just yet. As in all things here in New York, what King is announcing amounts to baby steps. While Dr. King says that there is “more testing than is needed” (if ever there was an understatement this is it) which prompted this decision, the assessments that are being reduced or eliminated are minimal at best. This plan includes giving students with English language struggles tests in their native languages, disabled students would take different tests than their peers in a specific grade, and a math assessment would be eliminated for some 8th grade students (those who take algebra and must also take a state Regents exam).
While this is a start, so much more needs to be done in regard to the assessments. King worded his comments carefully and said, “The amount of testing should be the minumum necessary to inform effective decision making.” If you know what’s happening here in New York, state officials wanted to link teacher evaluations (and ultimately retention) to these assessments. When dismal results came back regarding this year’s assessments (students performed miserably across the board), parents and teachers reacted with anger and dismay. How can you evaluate teachers based on student performance on questionable assessments? How can students’ academic standing be determined based on these same faulty instruments?
Everyone from Dr. King to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had no satisfying response for months. Of course, Bloomberg and Cuomo had grand plans to use the assessment results to rid the system of so-called “dead weight,” which basically means teachers with seniority and higher salaries. This has been Bloomberg’s goal for years in NYC schools, where he has repeatededly closed schools and opened smaller charter schools that do not need to follow union rules or salary scales.
State and city parents have been outraged as have been educators. Teachers were never truly prepared for the CCSS last year, and yet they were forced to basically teach to the test all year, knowing that their jobs were ostensibly on the line if children performed poorly on the assessments; however, since teachers had never been properly trained in the standards (many still are not), how could the city and state expect them to teach effectively?
Teaching is a grand and sacred profession, and most people who enter into it are charged with something much more than earning a salary. They believe in the sacred trust that comes from standing in a classroom as a professional and imparting knowledge of subjects to students. Parents appreciate this symbiotic relationship, and they cherish the opportunity for their children to learn from these dedicated professionals. Unfortunately, something nefarious comes between the parent-teacher-student relationship when teachers are forced off course by pernicious attempts to rattle their cages, which makes teaching into something less than it should be. With the albatross of these assessments hanging around teachers’ necks, they are compelled to do something opposed to their inherent nature, to go against every educator’s fiber to teach to a test they know is deficient and will lead to unreliable results.
Perhaps Dr. King’s announcement is a glimmer of hope, or it could be a case of smoke and mirrors. Teachers and parents would do well not to ease their protests at this point. If things stand as they are, an entirely new round of ineffective assessments will be given across the board next spring. We now have an opportunity to use this opening as a chink in the armor of the state and school districts. If these changes can be made, more can follow.
The CCSS were created to bring a deeper and more meaningful education to students. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is a salient difference between teaching for rigor and relevance and teaching to the test. As long as this dynamic exists, CCSS will be viewed as negatively by many as the assessments themselves. The key is to push for a uncontested divorce, separating testing and standards and eventually advocacy for elimination of all standardized testing. This may be wishful thinking, but standardized testing does nothing but prove something to people who never step into a classroom. We send our children to school to learn deeply and meaningfully and not to be tested to death.
Common Core Wars should have never happened in the first place, but now that we are sucked into this conflict, we can only hope that voices of reason will be heard and things will change. That has started to happen in New York, and other states should take note. A bell has started to toll here in New York and its mournful sound is bound to increase across the land. For whom does the bell toll? It should be for these inadequate assessments and the politicians, state officials, and district leaders who have lauded them.
Photo credits: dr. king-usny.nysed.gov; student-web.scott.k12.va.us; test-citizenship.aie.org