Ltr to Ed: If there’s nothing to be learned from taking the test, then why take it?

April 25, 2014
by Maggie Christ

Here in New York State, we’re in the middle of testing season. If you’re a parent of a child in grades three through eight, you know that the beginning of April brought three days of the English Language Arts tests, 70 to 90 minutes each day (depending on grade level), or, when you factor in set-up time, roughly five hours out of the week devoted to testing. Testing continues next week, with three days of NYS math tests, for a similar amount of time. Also, not only do the children miss instructional time while they’re taking the tests, their teachers are pulled out of class to score the exams, and substitutes have to be hired (at an additional cost to the school system).

Do we need these tests? What is the value to our children? One might argue that life is full of standardized tests, so kids should learn how to take tests. But do we really want to be teaching our children how to take tests, rather than teaching them how to be good independent thinkers?

There’s a burgeoning movement to refuse the tests, which has been written about in the New York Times (Standing Up to Testing). Refusing is happening in Westchester. According to LoHud, “At least a couple of hundred students in the Lower Hudson Valley” didn’t take the ELA tests (Some lohud parents opting out of Common Core tests). The Chappaqua Daily Voice reported that “84 [children] in the Lakeland Central School District and 80 in the Ossining School District” opted out of the ELA (State Exam Opt-Out Numbers Vary In Westchester). In Chappaqua, according to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Eric Byrne, there was “one test refusal across all levels during the ELA”.

I know who that one child is. It was my daughter. She’s a fifth grader at Bell, and we together – she and her father and I – agreed that she would refuse to take the NYS tests as a small act of civil disobedience. We talked at length about the tests, and the pros and cons of taking them.

In my opinion, there are many things wrong with the tests. Principally, they offer no useful feedback to child or teacher.

Last year, when we attended back-to-school night at the beginning of fourth grade, a parent asked about standardized tests. The teacher, a wonderful, caring veteran of many years said something that day that has stuck with me. She made it clear that because of the way the ELA and math tests are administered, there’s no feedback loop for the teacher. While sometime after the children are no longer her students, she will know who got 1, 2, 3 or 4 on the exams, she doesn’t know what kid got which question wrong, or that everyone in the class missed question #37. Without that feedback, she has no way to improve on her teaching. Similarly, for the students (and their parents), the raw score labels the child a 1, 2, 3 or 4 and offers no information as to a child’s strengths or weaknesses. How does one improve, if you don’t know where the weakness lie?

When the state tests rolled around last year, my child and my husband and I talked about the issues surrounding the tests, and about whether it made sense to have her refuse to take them. Last year, we were sheep: she took the tests.

This year, she refused.

We considered many things in making the decision that she would refuse the test. But what I kept coming back to was that issue raised by the fourth grade teacher: the lack of any feedback loop. If there’s nothing to be learned from taking the test, then why take it?

We live in a high-performing district, and our child did well on the tests last year. If we were in a lousy district, or had a kid who tests poorly, we’d be seen as wanting to avoid putting our child in an unhappy situation and it could be perceived as “sour grapes.” But that’s not it at all. I think that the wealthy, well-performing districts should be leading the way in pushing for the kinds of education reforms that will help everyone.

To be sure, our small act of civil disobedience will not have much impact on our child, her teachers, or this district of ours. But for us, it was the right thing to do and the progressive action to take.

Post script:

Incidentally, Chappaqua is one of the 21 school districts in the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association which have passed a resolution on high stakes testing. That resolution was adopted by the CCSD board in January 2013, and says, in part:

RESOLVED that Chappaqua Central School District calls on Governor Cuomo, Commissioner King, the State legislature, and the Board of Regents to re-examine public school accountability systems in this state, including the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and to develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment which does not require extensive standardized testing, more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools; and

RESOLVED, that Chappaqua Central School District calls on the U.S. Congress and Administration to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the “No Child Left Behind Act”), reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.



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