Testing, Testing, 1 ... 2 ... 3

04/18/2012 10:38 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012
  • Elissa Stein Owner: High School 411, Author, Designer, Kidney donor, PTA president

Yesterday, all across New York, students from 3rd through 8th grade sat for the first day of the state mandated ELA (English Language Arts) test. While I don't know how important these tests are in other parts of the state, in New York City their significance has taken on epic, gargantuan, humongous proportions.

That is not an exaggeration.

These ELA and their counterpart math tests have grown to mean far too much not just for students, but for teachers and schools as well. Meant, one would assume, as a tool to monitor educational progress, somewhere along the way, someone lost control of the system.

I'm going to assume again that the people in charge want to assess both growth and stagnation in schools, in teaching methods and in teachers. But as the tests change yearly, there are no standards against which to judge fluctuations. This is not referring to the obvious: changing questions on the test from year to year. This is about changing the duration of the test. Changing how many days the tests run for. Changing how many questions are asked. Changing formats. Changing time frames and test dates. For example: this year students have a mere five days between their ELA and math tests. In previous years they were split by months so that students and teachers could focus on preparing for each test individually. Or this: some years the ELA were multiple choice only but then essays were added, adding a subjective bent to grading.

Note to those in charge: you can't draw conclusions when there is no baseline to measure against.

Both teachers and schools are now judged on test scores. In fact, this year test score results were made available in print and online for New York City teachers. Everyone had access to this information and could look up, and judge, teachers by this one, narrow aspect of their job performance. Teachers now more than ever are under pressure for their students to perform not only well on these tests, but to demonstrate that they're showing improvement over where they were before. And how much better can a school do if it's already performing well? School "grades" given out by the Department of Education reflect improvement from year to year. But eventually there's a performance cap and schools are penalized for maintaining a status quo, even if it's a terrific one. A few points come to mind:

• If a student is scoring well, how much better can they get over time?
• That goes for schools too
• Every class make up is different -- from gifted and talented programs to inclusion classes and kids with individualized education plans -- they can't be judged from the same vantage point
• And this: not all students test well

Note to those in charge: a teacher's, not to mention a student's performance, needs to be based on far more than the results of two standardized tests.

Which leads to financial inequality in system. There was an article in the NY Times this week about how parents are now hiring tutors to help their kids prepare for these tests. Some institutions offer extra afterschool or weekend support. Not every family can afford this. Not every school has the resources, during this time of increasing budget cuts, to allocate funds for extra testing support. It goes without saying that wealthier school districts are performing better. Does that mean the kids are smarter? No. But it does create a red flag that those in charge should be addressing.

Note to those in charge: all test prep is not equal and can skew results.

And then there are the results. At a time when more families are remaining in the city, obtaining a seat in a good public school is getting harder and harder. In many cases state test results have now become one of the fundamental cornerstones in a middle or high school's decision-making process when it comes to selecting incoming students. There often isn't time or resources to do interviews, to read recommendations or to do additional testing and so test scores, along with attendance/lateness records matter more than one would think when it comes to the admissions process.

Note to those in charge: perhaps supporting schools and their staffs instead of spending so much time and energy on testing would make for more kids getting quality educations instead of learning how to take a test.

Finally, the students. The stress of these tests can be overwhelming, their importance blown way out of proportion. This year my son replied, when asked what he was grateful for at our Seder, that he was glad he felt well prepared for the state tests. This during a year his mother donated a kidney, he was finally getting his own room, the Giants won the Super Bowl. I know of kids who've had nightmares, anxiety attacks, have thrown up before and after the tests, or have burst into tears in school, worrying not just about the tests themselves but the ramifications of what their grades will mean to their future.

Note to those in charge: no test should hold that sway, that influence, that importance over kids, their families, their teachers or their schools.