Thursday, February 12, 2015

Incessant Testing of Our Students Must Stop- Guest Post By Justin Williams

Read aloud, in its entirety, during the community comments period, by Justin Williams at the Uniondale School District Board of Education meeting, Uniondale High School, N.Y., February 10, 2014

As you get older, wiser, more formerly and informally educated, life gets complicated.  My position as a teacher in our district as well as a product of our schools and a resident in the community is a complication.  Some might even say these aspects of who I am are a conflict of interests.  Others might say that I’m crossing certain unbreachable lines by acting upon my right to be an informed community resident, neighbor and professional. My intention is to be the good citizen, parent, educator and human being I was raised to be here in Uniondale, a town in which I hold a great deal of pride.  So I’m compelled to speak up about the detrimental effects of the incessant, standardized, multiple choice-based testing that is ruining both the lives of our students (and students everywhere) as well as the beautiful science we refer to as teaching and learning.  I am aware that previously, our board has made an official statement on this matter.

My two oldest children, one in 9th grade, the other in 4thgrade, do not attend school here in Uniondale.  They love going to school.  A big reason why is because their parents understand the intricacies of the educational system. Another reason is that we, as parents, do not allow our children to take any tests that are used for the purpose of evaluating their teachers.  This includes all state exams given in grades 3 through 8.  This also includes locally designed exams given in K through grade 11 at the beginning and end of each school year, commonly referred to as SLOs.  In addition, I do not allow my 9th grader to take any field test exams, which are practice tests used to help the State Education Department determine future questions for the high school Regents examinations.  My children will only take exams in school that impact their report card grades and academic transcripts.  My job as a father and husband is to protect my family. Protecting our children from excessive, abusive testing should be of paramount concern to every single person in this room and in our community.  But why?

First, teachers are evaluated, in part, based on the amount of growth their students show on locally created tests from the beginning of the school year to the end.  Therefore, every September now, teachers in Uniondale, across Long Island, in New York City and throughout our state and nation, give their students exams that they know their students cannot possibly pass.  In response to the sensible questions we receive from our students regarding why they have to take tests that we know they will fail, we, teachers, say things like,“Don’t worry about it, you’re taking the exact same test in June” or “Just choose random answers now, you’ll do better at the end of the year.”  Then, at the end of the year, many teachers and administrators feel so much pressure to see growth that cheating scandals are appearing in schools across the country. This demoralizing, embarrassing process is a waste of time, paper, money and energy for all parties involved.  But we have to do it, right?

Second, middle and upper middle class parents across the nation are participating in a growing revolt over the incessant testing of their children in public schools.  These parents are finding out that once the exams are completed and graded, they are not allowed to review them, their children are not allowed to review them and their teachers are not allowed to review them.  One great way of helping students improve is by showing them precisely how well they did or did not do on each aspect of the test.  This educational right has been taken from us as teachers, students and parents.  We’re talking about tests given in kindergarten through 8th grade especially, not state exams necessary for high school graduation.

Third, by the time teachers receive the numeric test scores in the later part of the spring semester, what do they do with them that will aid the academic development of their students?  The answer is nothing, because there is no time.  The crux of the school year is complete, one usually devoted much more to test preparation than it is learning about the world in critical, creative, authentic, joyous ways.  During the early part of the following school year, I would challenge whether or not it is a fair, humane practice to lump kids in learning groups based on a score they received over the course of a few hours of their lives, months before.  For all we know, that testing day may have been a day where one student may not have eaten breakfast, another may have been ill, another forgot his glasses, or still another may have been a bit down over the fact she hadn’t seen or heard from her father in over a year.  Education research has shown repeatedly that standardized testing, by itself, is a better indicator of household income than it is a measure of learning, let alone future success in life.  Soft skills like learning how to shake someone’s hand while smiling and making eye contact or professional networking are not measured on any of these tests. Where are our children learning how to perform these and other vital skills necessary for success?  There is far too much emphasis currently being placed on formal testing in our schools.

In addition, these scores do not reveal to experienced, well trained teachers (of whom this district has MANY) anything about their students they don’t come to know through the professional practices they spent a great deal of time and money studying in bachelors, masters and doctoral degree programs.  Under the current state of affairs, what we, as teachers, all over the country, are doing in our classrooms isn’t teaching.  It’s following a script.  It’s test preparation.  It’s being a robot.  Any amateur can be brought into a classroom to do this, people like those coming out of programs like Teach for America after a five-week crash course on teaching.  Real teachers are not being treated as professionals.  We’re not perfect, but perfection is not a prerequisite for being a teacher, an administrator, aboard member, politician, economist, an attorney, doctor, or any other professional.

Finally, it is our students, African American and Hispanic American children, who are and will continue to suffer the most from this period in the history of American education.  Even under normal circumstances, our particular population does not do as well on standardized tests.  Why?  It has nothing to do with their skin color and a great dealto do with the economic conditions within their homes.  As a teacher, I try to control for as many variables as I can.  I can’t control for the various issues that arise in the various households of my students.  What goes on in the lives of our students outside of these school buildings has a greater effect upon their scores than what I do in the classroom for 42 minutes a day.

This is the crucial reason why kids in Rockville Centre, East Meadow, Long Beach, Roslyn and Jericho do better, IN GENERAL, on state exams than our kids do. NOT because they’re smarter. It is the job of state and federal government, our elected officials, to create safe, democratic, economically healthy conditions under which all kids can thrive.  It is our responsibility to hold our elected officials responsible.  It is impossible for teachers to teach while doing the job of politicians as well.  Thank you for your time and attention.