Like many parents I know, I have become quite interested in the issue of testing, and am one of the organizers of the Teachers Talk Testing Forum at PS 321 on Tuesday December 3rd. You can see more about the event (and sign our petition) on our website, teacherstalktesting.com. If you are a NYC parent I hope you will consider attending!
This video, made by Parent Voices NY gives a glimpse at some of the issues motivating so many of us:
To give a little background on why I got involved...
As a parent of public school children one of the things that has surprised me is how much standardized testing has changed in the past few decades. When I was a child in public schools myself, I never gave much thought to the standardized tests we took periodically. There was no stress surrounding them, and it was assumed that if you went to school and did well that these tests would not show otherwise.
When my boys entered 3rd grade, the first year that standardized tests are given in NYC currently, I started to hear more about testing and became more aware of controversy. I still was not worried...it seemed like a natural thing to think that there should be some assesment that reaches across schools and districts to measure how students and schools are doing in the scheme of things.
My perceptions started to change as I witnessed the tremendous stress one of my sons experienced as the tests approached. Although he has always been a good student and has gotten excellent report cards over the years he was clearly worried about these tests and seemed convinced that somehow they were going to be different than his other school experiences. Not only was he worried about getting a good grade, but he had become aware that the scores might affect him in other ways -- for example, he worried the tests would effect his chances at getting into a good middle school. (For those outside of NYC the idea that you must apply to public middle school must sound strange, but that is that way it works here.) One night he went so far as to say that he was worried about his entire future...if he did not get into a good middle school did that mean he would not get into a good college? Or get a good job? Or be able to earn a living? All of this from an 8 year old!
The second thing that really drew my attention to this issue was the idea that these test scores could be used to sort teachers into categories: according to advocates of high stakes testing we would now be able to see who the good teachers are and who the bad teachers are. This theory was so widely accepted that in New York City teachers' scores were published for all to see two years ago. This was horrifying enough even if you believe the scores are accurate...but when you really look at the ways that teacher scores are determined it becomes totally outrageous. In our school, where the majority of students score well, and the quality of teaching attracts families to the neighborhood specifically so that their children can attend our school, some teachers still scored poorly. One of the interesting things to note though, is that a teacher who scores very well one year may score very poorly the next...do we really think that the quality of teaching changed dramatically from one year to the next?
All of these things led me to start attending our school's Testing Task Force meetings. We are very lucky to have a principal who really explains how things work very clearly, and takes the time to do so in grade by grade meetings with parents and in meetings like the Testing Task Force meetings. While the idea that standardized tests can be used to weed out "bad" teachers is very compelling, it is really important to understand how these practices affect great teachers as well. One of the things I have learned is that just one or two struggling students in a high performing class can result in a terrible rating for a teacher. The sample size of a classroom is too small to be statistically meaningful, and yet that is how these scores are determined. Even in a classroom where the majority of students perform well on tests, scores may vary from year to year, and if a few students who got one question wrong on a test in 3rd grade get two questions wrong on the same test in 4th grade that can result in a poor performance grade for their 4th grade teacher. Not only does this show how the tests can be unreliable indicators for teacher performance, but it also highlights how we can really negatively impact great teachers in our quest to rid the system of "bad" ones. This alone is reason for me to get involved. The idea that our educational practices might be deterring great teachers from wanting to teach is not something I want to risk.
I hope you will consider joining me at Teachers Talk Testing on Tuesday night if you are in the area!