Teachers should use their power over tests to uncage learning

Today, children in our area return to school. The anticipation of seeing old friends and learning new things has been quelled in recent years by the specter of too many tests.

We devoted our Back-To-School edition last week to the Common Core, documenting the way it is playing out in our local school districts.

While many educators see the standards as valuable, a recent Phi Delta Kappa Gallup poll found widespread dislike across America for the Common Core  — a set of educational standards developed by the National Governors Association and adopted by most states. Whereas last year, 62 percent had never heard of the Common Core, this year, 81 percent knew something of it and the majority opposed requiring teachers to use the standards to guide their instruction.

Significantly, only a small percentage knew about the Common Core from their school district — the teachers and school leaders; for the vast majority, knowledge came from television, newspapers, and radio.

We’ve tried to do our part by interviewing local educators and reporting the reality of implementing the Common Core as they perceive it. We learned some things ourselves in the process.

Two years ago, on this page, we wrote that rhetoric is one thing and reality another. We wrote that the rhetoric from the State Education Department was about how the new system for evaluating teachers would advance the profession and improve student learning while the reality was children were crying at the start of the school year.

They were being tested to set up a baseline against which their progress would be measured at the end of the year. To qualify for federal Race to the Top funds, New York State agreed to have teachers evaluated, in part, by their students’ test scores. The teachers’ unions agreed to this. New York Education Law on annual reviews for principals and teachers requires now that 40 percent be based on student performance: 20 percent of that is from student growth data based on state assessments and 20 percent is on locally selected assessments.

“We did have some of the little kids cry,” the Voorheesville superintendent told us two years ago when the baseline tests were first given. “We also had a student ask a teacher why she couldn’t help, and we thought that was profound — giving these tests seemed to go against the role of a teacher, which is to help.”

We wrote that was, indeed, profound, that trust is a cornerstone, a foundation for learning. How awful for both the students and the teachers to have to endure this charade.

Now, this school year, the teachers at Guilderland have taken a brave and bold step. After using an outside testing company the first year, in 2012, and then developing district tests last year, the union has agreed to do away with the added layer of pre- and post-assessment tests that had been given to students in every elementary grade on top of the state tests.

The Guilderland Teachers’ Association has agreed to forego those tests entirely and use just the state-required tests. Erin McNamara, the new president of the GTA, told us the goal of the teachers’ union is to meet state mandates for teacher evaluation without “testing students to death.” The growth from one year to the next will apply equally to all teachers in a school.


This is a model other districts should follow if they value their students’ welfare.

McNamara notes there are risks, with outstanding teachers making a sacrifice. For example, a teacher who was rated “highly effective” — the top of four state-set categories — could fall into the lower category of “effective” if that is what the combined rating, based on state test scores, for the school building turned out to be.

Still, she said, just as there is an overall benefit for students having to take fewer tests, there is also a benefit for teachers. “Some of us were coming up with tests for the sake of coming up with tests,” she said. “It impacted our instructional time.”

Other benefits were outlined by Guilderland’s Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton who said, “Now the building is looking through a common lens. They are rowing the boat in the same direction, not worrying about the score of each individual teacher.”

This works well with the collaborative teaching model Guilderland is moving toward. The district is using an embedded coaching model at Lynnwood Elementary School, which hosts special-needs students from across the district.  Two “literacy coaches” on the staff work regularly with classroom teachers. “It’s a constant conversation,” Singleton said, adding, “The staff as a whole embraced delving into student needs and being more diagnostic — not teaching to the middle but to individual needs.”

Guilderland will be working this year on developing a different assessment model, not the high-stakes kind of testing used by the state to measure one school’s success against another’s but, rather, a model that can inform classroom teachers about individual student needs.

Both Guilderland and Voorheesville are part of a 12-district consortium that received a $399,946 state “Teaching is the Core” grant to inform classroom instruction. Guilderland’s superintendent, Marie Wiles, told us that the assessments to be developed with the grant will serve “more as a coaching model.”

We believe tests have worth if they are used to see where a student has weaknesses, where a student needs help to succeed. These sorts of assessments can also help teachers know how to best group students to effectively teach them the skills they lack.

We’ve reviewed the Common Core standards and believe they are sound. The bulk of the problems have come from another reform, for teacher accountability, tying a teacher’s livelihood to high-stakes tests that make students suffer and do little to improve actual classroom teaching.

Even before New York caved in to the federal plan, too much emphasis was placed on high-stakes testing. Schools were already being judged by state-issued report cards, based on a compilation of test scores. This ignores a convincing body of research that shows students success — as measured, yes, by test scores but also by later life’s work — is most directly correlated to family background and expectations.

The recent Gallup poll found those Americans who opposed Common Core standards gave as the most important reason a belief it limited teachers’ flexibility to teach what is best. We believe Good teachers really do know what is best for their students. But it is not the Common Core that is limiting that.

The rigidity, the lack of flexibility, comes from the force to teach to the test. It is much easier for a teacher to get rote responses from students, working off a template of previous tests, than it is to truly challenge them with a rich curriculum, to shape young minds in a way that will make them resilient.

The Common Core stresses that very sort of critical reasoning skill. By removing at least two layers of yearly standardized testing, the Guilderland teachers have not only liberated their students, but themselves as well.

They can now spend their limited time and considerable talents on what really matters — educating their students.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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