SARANAC LAKE - Parents, teachers and school administrators shared their frustrations this week over the growing use of standardized tests at the elementary school level, and the effectiveness of New York state's tests in particular.
The Petrova Parents' Club hosted a community forum on the issue Wednesday night in the Petrova Elementary School auditorium. It drew a crowd of more than 80 people, mostly local parents and teachers, but also some from as far away as Plattsburgh and Keeseville.
"The Parents' Club wanted to learn more about this issue," club President Zoe Smith told the audience at the start of the event. "There are some fundamental questions that many of us in the room simply don't know the answer to about testing, such as how much testing occurs, how does it fit into my child's curriculum, and what does it measure? There are some more philosophical questions as well such as how does this affect my child's education, how does it affect the teachers, and what they are teaching?"
Zoe Smith, left, president of the Petrova Parents’ Club, introduces a forum on the subject of standardized testing in elementary schools Wednesday night in the Petrova Elementary School auditorium. Seated, from left, are Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Gerald Goldman, local teachers union co-president Don Carlisto, Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES Superintendent Stephen Shafer, teachers Kara Munn and Corinne Palmeri-Parsons, and principals Theresa Lindsay and Josh Dann.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The meeting began with a resounding indictment of the state's standardized testing by one of the session's panelists, Don Carlisto, a Saranac Lake Middle School teacher and co-president of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association.
"New York state's current system of standardized testing is not fair, valid or reliable," Carlisto said. "It does not measure learning. Despite our best efforts to work within it and conform to it, this point is painfully clear to many of us who work in the schools with your children every day - New York state's standardized testing system is hopelessly and irreparably broken."
Among other things, Carlisto said the reliance on standardized testing forces teachers to spend valuable instruction time "teaching to the test." He said students often "break down in tears, are sick to their stomachs or stop sleeping at night" because of the rigors of taking standardized tests over multiple days. That's led increasing numbers of parents to pursue opting their children out of the tests, Carlisto said.
What's driving the state's reliance on standardized testing? The job of explaining that went to Franklin-Essex-Hamilton Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Stephen Shafer, who, as the field representative for the state education commissioner in this area, spent much of the night on the hot seat.
Shafer said the state's assessment system is part of a bigger reform agenda that includes the Annual Professional Performance Review system of evaluating teachers - based in part on student performance on state standardized tests as well as on local assessments. It also includes implementation of the Common Core standards for math and English Language arts, which were developed nationally, and a push toward more data-driven instruction.
Shafer noted that much of the state's education reform agenda is being driven by the federal government through programs like Race to the Top and the decade-old No Child Left Behind. When the state signed up for Race to the Top - New York won $700 million in funds from the program in 2010 - it had to commit to some of these reforms, Shafer said.
How many state tests do elementary school kids take? And how often are they taking them?
Shafer said students in grades 3 through 8 take math and English language arts exams each year. There are also science performance and written tests each year for kids in grades 4 and 8.
But there are also plenty of local tests. The district has its own regular literacy and math assessments that students take to monitor their progress in those subjects.
Petrova Elementary Principal Josh Dann said most of his students are assessed at least multiple times a month.
"I would say we are using these local assessments more frequently than 10 years ago," Dann said.
Gerald Goldman, superintendent of the Saranac Lake Central School District, said the state's use of standardized testing is nothing new. What's different and alarming about it now, he said, is using test results to gauge the effectiveness of teachers and principals.
"The decision to use standardized test results to judge the effectiveness of teachers is misguided," he said. "It's not going to work. We're really going to get our arms around that when some of the best teachers in our schools get identified as ineffective teachers. I just don't think it's going to distinguish very clearly between effective and ineffective teachers."
Petrova Elementary first-grade teacher Kara Munn said the need to focus on preparing her students for state and local assessments often takes away from more traditional instruction.
"It's certainly feeling more and more frequent than ever before in my 15 years," Munn said. "It is not daily, but I feel like, at times more often than I like, assessment is lurking in my instruction area. It's taking its toll."
Another teacher offered a different perspective. Corinne Palmeri-Parsons, a fifth-grade teacher at Bloomingdale Elementary, said she uses the local literacy assessments to completely guide her instruction in reading. She said it's made her a better teacher.
Many parents and teachers said they've heard this spring's state tests, the first ones aligned with the new Common Core standards, will be more challenging.
"State education officials, off the record, have been quoted as saying that they expect a 25 percent drop in test scores once these new Common Core-aligned tests are administered in the spring," Carlisto said. "So I think we should all be bracing for scores that don't look like we've come to expect them to look."
Bloomingdale Principal Theresa Lindsay said some students have only had one year under their belts learning a Common Core-based curriculum.
"There hasn't been enough time," she said. "If there's a fall-off in scores, it's not necessarily that our children are failing or our teachers are failing our students. It has to do with a timeline that really isn't right."
Several teachers said the state tests would be much more valuable if they were allowed to see the results. The testing company Pearson has a $32 million contract with New York to administer the state tests, but it doesn't provide sample tests and collects test booklets after they're administered to students.
"We don't see the results," said Saranac Lake Middle School social studies teacher Karen Miemis. "We don't see anything. None of the state exams can help us to drive our instruction, period."
Miemis said she's concerned that if the tougher state math and English tests lead to poorer scores, more students will be required to receive academic intervention in those subjects. That could take away from instruction time they'd be getting in social studies, science and character education, she said.
Valerie Butler, a parent who works as a nurse in the Plattsburgh City School District, said that when she asked about opting her children out of the state tests, she was told they would be automatically given the lowest score and be enrolled in Academic Intervention Services the next year.
"So I was told that my ninth-grade student would be enrolled in ninth-grade honors English as well as ninth-grade AIS," Butler said.
Shafer said the state requires all schools to have a 95 percent participation rate in state testing. Failing to meet that threshold could lead to a school being cited by the Education Department.
"They'd be required to go through a whole bunch of self-evaluation as well as people from the outside coming in to take a look at the school," Shafer said. "Ultimately it's going to divert resources in the school away from instruction to spending time on complying with all these requirements from the state."
That response didn't sit well with Robyn Poulsen, a parent of two children at Petrova and a Lake Placid High School math teacher.
"I feel like the comments that if we don't have a 95 percent participation rate, then the schools are in trouble - I feel like I'm being bullied by State Ed, quite frankly, and I don't like being bullied," Poulsen said, to applause from the audience. "That makes me want to opt my children out more."
Asked what the cost is to the district to administer the state tests, Goldman said the tests are free. The real cost, he said, "is the salaries we pay instructors to administer the test rather than engage in instruction. I don't have a number but it's a significant amount of money."
Carlisto said the indirect costs of the state's reliance on testing are also significant. He said state Education Commissioner John King has requested $1.5 million this year so the state can develop English language arts tests for grades 9 and 10. Another $500,000 is being sought for a pilot study on computer-based assessments. Carlisto also ridiculed a $500,000 request from King to study eraser marks on bubble sheets to detect cheating.
Shafer said the erasure analysis was sparked by an audit of school districts around the state that found "significant level" of mistakes and inaccurate scores on state exams.
"Whether we should be spending $500,000 or not we can debate, but it's clear there was an issue," he said.
Goldman said the state's reliance on standardized testing isn't something lobbying by teachers and superintendents can change.
"I think it's going to take parents to change this," he said. "It's going to change at the grassroots level when parents decide they don't like the direction their schools are going."
As the meeting came to a close, Smith proposed forming a parent group that would continue to focus on the issue of standardized testing and look at different models being used at other schools across the country. Many hands went up when she asked who'd be interested.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.