Iannuzzi: NYSUT suit is for students' sake

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(Credit: TMS illustration by Donna Grethen)

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Richard C. Iannuzzi, a resident of Smithtown, taught elementary school for 34 years in Central Islip, and is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

Pencils down! Standardized tests in math, science, social studies and English Language Arts for third through eighth graders; midterms and finals; and an exhausting battery of high school Regents exams have finally come to a close for Long Island's 475,000 students. Who could blame them for exhaling a huge sigh of relief at the start of the summer?

Unfortunately, that relief may be short-lived. Even more high-stakes testing pressure is coming. Last month, the Board of Regents, choosing political expediency over sound education policy, adopted regulations that allow districts to double the weight of Regents exams and other state standardized tests in measuring teacher effectiveness.


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Instead of requiring 20 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation to be based on student growth on such tests and a second 20 percent on other, locally developed measures -- as stipulated in the law that formed the centerpiece of New York's Race to the Top application -- the Regents voted to allow districts the option of using state test scores for both the first and second 20 percent.

Essentially, they voted to double to 40 percent the weight of a testing system that, just a year ago, Chancellor Merryl Tisch said was not "testing the right things in the right ways."

That's why, this week, New York State United Teachers filed a lawsuit to overturn portions of these harmful regulations.

While the media and political attention has centered on the process for judging teachers, the Regents' folly will have a significantly negative impact on students. If the system for judging teacher quality is flawed, then the outcomes will also be flawed. Some of the best teachers will be ignored, but some of those most in need of support will be overlooked. That's not good for students.

Worse, when a flawed system drives emphasis in teacher evaluations on the wrong qualities, the wrong qualities will be emphasized in the classroom. Even greater "teaching to the test" and unrelenting "test prep" will take precedence over programs and policies that actually improve student achievement, emphasize critical-thinking skills and address the achievement gap.

Instead of well-rounded instruction in all subjects, impromptu discussions of world events and meaningful exposure to the arts, music and foreign languages, Long Island districts -- especially poorer ones such as Brentwood, Central Islip and Roosevelt, which don't have the resources to develop their own meaningful measures of student progress -- will find themselves chasing higher standardized test scores. Economic pressures will leave them no choice but to take the easy way out, double-weighting state tests over other, more educationally sound measures.

NYSUT, to be clear, remains fully committed to a comprehensive, objective and fair system of evaluating teachers to improve student performance -- one that includes high quality measures of student growth used appropriately. Our suit is based not only on clear violations of the law, but on mounting evidence that an over-reliance on high-stakes testing has, so far, had little or no positive effect on actual student learning. In a recent report, the National Research Council found higher test scores were often disconnected from student learning, noting New York, for example, had increased its numbers of high school students passing Regents' exams, but had flat results on lower-stakes national tests in the same subjects.

No one disagrees that only the most capable, highly skilled professionals should have the privilege of teaching Long Island's students. But, creating regulations that are contrary to law and the findings of the best educational research is more than just folly: It's reckless and harmful.

When students and teachers go back to school in September, it's our hope that New York has a teacher evaluation system in place that will both improve student learning and accurately measure teacher effectiveness -- two goals embedded in the letter and spirit of the new teacher evaluation law. Sadly, the Regents shirked their legal and moral duty to write regulations consistent with that law. They failed New York's teachers and principals and, more importantly, its children.

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