Ricken: Too much emphasis on school standardized tests

Those who care about education value creativity, leadership, Those who care about education value creativity, leadership, art, technology, music, effort, collaborative skills and more, but little of this is incorporated into standardized testing. We should be testing what we value. Photo Credit: Tribune Media Services / Nancy Ohanian

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Teachers and their supporters will gather in Albany Saturday to rally against the overuse of standardized testing in public education. The rally comes a week after the state Education Department mandated a new teacher evaluation system for New York City, where officials and the teacher union were unable to negotiate the means to evaluate teachers. In New York City and across the state, student test scores will provide up to 40 percent of every teacher's evaluation.

The pressure about new testing mandates was compounded this year because the state tests utilized the Common Core standards that redesigned curriculum. This curriculum is admirable, since it clearly provides a focus for daily instruction. But being required to simultaneously implement the testing demands, new teacher evaluations and a new curriculum has created enormous pressure in every school district. The rush to accomplish these tasks has, in many districts, also not been accompanied by adequate staff training on the Common Core standards.

Resentment by members of the teaching profession was immediate, since it was obvious that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and political leaders were strongly influencing decision-making at the state Education Department. The requirement that school districts would lose state aid if teacher evaluation plans weren't submitted on time -- as happened in New York City -- had educators feeling that instead of collaboration, this was coercion.

Most educators have criticized the use of standardized tests as the primary means to assess student and teacher achievement. The mandate has resulted in the need for teachers to pressure their students by constantly employing a "drill and kill" methodology. This method of instruction has its place, but on a daily basis it promotes a boring classroom environment. Teachers know that, no matter how a test is constructed and what standards are being measured, there will always be extra time spent to prepare their students. When a standardized exam is scheduled, the total teaching effort is targeted toward that test. Every other subject is de-emphasized.

In this type of environment, teachers feel forced to have students "cram" for the tests. An exciting classroom question from a student might be discouraged, since it would take time away from the review process.

Eliminating that teachable moment violates everything educators have been taught to use to inspire students to go beyond the immediate lesson. When students are asked about their favorite teacher, it's never the one who taught them the most subject content. It's the teacher who encouraged them, gave them confidence, and motivated them to make education a journey and not a destination.

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On Long Island, we have many districts whose results are on a par with the finest school systems in America. They go far beyond the teaching of basic skills. Many have not only increased the number of students enrolled in advanced placement courses, but have raised their student results as well. Nine local districts teach the International Baccalaureate program, which is more demanding than any mandated New York State curriculum. Why not use these schools as models instead of making them do exactly what other schools are reaching for?

No statistician, scientist or educator would ever base a major decision on the results of a single test. Everyone is in favor of improving American education. The best way to accomplish the task is for state officials, school administrators, teacher representatives and parents -- all the stakeholders -- to meet and collaboratively develop a course of action. Those who care about education value creativity, leadership, art, technology, music, effort, collaborative skills and more, but little of this is incorporated into standardized testing. We should be testing what we value.

Robert Ricken, a retired Mineola school superintendent, is a senior adjunct professor at the LIU Post Department of Educational Leadership and Administration and the author of "Mastering the Balance of the Principalship: How to Be a Compassionate and Decisive Leader."

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