An overemphasis on testing has proved counterproductive for students.

An overemphasis on testing has proved counterproductive for students. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

It’s back-to-school season and our classrooms are humming with possibilities. Each new school year marks a uniquely exciting time for students, teachers and parents alike — but we know they are facing challenges, too.

As a mom of four kids and president of New York State United Teachers, I’ve had countless conversations with educators and public school parents who are concerned about the impacts of counterproductive, high-stakes testing. It’s a major issue that requires a new vision and bold action from New York's elected officials and education leaders.

Take my household as one example: My fifth-grade sons used to count down the days until they could meet their teachers and get back to school. But around the end of third grade, they became less enthusiastic about learning. It’s no coincidence that this is also when our students start feeling the pressure of high-stakes testing. 

Simply put, we need more teaching, less testing. Kids should be able to be kids, nurtured by safe learning environments and driven by curiosity, instead of feeling an unrelenting pressure to perform. Teachers should be able to teach with the respect and freedom to be experts in their classrooms.

The education system's overemphasis on testing strips the joy from learning and autonomy from educators. Rather than creating thoughtful, reflective lessons based on student needs, teachers spend months preparing kids for tests that provide little to no benefit.

These exams don’t give teachers useful data to improve instruction, and the teacher evaluations that stem from the tests consume valuable time that could be devoted to learning.

What’s more, an overemphasis on testing has proved counterproductive for students. The tests, also used to fulfill federal benchmarks, are flawed and pegged to invalid measures of proficiency. They lack the balance and flexibility students need today, peddling shame over constructive learning.

As a parent, of course I want my kids to be up-to-speed on their academic requirements. But I also care about whether they feel supported and engaged. I care about their access to a broad and diverse curriculum and whether they’re building skills they need for the future. I want their teachers to be able to focus on project-based and experiential learning — hands-on education that makes kids excited about going to school.

At NYSUT, we continue to advocate for important reforms to high-stakes testing and the Annual Professional Performance Reviews. The current APPR system — which relies too closely on testing — was poorly designed and hastily rolled out. By contrast, we are working deliberately and thoughtfully with New York lawmakers and state officials to create a local replacement system to measure teacher accountability that prioritizes the love of teaching and learning, not punitive testing. 

That’s not all. NYSUT is engaging with the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Graduation Measures because there should be multiple pathways to a diploma and more than one way to measure student learning. We recently took the fight against over-testing to Congress alongside Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) with the More Teaching Less Testing Act.

The field of education has reached an inflection point. Studies show unprecedented mental health challenges, concerns about lost instructional time, and higher rates of absenteeism among teens — problems exacerbated by the pandemic, but decades in the making.

But instead of using antiquated measures of success — including standardized testing — to blame one another for the challenges our kids face, we must implement strong solutions. The year ahead may bring challenges, but it also comes with even more opportunities for change, growth and new beginnings. Together, we can make this the best academic year yet.

This guest essay reflects the view of Melinda Person, president of New York State United Teachers.

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