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Test Messages

The one-sentence message projected on a screen over the stage at Kleinhans Music Hall last Wednesday night said a lot about the objections and resentment of many of the eventually 2,500 people filing into the auditorium: “Poverty determines test scores.” There were other messages and slogans meant to challenge the popularly termed “high stakes” testing for public school students mandated by the state and federal governments.

The Summit for Smarter Schools, organized by the Partnership for Smarter Schools, a large umbrella of a group that’s only a little more than a year old, was successful in bringing an impressively large number of parents, school administrators, teachers, journalists, and others from across Western New York. It also managed to assemble an unusual bipartisan representation of public officials, including the sponsors: Assemblyman Sean Ryan and State Senator Tim Kennedy, both Democrats, and Republican State Senator George Maziarz from Niagara County. Seated on stage along with them and other speakers were a group of elected officials from the two parties whose presence and names were noted by the hosts.

The remarks by these three men were uncommonly in agreement with each other, and with the stated messages and philosophy of the organizers. There was a sometimes disconcertingly uniform liberal or progressive spirit expressed, despite the diversity. Under the blunt rubric of “Getting it Right” the Partnership’s promotional material calls for “smarter student assessment,” rather than the regimen of standardized testing that runs from third through eighth grades. These are on top of the Regents exams which continue through high school. More than one of Wednesday night’s speakers deplored the extension of testing into the earliest school grade where very young children are taught how to take “bubble tests,” filling in empty ovals next to questions. (“Teaching to the test” begins early.)

In his spirited remarks to the audience, Kennedy lamented the “children losing out in instruction time” so they can prepare for the uniform tests. “Dedicated, talented teachers are being pushed” to prepare students for test taking rather than helping them learn genuine academic subject matter, he said. Ten years ago, he said, there were 625 minutes of state tests per pupil in New York annually; now, he went on, there are 3,200 minutes for each child each year.

Ryan quoted a Hamburg principal who told him, “It’s hard to be against testing. If you are, you’re against rigor in education.” We’re “hard-wired to ask, ‘What did you get on the test?’” Ryan said. But the speakers, and the substantial number of audience members who applauded them, agreed that the tests were part of a crucial part of the obstacles to improving public education in New York.

The standardized testing that the meeting was convened to protest has been most directly imposed by the last two presidential administrations in Washington and their two premier programs: George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s similar “Race to the Top.” Great amounts of badly needed money are denied to states that don’t test students, don’t importantly base teacher ratings on the rest results, and don’t make arrangements to close so-called “failing” schools, or replace administrators and teachers in them. All this the Smarter Schools Partnership opposes on both humane and scientific bases.

In a telephone interview, Mike Cornell, an Amherst elementary school principal who MC’d the event, pointed to the remarks of Jaekyung Lee, graduate dean of the University at Buffalo’s education school. Professor Lee told the politicians and the crowd, “It’s not that there’s a shortage of evidence,” and expressed regret that “politics, rather than evidence” too often dominates discussions of education reform. A heavy reliance on standardized testing, he said, actually undermines standards “by narrowing the curriculum and teaching.” “Tests should match the curriculum,” he said, rather than dominating and circumscribing it. “Students should have an opportunity to learn” substantive material, and shouldn’t be diverted from this. The evidence, he observed, argues for “high standards. well-trained teachers given latitude” to come up with tactics and strategies, and “equality of educational opportunity,” which virtually no one except fringe elements contend contends exists now, however else they disagree about the causes.

Both Cornell and Dr. John McKenna, a Partnership founder and Tonawanda elementary principal, drew attention to the state-imposed inability of teachers and administrators to share the contents of tests with parents, or to discuss particular item results in order to encourage improvement. McKenna told the audience the testing program was a “drill-and-kill” regime.

As noted above, the “summit” was geographically and politically diverse, but there were a couple of distinct, potentially serious limitations to its composition. No Buffalo school board member attended, nor did anyone from the system’s central office participate. (Lafayette High School principal Naomi Cerre did speak.) And it was hard to avoid noticing that the audience was overwhelmingly white. These facts may or may not be underlined by the skepticism of one prominent African-American Buffalo activist who was there. Sam Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said afterwards that organizations and meetings like this one are “great for suburban schools,” but the expressed objectives aren’t as relevant for educationally and socially deprived city students. Suburban students have access to programs in art, music, and other areas, “just like private schools.”

Radford also dissented from the meeting’s opposition to closely tying teacher evaluations to the test results. “If you don’t have an objective measure, you’ll get kids pushed forward” toward graduation without really learning. Indeed, he’s in favor of “more stringent APPR [teacher evaluations].” And he doesn’t think the state education commissioner, John King, Jr., will back down, even in the face of burgeoning opposition across the state. The state, for its part, sent an e-mailed statement to Artvoice in which it said, “Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying ‘I don’t want to know where my child stands, in objective terms…and we think that’s doing them a real disservice.’”

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore also attended, and he objected that people who try to tie the union opposition to the tests to a wish to avoid evaluation “have never been in a school where there tests are given…We’re concerned about what its doing to the kids.” It’s not a question of tests in general, he said. “It’s a question of what kind of tests” and whether they contribute to helping students, not restricting them.

Whether King, the state, and the Obama administration can maintain their stances isn’t a certain result now. The teachers union sent copies of several bills submitted by state legislators that would restrict the use of testing to diagnostic purposes particularly for the youngest children. And the Partnership promises more resistance.

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