Karen Magee: Drawing Meaning From The Meaningless

Aug 30, 2015

Earlier this month, the State Education Department released student scores on state standardized tests. Yet, most of the media coverage centered on the 220,000 students who opted out of those tests.

Talk about poetic justice.

The real story, indeed, is how this parent-led movement is forcing policy-makers and the Legislature to revisit — and, hopefully reverse — harmful ‘test and punish’ educational policies. Whether the scores went up or down, parents understand the state tests results are virtually meaningless.

In many cases, the tests themselves were poorly written and not age or developmentally appropriate. In fact, the testing company — Pearson — did such a bad job designing these tests, the State Education Department recently fired them.

Parents also understand they get no useful information from these tests. Student scores are sent home near the end of the school year — too late to be of any use to teachers and without the critical information that parents — and teachers — need so they can use the data to better help students in the classroom.

And, parents understand that state tests are not being used properly. Good, fair tests can be used to measure what students know and are able to do, and help teachers see where students are succeeding and where they may need additional support or instruction. The state tests in English Language Arts, also known as E-L-A, and Math don’t do that, and they were never designed to measure teachers or to trigger sanctions against school districts. In fact, a growing body of research is showing that student test scores cannot be used reliably or accurately to measure teacher performance.

So, if there is a message at all in this recent kerfuffle over opt out and testing, it is this: Parents are smart. They do their homework. And, they put their children’s best interests first. If the state wants to re-gain the confidence and trust of parents, and have them again “opt in” on testing… it must have constructive assessment policies that work for students, parents and educators. When 20 percent of students — 32 percent outside New York City — refuse to take state-required tests, that’s a strong message.

The state needs better, more accurate and more reliable student assessments in E-L-A and Math. Those tests should be designed with the full participation of New York's teachers, every step of the way.

We also need a full review of the Common Core state standards, with changes to make them work for students, parents and educators.

And, the state must have a fair and meaningful evaluation system that does not rely on student tests and unreliable, invalid and inaccurate mathematical algorithms.

These changes need to happen… and they need to happen fast.

My union — NYSUT — the New York State United Teachers — is leading the charge to get back to what’s most important: Teaching and learning, not testing and more testing.

And, NYSUT is pushing the state to enact policies that allow educators to recapture the joy of teaching and learning — for students and teachers.

To do that, the state must recapture the trust and confidence of parents — and that may mean reversing course on testing and evaluations.

To the Regents, State Education Department and elected leaders, I can only say: I truly hope you are really listening.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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