Karen Magee: On Testing And Evaluations, Reasons To Be Hopeful

Jun 25, 2015

Two words — “sharp dissent” — are not normally used in the same sentence as “New York State Board of Regents.”

The Regents are a dignified body charged with making education policy in New York State.  Its 17 members also oversee the University of the State of New York, the state’s museums, and license and discipline New York’s doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

Their monthly policy meetings are almost universally sedate.  When there are disagreements, they are generally polite.

So, when seven Regents put forward significant amendments to proposed regulations governing teacher evaluations — and several more spoke out strongly, in frustration, against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ‘test and punish’ plan — it truly was a watershed moment.

Dramatic change has clearly begun.  

Many of the Regents have obviously been listening.  They held hearings and they heard the concerns of teachers, school administrators and superintendents about how Cuomo’s over-reliance on standardized testing is changing teaching and learning — for the worse.

The Regents spoke about ensuring that the state’s teacher evaluation system is fair and meaningful and designed to — yes — support teachers and help them grow, and not be a ‘gotcha’ system used to sort, rank and, possibly, fire teachers based on flawed test scores.

The Regents spoke about the lack of convincing research showing any valid or reliable connection between how students do on a single standardized test, and what, if anything, these tests say about a teachers’ effectiveness.

And, the Regents nodded knowingly when one colleague spoke about how parents feel about Cuomo’s testing beast.  When 200,000 parents opted their children out of this spring’s standardized tests — and some classrooms had just one or two children sitting for these corporately-designed assessments — the Regents definitely noticed.

The Regents made changes to the State Education Department’s initial proposal. And, while the majority voted for regulations with a narrow interpretation of the governor’s law — and did not go far enough to heed the concerns of parents and educators — it is clear the beginnings of a sea change in education policy are forming.  There is reason for hope.

In response to NYSUT’s advocacy and the work of parents’ groups, the Regents loosened the weight of standardized tests in one small area.

The Regents created a small amount of breathing room for districts, agreeing to allow four-month hardship waivers until March for school districts that, despite trying, cannot put in place their plans.  In many places, this will likely move implementation of Cuomo’s terrible plan back one full year.

And, the Regents agreed to establish a work group to study what a fair, meaningful and effective evaluation and testing system should look like. (PAUSE)

Now there’s a novel idea!

NYSUT applauds those courageous Regents who listened carefully to parents and educators and who are strongly advocating for a system that is fair and meaningful, uses multiple measures and fosters the professional dialogue and collaboration that is essential in public education.

They know what we know — and parents know.  Continued over-reliance on standardized testing is bad for students, bad for teachers and bad for public education.

It angers me — and my 600,000 members — that we have in Governor Cuomo someone who is sticking his nose into education policy — about which he knows nothing — in order to use our public schools as a political football.

Still, we took a small, but real, step forward in June.  But, more must be done.  In concert with all of our state’s students and parents, NYSUT will not rest until the Regents support tests and evaluations that are good for students and fair to teachers. 

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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