Press-Republican

June 17, 2013

Forum airs state-test frustrations

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
Press-Republican

---- — CLINTONVILLE — Ever since the implementation of the state’s new exams, Kris Nielsen has noticed a change in the discussions he has with his daughter’s teacher.

“We used to talk about my daughter,” the educator and author of “Children of the Core” told the crowd gathered for a recent forum at AuSable Valley Central School.

“Now we talk about her (test) scores and why they’re not good enough or why they are good enough.”

Nielsen was one of 13 panelists who spoke at the informational event, which was hosted by the AVCS Family School Association and focused on state testing and related mandates, such as Common Core Standards and Annual Professional Performance Reviews of teachers and principals.

Other panelists included Board of Regents member James Dawson; Champlain Valley Educational Services Assistant Superintendent Teri Calabrese-Gray; Dr. Doug Selwyn, a professor of education at SUNY Plattsburgh; AVCS Superintendent Paul Savage; Keeseville Elementary Principal Kevin Hulbert; and AuSable Valley Teachers Association President Rod Driscoll, among others.

SHIFTS IN CURRICULUM

Dawson said the state adopted the Performance Reviews and Common Core in an effort to improve teaching and administration and raise academic standards to those of countries that are out-competing the United States.

“The major aspect of what we’re trying to do is to turn around the lowest-performing schools in the state,” he said.

The Common Core, which was implemented this school year, focuses on shifts in English language arts and math curriculum, Calabrese-Gray told the audience, and asks teachers and students to take a deeper look at a fewer number of topics.

This year’s state exams, which are developed by Pearson Education Inc., a company that also provides test preparation materials, assessed students on the new curriculum for the first time.

The assessments, Calabrese-Gray said, are used to determine how well students are meeting the new standards and whether they may be in need of academic assistance.

Fellow panelist Tim Butler, who teaches fifth-grade at Keeseville Elementary and administered the exams to his students this year, told the crowd how part of the tests asked students to read three long passages and provide written responses.

“I did a readability level on all three of those passages, and each of them is at a seventh-grade reading level,” he said. “Keep in mind it’s a fifth-grade test.”

CLOSE-READING STRATEGY

In addition, Butler noted, the Common Core teaches a “close-reading” technique, intended to help students get more meaning out of difficult texts; however, “the children in my class who followed that close-reading strategy did not (have time to) finish the tests.”

And students who fail to take or finish the exams or do poorly on them, added Driscoll, “will be unnecessarily assigned to academic-intervention services, which cost the district money.”

He noted that Common Core is a good idea, but the testing that comes with it is detracting from classroom instruction and resources.

“We just want time to teach our kids, and, basically, the state keeps taking that time away,” Driscoll said.

‘ABSURD WASTE OF TIME’

Starting in third grade, elementary students are subjected to more than 10 hours of state testing alone, while middle- and high-school students undergo 11 and 12 hours, respectively, according to Driscoll.

It’s an “absurd waste of time that damages students psychologically and academically,” he said.

“Parents from across the state have reported their children not really wanting to go to school anymore, and I’m not talking about the kids who already hated school,” added Nielsen, who has been attending testing forums across the state and speaking with students, teachers and parents.

“I’m talking about the kids who loved going to school.

“They’re worried excessively about whether or not they’re cutting it anymore because they’re constantly told they’re not by tests.”

‘DISTRICTS IN DANGER’

Several parents opted their children out of this year’s state exams against the advisement of the State Education Department.

One of them, AVCS English teacher Michelle Doorey, who attended the forum, told the Press-Republican in a separate interview that between state and other tests, including interim, benchmark and weekly Pearson exams, her son Brady’s third-grade class was subjected to more than 500 pages of assessments this school year.

“I’m estimating that about 30 percent of his 180 days at school were spent on testing in one way or another,” she said.

While Brady is a top student and avid learner, she added, he has started to dislike school.

Still, said panelist and AVCS Board President Scott Bombard during the forum, the tests are mandated by the state, and though he has his own personal thoughts on the matter, “it’s up to the School Board to uphold the law.”

Bombard also pointed out that when parents opt their children out of the assessments, they risk putting their districts in danger.

Schools are required to test 95 percent of their test-age students, and those that do not will fail to meet “adequate yearly progress,” which could result in loss of certain funding.

“That could mean jobs, so from a School Board standpoint, we don’t want to lose any more jobs, and we also want to do what the law says,” Bombard said.

FEEDBACK TOO LATE

“We’re essentially being bullied,” Selwyn said, noting that it’s as if the state is saying, “‘You do what we tell you to do, or you won’t get the money that you need.’”

Savage said his district administration respects parents’ right to keep their children from taking the exams and doesn’t take it personally when they do.

Testing is a diagnostic tool that is helpful when results are immediately made available, he said, but feedback from state exams is received long after it can be used to re-adapt that year’s lessons.

In addition, Savage said, “I feel that testing doesn’t get to the core of what necessarily students are all about.”

The exams and other mandates, Selwyn added, come at a time when state funding to schools has been cut.

Meanwhile, he said, “that money that used to go to the schools is going into the pockets of Pearson.”

Selwyn also noted that there is no research to support the notion that a test-based curriculum makes for better educated and prepared students.

“We are spending an enormous amount of money to make education worse for our children,” he said.

Email Ashleigh Livingston:alivingston@pressrepublican.com