Press-Republican

January 14, 2013

In My Opinion: Impact of testing on academic freedom

By KEVIN R. MULLIGAN
Press-Republican

---- — Much has been said, in recent months, about the significant increase in New York state testing and its negative impact on the students, particularly those in the elementary grades.

The driving forces behind all the testing are federal Race to the Top funds and an increased accountability for public schools. Evaluations of schools, teachers and building principals are all being hinged upon the testing results of students.

Ironically, all this testing bears no impact on student grades. As an educator for 34 years, I always took exception to “teaching for the test.” I did, however, embrace the practice of inspiring students to learn and engage in the higher thinking skills of analysis and written, as well as spoken, expression, all not required on standardized tests.

As a classroom teacher and later as building principal, I was provided the opportunity for academic freedom.

The magnitude of high-stakes testing today, in New York state’s public schools, has all but eliminated academic freedom for classroom teachers and their principals.

We can all share stories of those teachers who inspired us, as students, to learn and oftentimes made learning fun. They rewarded us to be imaginative, to think “out of the box” and provided us the opportunity to express ourselves in both writing and the spoken word.

Today’s teachers can ill afford the luxuries associated with academic freedom. They are largely evaluated on student-test-driven results and not on their qualities for the art of teaching (pedagogy).

Dr. Don Sternberg, a principal at Wantagh Elementary School in Wantagh, N.Y., wrote a letter of apology on Sept. 4, 2012, to all his students’ parents and/or guardians that went viral. He apologized for encouraging a school learning environment that “will be teaching students to be effective test takers, a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking.” He also noted in his letter that excessive testing is “unhealthy for the students.”

I was pleasantly enlightened at the New York State Retired Teachers Association annual convention in October when that body endorsed a resolution entitled “Anti-Testing.” The association will actively seek a re-examination of public-school accountability and encourage the development of multiple forms of student assessment that do not require extensive standardized testing.

They will also work with active educators to bring about a return to the principles of academic freedom to the classroom. It is hoped that this resolution to seek legislative and regulation reform will encourage current active educators that judicious help is on the way and they are not alone.

Nonetheless, it is truly disturbing when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the self-proclaimed advocate for students in New York state, and Commissioner of Education Dr. John King support using high-stakes and high-cost standardized testing of students as the sole measure of effectiveness for schools, teachers and principals.

They both endorse the new evaluation process known as Annual Professional Performance Review that will be used to determine the effectiveness of our educators. Implemented this school year, the APPR has elements yet to be completed and has never been piloted (tested).

Dr. King was recently paraphrased to say: Let’s let this (APPR) roll out and see what results.

These misguided measures of accountability, as encouraged by Gov. Cuomo and Commissioner King, all point to one interest: the federal monies of Race to the Top legislation.

Be it known, residents of the North Country, we will see very little of this money, as it has mostly been targeted for the “Big 5” cities of New York state.

Let us all bid a fond farewell to academic freedom.

Kevin R. Mulligan is president of the Northeastern Zone of the New York State Retired Teachers Association and retired superintendent of schools at Chazy Central Rural School.