By KIM SMITH DEDAM
---- — SARANAC — As school assessment testing struggled through growing discord from teachers and parents this year, at least one savvy student looked to who might address the problem.
Taxpayers across New York are funding a five-year contract for standardized test development and training materials from NCS Pearson Inc., the London-based publisher awarded the State Education Department contract for $32,136, 276 two years ago.
Errors on part of the tests last year and grading mistakes on scoring tests for gifted students this spring have led some state education officials to question the contract, outright.
But — beyond quality — a growing number of parents, teachers and school administrators have raised concern over the quantity of testing and the impact the pressure has on students.
STARTED AS A JOKE
An eighth-grade student in the Saranac Central School District made a distinctive statement as testing got under way this spring with her own version of the test.
Sophia Stevens is 13 and will enter high school next fall.
Her assessment test mirrors the style and format of standardized state tests. Simply labeled English Language Arts, Book 1, it also mimics the redundancy in multiple-choice answers that she says leads to confusion.
“At first, it was to be funny, as a joke,” the teen said in a recent interview.
“Then I realize it could possibly change something in the system.”
‘DEAR NEW YORK’
Sophia sat down and wrote her own test. She said it took about three hours.
It begins: “Dear New York State. I am not fond of your tests. They do not show you who I am, or who my teachers are. …
“Not all students are the same. Therefore standardized tests are impractical. Albert Einstein once said: ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’”
Sophia’s test then offers multiple-choice questions about the written entry, in this case, her letter “Dear New York State.”
“I definitely wanted to make it as close to the actual test as I could,” she said of the style.
“The tests are not actually clear all the time. There may be more than one answer that seems right.”
Sophia did take the English Language Arts and math assessment tests this year, though dozens of students throughout the region refused the tests in accord with their parents’ views.
“The ELA definitely was hard. I almost ran out of time,” Sophia said. “The math, I actually found pretty easy.
“But I think testing takes up a lot of our time in school. We take a lot of time to do test preparation when we could do other stuff that’s more interesting. Usually, we have homework assignments that are test examples.”
Sophia’s mom, Laura Stevens, is proud of her daughter for engaging the testing debate in an innovative way.
A blog entry in “The Answer Sheet” on the Washington Post website mentioned Sofia’s test and drew comments from hundreds of readers.
“I was amazed to see on the Washington Post that there are so many comments,” Laura said.
“It (Sophia’s test) started the conversation for some people. I think that New York state especially has just rushed into this and not thought it out thoroughly enough to implement it in the best way for the kids and for the teachers. They threw it out there to keep the funding.”
In fact, New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch suggested in comments to the press last April that testing ahead of Common Core instruction would suffice: “We can’t wait. We have to just jump into the deep end,” she said.
The Common Core curriculum has not fully matriculated. Many students were tested this year on material they had not seen.
“They threw these kids in, and they’re not swimming,” Laura Stevens said.
MAKING HER POINT
The final question on Sophia’s Test is:
“Which of the following people could make the biggest change to NYS testing?”
And she provides the following multiple-choice answers:
E) A student
F) A teacher
G) The Commissioner of Education
H) The governor.”
Maybe all of the answers are correct?
“I just wanted to get the point across that the tests aren’t fair and are not proving anything about what our teachers are teaching us,” the 13-year-old told the Press-Republican.
“They just seem pointless. Just think how boring the world would be if everybody was the same.”
“I’m just concerned that they are focusing so much on the test themselves that the things we want in adults — the critical thinking skills — are not there,” Laura said.
“Critical thinking is something we want to foster at the youngest age possible. Beyond testing, there is more than one way to tackle a problem.”
Saranac Lake School Board is one of several throughout New York that has asked the Education Department to rethink testing policy.
REACTING TO THE ISSUE
In Albany, Barbara Bradley is deputy director of communications and research for the New York State School Boards Association.
She said the backlash is fiscal: If schools don’t achieve 95 percent of students in testing, they face federal aid cuts.
“That is about 8 percent of a school district’s budget or revenue,” Bradley said.
She did not know what the average cost of testing is for districts.
But throughout the spring, the association has been listening to the discourse.
“The School Board Association does not have a position on this,” Bradley said.
“We’re listening to our members while at the same time we acknowledge the tests are there and do provide some measure of student performance and teacher evaluation. We’re still formulating our position as we listen to our members. We’re paying attention and we’re listening.
“We are also mindful of the rules and regulations. Hopefully there will be data out of those tests that will continue to guide them in this process.”
The New York State Unified Teachers, the union representing more than 600,000 teaching professionals, isn’t taking a wait-and-see approach.
In a statement issued ahead of a One Voice rally held in Albany last weekend, the union blasted high-stakes, standardized testing as “too much, too soon.”
“The Chancellor (Tisch) may believe, as the New York Times reported, ‘We can’t wait. We have to just jump into the deep end.’ But NYSUT, on behalf of the state’s teachers, says that if students are going to jump into the deep end, it should be after they’ve had plenty of swim lessons and perhaps with a life jacket if they need it.”
The union challenged the State Education Department to reassess the process.
“New York’s teachers believe the state’s obsession with standardized testing and endless data collection — driven by multi-million-dollar contracts with Pearson — are counterproductive by stifling creativity; intruding on instructional time; and turning off students, many of whom were unable to finish their tests (this spring) and left their classrooms utterly defeated and in tears,” the statement said.
“It’s time to hold the Commissioner (of Education, Dr. John B. King Jr.) and the Regents accountable.”
Email Kim Smith Dedam:firstname.lastname@example.org
READ THE BLOG
The blog entry featuring Sophia is on the Washington Post website at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/04/17/eighth-grader-designs-standardized-test-that-slams-standardized-tests/
The Post blog links to a copy of Sophia's test.