In New York’s schools today, testing is a travesty. It fails everyone it is supposed to help: students, teachers, parents and communities. That’s why the opt-out movement is sweeping our state.
But how do we fix testing in a straightforward way so that we can move from failure to success?
The major reform that policymakers must champion is to adopt a testing system that actually diagnoses each individual student’s deficiencies in knowledge and provides teachers with information that will be useful to them in addressing these learning gaps.
I know firsthand that testing only succeeds if it empowers teachers to increase their understanding of where and how each student is struggling to comprehend specific concepts.
I spent 18 years at the helm of a company dedicated to educating adults who lacked the reading and math skills to enter the workforce and pursue careers. Key to our success in this field was our diagnostic approach to testing, which enabled our teachers to pinpoint the precise struggles of each student as an individual learner.
Teachers can’t remedy what they don’t know are deficiencies in each student’s education. It’s like asking a carpenter to build a house while withholding the blueprint, hammer and nails.
The current system is beyond repair: The results of standardized tests do not even come back until after students have completed the school year. And when the results finally do arrive, they are only superficial measurements of overall performance, measured on a scale of 1 to 5 with no specificity and, therefore, no real usefulness to teachers, students or parents.
No wonder there is a growing consensus that standardized testing in its present form does more harm than good and should be scrapped entirely, replaced by something better.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently acknowledged that these tests are “meaningless to the student.” Unwittingly, he was describing his own botched approach: On his watch, testing has undermined the education of millions of students and unfairly punished teachers.
As new state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia embarks upon her crucial work trying to improve our schools, she should begin by focusing on overhauling our testing system, so that students actually benefit from it, instead of subjecting children to all of the pressure and anxiety that stems from it for nothing.
The best way to accomplish this aim is to give our teachers, from day one, total access to all the information they need to boost the comprehension of each student struggling in specific subject areas. Diagnostic testing should kick off the beginning of each school year, so that teachers can incorporate the results into their daily lesson plans and provide a benchmark to gauge students’ progress over the course of the proceeding months
Elia should also emphasize that teachers can’t be evaluated based on tests whose results they aren’t even allowed to use to help students increase comprehension of the curriculum. Such evaluations, which have become the nightmarish norm, are simply educational malpractice.
But before the evaluation system can be meaningfully transformed, the relationship between teaching, testing, and classroom learning has to be rebuilt anew from the ground up.
Elia must not wait to change course. It is imperative that she move quickly to overcome Cuomo’s mistakes, and make it clear to New Yorkers that a much stronger, more effective style of testing, which prizes critical learning and thoughtful instruction, is within reach for all schools.
Tests can and should be deeply meaningful to all students, teachers and parents if they are used not as a blunt instrument of gubernatorial control but as a tool of illumination that can inform smart modifications in how classroom instruction happens throughout the school year.
That is the sensible vision for the future many New Yorkers would gladly opt into.
Bill Samuels is a Democratic activist, business leader and founder of EffectiveNY.