Next week my seventh graders will sit for the state math test. They’ll answer a battery of questions, testing their skills in areas like using percentages, working with fractions and doing algebra, and at times they’ll feel both frustrated and proud. One would think that the idea of tests in school would be mundane rather than controversial. But in fact, a vocal minority of parents who plan to opt their students out of state tests have recently garnered a great deal of media attention. These opt-out supporters are right to focus on some of the problems with standardized assessments, but wrong to think that opting out will solve any of them. The premise for standardized testing is a simple one: teachers, families and the public should know how much students are learning in comparison to their peers across the state, as well as in comparison to a standard of proficiency. With this information, we as a state can know where students are excelling—and just as important, where they are struggling. We can then support schools exactly where they need it, focusing on timely interventions. And yes, student improvement on assessments has some role in evaluating teacher and school performance. Knowing is better than not knowing. But there’s good reason that some teachers feel relentless pressure from standardized tests. Teacher evaluation systems now prioritize test scores above all else, while also increasing the number of tests used, and decreasing instructional time. This problem is very real. As a result, teachers feel pressure to do test prep and to avoid any activities that might not directly lead to higher test scores. Schools, and those of us working in them, are deemed “failing” based solely on a single test’s scores, with no consideration of the growth in our students’ scores. It doesn’t have to be this way. Educators for Excellence-New York, a group I have joined alongside thousands of other New York City teachers, has published
recommendations for using standardized tests fairly and effectively. Specifically, we’ve called for giving teachers tools to use assessments to inform instruction, minimizing test prep (which research suggests does not necessarily lead to increased test scores), focusing on student growth rather than absolute proficiency, and using test scores as only one measure among many in high-stakes decisions. New York City has made strides toward more equitable systems. One example is broadening student promotion decisions beyond assessments by making them one factor in decision-making but not the only one. But there is more policymakers can do. The quality of tests must be improved to ensure careful alignment to the Common Core, and teacher evaluation needs to reduce the emphasis on test scores. Furthermore, teachers need test results back in a timelier manner, disaggregated by student and standard. Opt-out will not solve our challenges because it sends the wrong message, suggesting that tests should be eliminated completely rather than used as the valuable tools they are. Such a protest, while understandable, highlights problems but offers no real solutions. Opting out will take away meaningful information from parents and teachers. It will hide achievement gaps and weaken accountability systems that have improved student achievement, particularly for struggling students. But it is unlikely to change policy for the better. So when I’m proctoring my students as they take state exams, I will continue to have high expectations for my students, and I know that every one of them is capable of being more than a test score. But I’ll also know that when the results of these tests come through, policymakers have an obligation to use them with care. I’ll keep pushing them to do so, and I hope parents who are considering opting out will instead join me in advocating for more consistency and support.
Paul Asjes is a math teacher at School of Performing Arts in the Bronx and the chapter leader of the local teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers.