June 3, 2013, 4:10 a.m.
There is nothing quite like that feeling when something theoretical turns personal. My husband and I both work in education. He is a high school English teacher and I work for an education non-profit group. Over the past few years, we have become increasingly concerned about the state of education, particularly the impact of high-stakes testing on schools.
But when I had to face this issue as a parent, my concern shifted from sadness to anger and, finally, to a resolution to act. Along with other parents at our school, P.S. 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, we are boycotting the field tests that begin in many schools across the city next week.
My evolution on the issue of high-stakes testing began several years ago when my daughter was in second grade. I asked her principal why she administered an optional test called E-PAL (Early Performance Assessment in Language Arts). She said it was for diagnostic purposes. I thought her second grade teacher was perfectly capable of diagnosing the students — as she did regularly. In third grade, I questioned why there was so much test preparation for a test that only determined grade promotion. My daughter’s teacher said she agreed, but she was mandated to do regular test prep for four months leading up to the state tests. In fourth grade, when the test racked the hearts and minds of my child and her classmates, I couldn’t ask questions anymore. I had to do something.
For the first time in five years, my daughter no longer loved school.
I heard warnings about fourth grade, how critical the test was for school report cards, teacher evaluation, and middle school admissions. Still, nothing prepared me for the onslaught of test preparation, test talk, practice tests, test prep homework, and threats about the negative consequences of the tests. When I attended Curriculum Night, 90 percent of the conversation was about “the test.” It literally permeated all of fourth grade, from November to April.
Because I work in education, I understand the larger context of how No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top created more tests with higher stakes for kids, teachers, and schools. What was more disturbing, however, was how my daughter’s school handled the testing. The teachers and administration talked about the test constantly and repeatedly told the children that if they didn’t do well, they wouldn’t get into a good middle school. There was a great deal of negative messaging around the test, the stakes of the test, and all the bad things that would happen if students didn’t do well.
While I fully support assessing what our children learn in school and how the teachers are doing, the high-stakes nature of these tests has made them poisonous to our schools. The standardized tests do not assess the right skills in ways that matter for children’s academic development. The tests are weighed too heavily in teacher evaluations. They narrow the curriculum. The tests create a high-stress, high-pressure environment for everyone.
Last year our school leadership team conducted a parent survey on high-stakes testing. It found strong concern that we were spending too much time prepping for and talking about high-stakes tests. In response, another parent and I initiated a high-stakes testing committee, as other schools have done. Our goal is to educate parents about the issue and improve the tone at the school.
And now we are leading a boycott of field tests which begin in June. Our school has been assigned to take the fourth- and fifth-grade math field tests. But after so many hours consumed by high-stakes tests, many of our parents are tired of it. Some are refusing to allow their children to participate in the field tests. And so am I. Enough is enough.
Jinnie Spiegler is a public school parent who lives in Brooklyn. She is the Director of Education and Learning at Phipps Community Development Corporation and a member of the advocacy group Change the Stakes.