Testing: Past, Present, and Future: A Speech by Katie Lapham at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, NY

By Katie Lapham, ESL/ENL Teacher (Brooklyn, NY  12/6/17)

I have nothing positive to say about these tests. For ten years, I worked in Title I elementary schools in Brooklyn (East New York and Sunset Park). Since 2013, I have been administering the Common Core ELA and math assessments in grades 3, 4, and 5. Due to the correlation between test scores and socio-economic status, it is not surprising that test scores in Title I schools are low. Schools face immense pressure to raise scores and therefore most decision-making revolves around this goal. No one wants to be on the focus school list, which results in greater scrutiny. Teacher morale in these schools is really low. The schools are top-down and undemocratic and the staff is micromanaged. There is no freedom to teach and learn in schools with low test scores. The DOE doesn’t have faith in these educators, many of whom are veteran teachers and teachers of color. In one staff meeting, the district superintendent essentially blamed us for the school’s poor test scores (despite the fact that the vast majority of students were ELLs and that the school had many students living in poverty). We were told that our instruction wasn’t rigorous enough; she basically implied that we couldn’t be trusted to teach our students how we saw fit.

Schools with low test scores are constantly changing reading, writing and math programs, and they aren’t teacher-created or even teacher-selected. Schools with low test scores are pressured by districts to adopt developmentally inappropriate and uninspiring test prep curricula such as Pearson’s ReadyGEN. Pearson, as you may know, created the first batch of Common Core-aligned ELA and math assessments. In schools with low test scores, skills-based test prep begins in kindergarten. I want to add here that even Lucy Calkin’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project feel test-preppy if you follow the scripts faithfully. The test prep curricula completely disregards early childhood studies, which show that “the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years” (Defending the Early Years).

How does this impact the kids?

In many schools with low test scores, there’s an almost heart-stopping sense of urgency to improve students’ performance in math, reading and writing. As a result, many Title I schools have limited choice time and no free play in the lower grades. Any type of play must have a literacy skill attached to it. There are fewer field trips, fewer enrichment programs and fewer (if any at all) school performances. An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Giving the state tests is an administrative and logistical nightmare at the school level. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spent bubbling testing grids and organizing them alphabetically by class.

English-language learners in particular are among the most over-tested students in NYS and very few people – including educators – ever set eyes on the NYSESLAT, the annual ESL assessment given to English-language learners every spring following the state ELA and math tests. The NYSESLAT is tedious, dense, long, boring, developmentally inappropriate, poorly constructed and confusing, and it is comprised of four testing sessions, which means four days of testing. The kindergarten NYSESLAT has 57 questions and the assessments taken in grades 1-12 each contain 66 questions, which are a combination of multiple choice and constructed written responses. The passages are largely non-fiction, containing social studies and science content, and some of the topics are obscure, outside of the students’ everyday life experiences. The NYSESLAT is more of a content assessment rather than a true language test. It’s also excessive in its use of close reading. The listening section, for example, requires students to listen to passage excerpts over and over again … ESL teachers bemoan the NYSESLAT, claiming that native English speakers would struggle to test at the proficiency level, which is the primary way an ELL can exit the ESL program. I have students, already overburdened by state testing, that will remain at the advanced (expanding) level on the NYSESLAT because they don’t score well on standardized tests. To subject them to this poor quality assessment year after year is abusive.

The test scores are meaningless to me. They do not reflect the work my students do and the progress they’ve made. Likewise, they aren’t an accurate measure of teacher quality. The first year of the current teacher evaluation system, I was rated “developing” on the measures of student performance component, which was based on test scores. This year my rating for the student performance component was highly effective. Despite the moratorium, state test scores are still being used to rate ESL/ENL teachers.

I really want to draw your attention to the big picture. Both at the national level and here in New York State, the Common Core testing program is at the heart of corporate education reform and school privatization. It’s the key tool used in the war on public schools and teacher unions. Schools are being run like businesses, which is totally inappropriate because our students are not commodities; they are a diverse group of human beings that all learn and progress differently. A one-size-fits-all assessment that relies on a bell curve to sort students is, fundamentally, an unreliable measurement.

By design, test scores are used to unfairly label schools, students and teachers as “failing.” They are used by no excuses charter schools like Success Academy to legitimize their existence in low-income neighborhoods, and test scores are used to close local schools in predominately black and brown neighborhoods. This destabilizes communities and adds stress to the lives of families living there. This focus on raising test scores also takes us away from the hard and messy – but URGENT – work we must do to address school inequity and re-segregation. At our recent Network for Public Education annual conference, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said: “if we can just get the test scores up we don’t have to do anything about the fundamental inequality of segregated schools.” This current Common Core testing program is yet another chapter in the history of standardized testing in the USA, which began to “support the illusion of white supremacy” (Journey 4 Justice).

As far as I know, I’m not allowed to discuss opting out with parents. I don’t hesitate to tell them the truth though. I tell them that – in my opinion – there is nothing good about these tests and that I opt out my own daughter. I won’t even let her school submit her reading levels to the DOE as I refuse to participate in this highly destructive and highly toxic system. I also try to raise awareness of what these tests are like, particularly the NYSESLAT because so many parents of English-language learner know nothing about them. I do feel freer to express my opinion in the high-performing school in which I now work, which also doesn’t have the same fears of funding loss my other schools did. When I worked in East New York, I voiced my opinion about the tests and curriculum at a CEC meeting and the superintendent called my principal to instruct her to reprimand me. Luckily at that time I had an understanding principal but that was short-lived. Frankly, we teach our kids about brave individuals like Rosa Parks but are we simultaneously striving to follow her example? As a teacher, I am a mandated reporter. I spend 30 hours a week with my students. I form trusting relationships with them and feel obligated to advocate for them in the face of exploitation and abuse. It is my duty to condemn these tests whenever the opportunity arises. U.S. labor leader Emma Tenayuca once said, “I was arrested a number of times. I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.” And justice is what our children need.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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