To The Study Commission: Hands Off Our Public Schools

Melissa Katz

The College of New Jersey

Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey Public Testimony

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak. My name is Melissa Katz and I am 19 years old. I am currently an Urban Elementary Education Major at The College of New Jersey enrolled in a 5-year Master’s Program.

The “Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey” last Friday afternoon released their preliminary report (1. nothing like releasing a report on a Friday late afternoon and 2. quite funny how the report is dated Dec. 31st – as that’s when it was ‘due’ – yet we’re seeing it less than a week before public testimony).

In quoting a research study entitled Testing Overload in America’s Schools (2014), as reported by Melissa Lazarin of the Center for American Progress, the Study Commission Report on page 12 states: “There is a culture of testing and test preparation in schools that does not put students first. A culture has arisen in some states and school districts that places a premium on testing over learning; however, it is difficult to systematically document the prevalence of these activities. Moreover, research indicated that some school districts and states may also be requiring or encouraging significant amounts of test preparation, such as taking practice tests.”

Much of the report, instead of focusing on the issues surrounding state mandated, high-stakes standardized tests, focuses on classroom and district testing. NJ.com reports: “In a preliminary report released Friday, the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey recommended that every district review the universe of tests and quizzes being given in classrooms. Quoting: We believe that if schools aren’t vigilant they could very well be putting together an assessment structure that is redundant and is not efficient, Education Commissioner David Hespe said.” This entirely misses the main issue, which are the state mandated, high-stakes standardized tests being implemented with absolutely no empirical, peer reviewed research to suggest any value to learning whatsoever. Planned and executed correctly, school and district assessments are teacher-created, authentic assessments, in which teachers therefore are actually writing the questions and can use the tests for valuable feedback. Teachers not only get valuable feedback, but they also get immediate and timely feedback: they see the student responses and can plan their lessons accordingly. If the entire class misses #3 for example, then the teacher knows that’s a topic that needs further exploration and examination in the classroom.

The key quote from the NJ.com article is as follows: “The commission ordered by Gov. Chris Christie to study student testing says schools could be giving students too many tests, but the annual state tests given in the spring aren’t necessarily the problem.” Should individual schools and districts look at their assessment structures? Of course. It’s always important to review that, but again that is not the main problem here nor should it be the main focus of this commission. Rather, the main problem, as stated above, is state-mandated tests that give little to no information to teachers/schools/parents; use our kids as guinea pigs for Pearson; as money-making tools that purposely fail students, so therefore Pearson can then sell the remediation products that students will be forced to use; that sort and labels kids into tracks and remediation courses without consideration of other performance measures – the list of issues with high-stakes standardized tests goes on, and that includes teaching to the test and simply being unfair to many students.

The report, in summary, says there is too much school testing. This is concerning to anyone who knows a thing or two about education, especially in that it seems this report is suggesting that down the line, we should give up the happenings in the classroom in favor of a state takeover of all testing. Basically, we should eliminate what school districts value – authentic, teacher created assessment – in place of what the state and federal government value.  The test and quizzes given in the classroom – those that actually give instantaneous feedback to students, teachers, and parents – are being blamed as the problem. In what world does it make sense to give a test where no one sees the questions – especially for the teachers who therefore don’t know where students are struggling – nor the correct answers? All that is received is a score – a meaningless number that in no way informs instruction or helps analyze a student’s learning – six months after the tests is actually taken.

So, the question becomes: the state wants the districts to “review the universe of tests and quizzes being given in a classroom with the goal of developing a coordinated integrated assessment structure and schedule.” Do they want to tell teachers and local districts when they are allowed to test and quiz? Some may say oh, that’s a complete exaggeration. But I’m guessing it’s not far from the truth. Because the issue here, really, is local control. The state is looking to turn our argument about high-stakes, standardized testing to make it seem as if we are against all assessment: and that is NOT true. Teachers know the best ways to fairly and appropriately assess students for the purpose of information to help guide the next steps of instruction. We are not just fighting for OUR kids here. We are fighting for ALL kids, for the foundations of what we view as public education, and for democracy.

Seton Hall Professor, researcher, and author Dr. Chris Tienken writes the follow in “Parking the Rhetoric on PARCC:”

So, the original set of state standards and assessments launched in 1997, used to legitimize the latest iteration of standardization and testing, were created to satisfy a court order to put a price tag on education, not to improve the education experiences for our children. Those original standards and tests were later deemed ineffective and of low quality by the NJDOE, the same organization that mandated the original standards and tests. Why should I feel better about PARCC and Common Core just because a state bureaucrat or leader of a taxpayer funded school board or school administrator association tells me we have had state mandated standards and testing for a long time when the original set of standards and tests were broken and built from an economic viewpoint, not an educational one.

Further, the fact that the report cites the “culture of testing and test preparation” implies that schools have chosen to give so many tests. Many times, these tests at a local level comes from the constant demand for data to prove schools are doing what they are supposed to be doing. At least the tests that teachers create can be used to drive instruction compared to the ones like PARCC, where we can’t see any detailed information and all we get is vague data so many months later. There is nothing wrong with having a balanced amount of assessments if they are teacher created, align with actual instruction, and have immediate results that can help kids learn.

It is bothersome, further, to see the mention of concern over districts “requiring or encouraging significant amount of test-preparation, such as taking practice tests.” With the immense amount of high-stakes attached to these tests, it is naive to believe that teachers and school would not engage in some form of test preparation with so much on the line. Teachers and schools’ hands are tied: even while knowing that these tests are developmentally inappropriate, taking away from authentic learning, and a larger part of the attempted takeover and privatization of public education, they are stuck with a dilemma: continuing on with instruction as usual (which in and of itself is a challenge because of the Common Core State Standards takeover in the classroom), or prepare kids for the test. Many teachers opt for the latter, as it would be unfair to their students not to prepare them for the test in some way. It is the ultimate dilemma: to do what a teacher knows professionally is right, or to do what they feel they have to do for their students. Many teachers do what they feel they have to for their kids in the classroom, and fight outside of the classroom to combat these reforms.

Test preparation has gone far beyond even the typical workbook preparation and practice tests. Now, classroom tests – those that have nothing to do with the state tests – are being aligned to the format and structure of PARCC so students become familiar with aspects of the state testing; such as having a drag and drop feature, ordering of events, and choosing the main two events as just some examples. The physical tests look exactly like the PARCC tests, solely so students become familiar with the PARCC layout. The PARCC testing has not only taken away authentic learning time for traditional test preparation, but is now seeping into regular classroom activities in no way related to the test.

Most concerning to me, though, is the discussion in the preliminary report that begins with Establishing a Coherent, Comprehensive Vision for the Role of Assessments through the section subtitled Aligning an Assessment System with a School District’s Strategic Goals and Change Process. Within this subsection, the report states, “It is essential that a school district’s assessment system, including its plans and strategies, is rooted in and aligned with the school district’s vision, mission, core values and beliefs, and strategic goals and objectives.” This brings me question: what are we saying is the purpose of education?

Is the purpose of education – the mission, core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – to create a generation of students who all perform to a certain, standardized level on a standardized test with no acknowledgement of individual talents?

Is the purpose of education – the mission, core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – to create a generation of students who experience a loss of curiosity and love of learning because all they’ve been exposed to is bubble tests that allow no room for creativity and imagination?

Is the purpose of education – the mission, core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – to create a generation of students who come home from school every day crying, and pleading not to be forced to go to school each morning because of the immense pressure placed on them, knowing the high-stakes consequences of these tests?

Is the purpose of education – the mission, core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – to create a generation of students who can regurgitate facts from a Pearson textbook but don’t know what the real world looks like outside of the pages of the textbook and walls of the classroom?

Is the purpose of education – the mission, core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – to create a generation of students who believe there is only one correct answer to questions in life and therefore who simply conform and do not question the choices of those in authority?

Is the purpose of education – the mission, core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – to create a generation of students who believe they are failures because an untested, unproven standardized test labels them, their teachers, and their schools as such?

Every child is unique, and brings something beautifully independent and original to this world. Our job as educators is to cultivate this individuality and creativity, and to create an environment that is safe for learning, exploration, mistakes, challenges, and triumphs. Children of all ages need a secure, caring environment and atmosphere where they can grow emotionally, socially, and intellectually to their own individual full potential. The classroom should be a place for experimentation, where the young minds of the world come with questions and ideas, and we – as educators – provide these students with all of the tools and resources they need to learn as a crucial aspect of self-discovery; because, as we should all know, education is about the individual student. And, most importantly, every child deserves to have experiences that cultivate a deep love of learning.

These ideas, to me, are the epicenter of education – the mission, the core values and beliefs, strategic goals and objectives of education – all go back to the student. None of what we are discussing today – Common Core State Standards nor PARCC – are being implemented in the best interest of the student, despite what the cute slogans like “student’s first” may say; rather, they are being implemented in the interest of money and in the name of privatization.

Nowhere in this equation is standardization: standardized testing, standardized curriculum, standardized teachers, nor standardized students or standardized learning. We are entirely focused on the wrong measures here: standardized tests tell us nothing about student learning. We are letting the idea that every moment has to be measured and accounted for in the name of quantitative accountability measures and schooling get in the way of real education.

Post yesterday’s testimonies, Commissioner Hespe claimed to be seeking more solutions: well, we know the solutions. First and foremost, end the high-stakes testing madness; not just PARCC, but also the overall reliance on these unproven high-stakes standardized tests that only work to destroy public education. We can easily use the NAEP test to get the information we need nationally, and teachers should be the ones assessing our students in the classroom. There is also the option of grade span testing with absolutely no high-stakes attachment for students, teachers, or schools. Our schools need to be fully funded, especially in our urban districts where resources and support are so desperately needed. We must get rid of the Common Core State Standards, as they are developmentally inappropriate and only serve for the purpose of making money for a select few corporations, big businesses, and philanthropists who know nothing about education. Give local control back to districts so they can decide how to best serve their students and community. We need small class sizes, art, gym, recess, music, and everything else that makes well-rounded students. And most importantly, we need to start listening to the experts on education matters: the teachers.

You sit in front of today and listen to our testimonies, as you did yesterday and will do down the road to make up for Tuesday’s testimony. The question remains: what will you do from here? My gut tells me, based on previous experience, that you will leave here today ignoring what we have all said and continue to push your agenda. But the power has shifted. You may be the ones sitting at the table up front, but we – the parents, students, teachers, and community members – are the ones that hold the power. We have power in numbers. We have power in our voices. Most importantly, we have power in our truths. It’s our turn to sit at the table up front and demand what we need, want, and deserve for education in the State of New Jersey. You’ve all underestimated us before – and therefore I advise you recognize the power we hold. If you choose not to recognize our voices, we will make them heard no matter what.

I will conclude with the words of Dr. Chris Tienken:

It seems as if some state education bureaucrats and so-called education reformers are trying to “teacher-proof” assessment through the use of standardized tests like PARCC. You can’t take the teacher out of the assessment equation. The teacher cannot be replaced by a machine or a “canned” assessment program. Over time, teacher assessments provide more detailed and actionable information than standardized tests. Teacher assessments result in less time spent on “test-prep” and more time spent on learning. Teacher assessments employ an approach known as “assessment for learning” whereas high stakes standardized tests rest on a mechanistic foundation of “assessment of learning” akin to weighing children instead of feeding them.

Large-scale projects like the New York Performance Assessment Consortium and the former Nebraska STARS statewide assessment program provide blueprints of how to balance accountability with authentic learning and assessment without inundating children and teachers with standardized tests.

We have the ultimate assessment system already working in our classrooms. It’s called the teacher. Let’s invest in developing teachers’ assessments skills instead of spending millions of dollars on tests that do not tell us anything new about our children.

Thank you for your time.

 

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4 thoughts on “To The Study Commission: Hands Off Our Public Schools

  1. Mel your fire at 19 is inspirational. When I was 19 I had no idea that I even wanted to be a teacher, nor was I interested in much of what was going on in the world outside of my college campus or even dorm. The beauty of you being so passionate, involved and educated at such a young age, is that you have so many more years to learn, grow, and to widen your zone of impact. It was a pleasure to meet you and something tells me our paths will certainly cross again.

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  2. Reblogged this on Pushing the Pendulum and commented:
    I had the pleasure of hearing Mel Katz speak last night at the Study Commission and she blew everyone away. It is so encouraging to see a young woman on the road to becoming a teacher show such fire for education. So many children in the future will be so fortunate to be in her class and will benefit from hearing her tell stories about how she fought for them. Bravo. Mel!

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  3. Reblogged this on Front Line Teachers and commented:
    An excellent summation of one of the biggest problems in education today. A problem that government has created. A problem that should not even exist…because the answer is standing in front of the room. “We have the ultimate assessment system already working in our classrooms. It’s called the teacher.”

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  4. Standardized testing, especially the kind of overtesting we’re seeing today, is driven by profit seeking companies. For many decades, private companies have been eyeing the public school system, plotting ways to move the public money in that system to their private gain.Standardized testing, highly structured “core curriculum” which forces teachers to blindly follow a specific set of texts books and teach to a specific set of tests, is their answer. Profits are to be found in the selling of text books and the huge increase in standardized tests, published by the same entities, is a hugh boon to their bottom line. Corporations that seek to get into this “market” have a vested interest in promoting the “failure” of the public school system, but that doesn’t translate into providing better schooling.

    For anyone who is really interested in creating educating people and reforming the system, they should check out Marion Brady’s “What’s Worth Learning?” Brady addresses questions central to general education. Brady asks “What knowledge is absolutely essential for every learner?”

    Brady explains why the “core curriculum” used in nearly every American classrooms was poor when it was adopted in 1893 and shows how it grows more dysfunctional with each passing year. Bray then offers a way to both radically improve learner intellectual performance while significantly decreasing the cost of a general education.

    http://www.posthypnoticpress.com/catalogue/education/whats-worth-learning/

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