Teachers and administrators who attended a panel discussion about this year’s state tests at a Brooklyn elementary school last week all agreed that the exams induced stress, boredom, and even violence among city students.
But they were divided about whether a boycott of the tests could change the situation.
The panel was sponsored by P.S. 261 Unite, a coalition of activist parents and teachers at the Boerum Hill elementary school. This morning, the group organized a rally at the school to highlight what students “could have been” learning had they not spent weeks preparing for and then taking state reading and math exams.
Students and teachers said they could have been working on projects about animals and Africa, doing creative writing, or taking field trips — but instead, they learned how to search reading passages for correct answers and fill in bubble sheets. One student, a fifth-grader named Leah, wrote, “I have been learning nothing,” before affixing her poster to a wall showcasing dozens of student and teacher contributions. (A video of students reading from the posters is below.)
“When testing comes around you have to put real learning aside,” Principal Zipporiah Mills said at last week’s panel. “The test even overshadows good teachers and a great curriculum.”
The solution, according to a parent on the panel who kept her third-grade son out of this year’s tests, is to steer clear of the exams entirely. Diana Zavala, who is active in the Change the Stakes group, said she hadn’t encouraged other parents at her school to skip the tests out of respect for her principal, but that a large-scale boycott could effectively pressure the city and state legislators to curb the growing emphasis on test scores, which are used to judge students, schools, principals, and, soon, teachers.
Mills said that course of action sounded smart to her. “I don’t know what the consequences would be,” she said. “If no one takes the test, there’s no grade,” she added, referring to the accountability scores that the city and state hand out based on test scores.
Parents in the audience asked for advice about how to boycott and reassurance that their schools would not be punished. But as moderator Peg Tyre, a journalist who has written about testing, tried to wrap up the event, another audience member jumped to her feet. Sharon Fiden, principal of Kensington’s P.S. 230, said she wanted to offer a dose of reality.
“There is a significant impact,” she said, because federal accountability rules require that 95 percent of students take the tests and schools that fall short can be penalized, including by being designated a School In Need of Improvement. “We are checked … and if you become SINI it’s even less time learning and more time preparing for tests,” Fiden added.
“It can’t be for the faint of heart. It has to be all or none,” Mills said in response, adding that if only 20 percent of families opt out, “it defeats the purpose.”
A small but spirited group of boycotters emerged this year as criticism mounted about both the quality of the state’s tests and the importance placed on them. Both Mills and Fiden said after that panel that no families had opted out of the tests at their schools.
Panel members offered other options for parents concerned about the role of standardized testing. Zavala called on parents to demand to see the content of the exams, which the state and test-makers keep confidential. And Sam Coleman, a third-grade teacher in a different Brooklyn elementary school who is active in the Grassroots Education Movement, encouraged attendees to use the tests to pressure the city for changes in the way it manages schools.
Teachers in the audience said they had seen typically well mannered students dissolve into misbehavior and sadness during the testing period. “We’ve never had discipline problems to this level,” said Dana Levy, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 261.
“No matter what positive reinforcement I have given, I have children who break down,” said Katharine Pacilio, a special education teacher at Isaac Newtown Middle School in Manhattan. She said one student said he would rather attend school, which he enjoys, for a month in the summer than undergo more testing days.
With the tests over, Pacilio said, she will bring back project-based learning into her classroom. Students will spend the spring preparing speeches for a recreated Athenian Assembly and using math, finance, and art skills to design the dream home of a “celebrity.”
Interdisciplinary projects that encourage creative thinking are the typical fare at P.S. 261, where second-graders each year operate a postal service for the school and students come dressed as their favorite storybook characters on Halloween.
“It’s just harder and harder to do these things,” said Mills after the panel. “I do worry what our test scores will look like because of it.”
In the video below, students read aloud from the “I could have been learning …” posters created at this morning’s P.S. 261 Unite rally.