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Budget cuts have more teachers missing school to score tests

Schools across the city will go short-staffed for 15 days starting as soon as next month’s state tests conclude.

As happens every year, the Department of Education is asking schools to send teachers to help grade the tests. But this year, the scoring period is 50 percent longer — 15 days instead of 10 last year — and it’s largely taking place during the school day. The changes mean schools will lose more teaching time than in the past.

Schools with more test-taking students are required to send more teachers. So a school with under 100 test-taking students will lose just one teacher from late April through early May, but a school with more than 1,100 test-takers will have to send eight to centralized grading centers.

Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, is responsible for contributing five teachers for grading this year. She has decided to send teachers that work as support staff, to keep classroom teachers inside the classroom. While she won’t need to shell out money for substitute teachers by distributing staff in this way, she is still at a loss.

“It costs me time because they’re not doing what they’re normally doing,” Allanbrook said. “I often wonder if they put all that money into something else if it would improve student performance.”

The tests have undergone changes this year to make them longer and include “field” questions that are aligned to new Common Core standards but won’t factor into students’ scores. Allanbrook said she thought the changes could prove burdensome for young students.

But the experimental questions will be graded by machines, not teachers, and the longer test is not the reason for the extended scoring period, said DOE officials. Instead, they blamed the change on budget cuts and a lack of aid from the state.

Grading the exams each year costs the city $10-15 million, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky told the City Council today, a cost that is mandated — but not funded — by the state. New York is unique in its reliance on local districts to bear the costs of scoring state tests.

This year, with a thinner central-office budget, the department had less money available to pay teachers to grade exams during after-school hours, Polakow-Suransky explained in a statement.

That means that schools are bearing the burden of the cost. They either have to pony up for substitute teachers or pay $1,500 per scorer per five days of scoring to keep their teachers in the classroom. The payments, which 66 schools have elected to make this year, are used to replace would-be-scorers with others who are paid for each day that they work.

The principal of a Manhattan middle school said that he found out midway through the year, in December, how many teachers he would have to contribute (four per week) and for how long (three weeks). He decided to shell out $9,000 of school funds to pay to keep two of the four teachers in the classroom during that time.

“Finding four capable subs when everyone else in the city is looking for them, would be very challenging,” he said.

This year the city has placed members of the Absent Teacher Reserve as substitutes, but most will not be able to fill the gaps created during the grading period because most ATRs are high school teachers and cannot grade elementary and middle school exams.

The principal added that classroom teachers have irreplaceable expertise in terms of managing their classes and understanding their students – expertise that has more value in the classroom than in a centralized scoring location.

“Any policy that removes classroom teachers from the classroom should be rethought,” he said. “You’re holding these same teachers accountable for improving scores on the tests, but you’re taking five days of instruction away from them.”

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