clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

New York City looks for a way out of its "bubble tests" problem

The city wants to get rid of unpopular “bubble sheet” tests that some of its youngest students are required to take this year, a top Department of Education official said on Tuesday.

“There are better ways to do assessments of early childhood and I think that we can find a better way to do it,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told lawmakers in testimony at state Senate hearing. The hearing was planned by Senator John Flanagan in large part as an opportunity for people to air their frustration with the state’s new standards and the tests associated with them.

The math tests in question, called Discovery Education Assessment, are being given to small portion of students in kindergarten through second grades as part of their teachers’ evaluations, a portion of which must measure student learning over the course of a school year. Discovery’s tests include elements, like No. 2 pencils and standardized bubble answers, that teachers and experts have panned as developmentally inappropriate.

Polakow-Suransky echoed that criticism on Tuesday and vowed to offer an alternative student learning measure soon to take effect for this school year.

It represents a somewhat sudden reversal for the city, which bought the Discovery tests from a vendor in August for this school year after declining to use its own elementary math assessments, an option that Commissioner John King preferred when he crafted DOE’s new teacher evaluation rules. Polakow-Suransky’s comments come as push back against testing policies from parents and teachers have escalated statewide in recent weeks, prompting the State Education Department to make a series of its own changes to curtail the role of testing requirements.

It also fits into a pattern of conciliatory statements from Polakow-Suransky lately, all coming at a time when the direction of the Department of Education is likely to change dramatically in two months. Bill de Blasio, the overwhelming favorite to win next week’s mayoral election, has said he wants to reverse many of the city and state’s testing policies.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who testified before Polakow-Suransky, urged a more drastic action than the one offered by Polakow-Suransky.

“I think New York State should ban all standardized tests for pre-k through second grade,” Mulgrew said.

Told of Polakow-Suransky’s comments after the hearing, Mulgrew said he was pleased to hear of the possible changes, but added, “he’s the one who implemented them in the first place.”

Polakow-Suransky noted that only a relatively small number of students in early elementary grades were required to take the bubble tests. Teachers in more than 800 of the city’s elementary school teachers will be evaluated based on test scores earned by older students on existing state exams.

But older students don’t exist in 36 “early education” schools in New York City, which serve kindergarten through second grades only. Those schools, Polakow-Suransky said, were sacrificed “in order to protect the rest of the elementary schools” from a stipulation in King’s evaluation plan earlier this year.

Polakow-Suransky said the city hoped to make the DOE’s newly-developed math assessments available as an option to all elementary schools. But he pulled back on those plans over the summer after seeing King’s plan, which mandated that schools use performance assessments if the city made them available at all.

“It created a situation where we had, at the K-2 level, to make a choice between essentially putting out a test that would be mandated for every elementary school in the city, or not putting anything out at all,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Instead, Discovery’s bubble tests were picked out of more than a dozen state-approved vendors.

Commissioner John King would need to approve any alternative measure, though a spokesman suggested that it won’t be a hard plan to move forward.

“Commissioner King and Chancellor [Merryl] Tisch, are both opposed to using bubble tests for kindergarten to second grades,” said the spokesman, Dennis Tompkins. “If the city wants to move away from bubble tests, then we’d more than welcome that move.”

Tompkins noted that one option that the city could consider for the 36 early education schools is to evaluate teachers based on third grade test scores of former students after they’ve moved onto a different school.

Polakow-Suransky said the department was considering multiple ideas before sending in a formal proposal, including one in which teachers would look at student work samples over time to gauge growth.

Updated to clarify the Department of Education’s reasons for choosing to buy the Discovery assessments.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat New York

Sign up for our newsletter.