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Students wade into testing debate on a field trip to City Hall

For one class of fourth graders, a tour of City Hall turned into a chance to add their voices to the fierce public debate over standardized testing today.

Teachers from the Brooklyn Charter School scheduled the city government field trip after finding that few of their students knew much about the city elections that took place earlier this fall. But they didn’t realize they were going to be walking into a City Council hearing featuring Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who was getting peppered with questions from lawmakers about how testing policies were affecting schools.

Any possibility that the students would see some of the heated sparring between education officials and council members, a common sight at previous hearings, seemed dashed by the timing of the visit. The election season is over, and both Walcott and Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson are just a few weeks from leaving office, so there were no theatrics and little new information offered up in the Department of Education’s testimony.

The hearing framed many of the issues that have been raised more contentiously at forums, state legislative hearings and protests around the state this fall. Some of the issues, like an increased pressure to perform well and the shifting standards that define proficiency, were ones that the visiting students and teachers said they’ve seen and experienced first-hand.

“I’ve been in testing grades for six years and it’s definitely more pressure,” said Gina Zaccaria, one of the teachers from the Bedford-Stuyvesant school. “They feel it more.”

Last year’s tests were closely aligned to the Common Core for the first time since New York State adopted the more challenging learning standards in 2010. The change resulted in lower proficiency scores across the state, with just one in three students passing both the English and math exams. The drops sparked a push back about how prepared students and teachers were to meet the new bar, and the teachers unions have led a charge in calling for the state to slow down its rollout by removing the high stakes for teachers that are attached to the tests.

Zaccaria and her class were spotted and invited into the hearing room for a formal introduction as Walcott was about an hour into his testimony. They stayed for a couple of minutes before filtering back out into the newly-renovated City Council chambers to share their own experiences with the tests.

All of the students said they felt nervous before taking the third grade exams last year and they all agreed they were hard. Some students “didn’t finish all of it” while another student called the experience “nerve-wracking,” especially because it was, as third-graders, their  first time taking state tests.

One girl said that being held back a year was on her mind. Charter schools are exempt, but grade promotion from one year to the next in New York City is based on state test scores. That practice could be going away soon with Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio intent on deemphasizing the role of tests as a way to measure student, teacher and school performance.

“I was really nervous if I would pass or not,” she said. (The students’ names were kept anonymous at the request of their teachers, who said they did not have permission from parents to speak to the press.)

But the students were optimistic about this year’s tests. Why?

“I think that because we’re getting better at learning and writing,” one girl said.

And a boy thought that the more challenging standards were a good thing.

“I actually think that new things are happening, we might [be] changing,” he said.