Two New York City teachers were among a panel of experts called to testify on testing and accountability at a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
Earth School teacher Jia Lee and Harvest Collegiate High School teacher Stephen Lazar both spoke to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about how high-stakes testing has affected their Manhattan schools, offering frank assessments of the role testing should play in the government’s efforts to improve schools.
Up for debate was how to fix No Child Left Behind, the law that requires states to annually administer standardized tests. The law expired in 2007 but has yet to be re-authorized, and Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called for the committee to pass a bill overhauling it by the end of February.
“Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?” Alexander asked.
Lee, an outspoken critic of the state’s standardized tests and a special education teacher at the Earth School in Manhattan, told the Senate committee that test-focused policies have caused schools to become “data-driven” instead of “student-driven.”
“The great crime is that the focus on testing has taken valuable resources and time away from programming – social studies, art and physical education, special education services and [English language learners’] programs,” the fourth and fifth grade teacher said.
“As a teacher of conscience, I will refuse to administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this position until the role of standardized assessments are put in their proper place,” she said. Last year, more than half of the small East Village school’s students were opted out of taking state Common Core-aligned exams by their parents, which allowed her to avoid administering them.
New York City parents opted out more than 1,900 students from taking state tests in 2014 – a 450 percent increase from the about 350 students that opted out in 2013. But the small group of students that didn’t take state tests last year still represents less than half of 1 percent of the city’s test-takers.
Stephen Lazar, an eleventh grade U.S. history and English teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a member of Chalkbeat’s reader advisory board, was the last to testify. He said the new law should remove mandated high-stakes tests, limit the number of tests used for accountability purposes, and allow schools to use performance assessments.
But despite the “many well-known flaws” of No Child Left Behind, Lazar said No Child Left Behind’s requirement that schools and districts to separate out the academic performance data of different student groups put a “much-needed spotlight” on achievement gaps, something that “should not be abandoned.”
Sen. Alexander’s draft bill, released last week, would still require states to provide annual academic data for various student populations. The draft also offers options to either give states flexibility over testing or keep No Child Left Behind’s current testing requirements.
As changes to federal testing requirements are considered, Lazar emphasized that teachers voices should be the loudest when it comes to deciding how their students are assessed. He recalled apologizing to his students every May for having to spend the last month of the school year having them “repeatedly write stock formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts so that they could be successful on their state exams.”
“The stakes for my students force me to value three hours of testing over a year or learning,” he said. “Standardized tests measure the wrong things.”