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NYC Chancellor David Banks: Schools have become like ‘testing mills’

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NYC schools Chancellor David Banks (far right) at a Bronx school with Mayor Eric Adams in January. Banks has been critical that schools have become like ‘testing mills’ to prep for standardized exams.

Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

An annual rite of passage for New York’s third through eighth graders is back — state testing season. 

As the English exam is set to be administered Tuesday and Wednesday in its usual form for the first time in two years, the test prep culture that has taken over some schools has a new high-profile critic: New York City Chancellor David Banks. 

Banks, whose term began in January, is worried that some schools have become “testing mills” and that student engagement has suffered as a result, he said during a recent radio interview.

“Under this chancellorship, I am going to use this bully pulpit to talk about the fact that tests are important, but that we are really doing our kids a disservice,” Banks said on WBAI’s “Driving Forces last month. “There’s a reason why so many of our kids disengage and drop out because we’ve just made our schools like testing mills.”

Because educators and principals are concerned about being measured by how well their students perform on the exams, they often let subjects that aren’t on the tests — such as art, music, theater and other enrichment that children enjoy — fall by the wayside, Banks said. 

“I think we have given up making sure that our kids have a fully comprehensive learning experience because we’ve been so focused on standardized tests,” he said. 

Instead of focusing on test prep and standardized testing, Banks said he is interested in expanding the use of performance-based assessments in which students do portfolios or hands-on projects to demonstrate mastery of certain concepts and skills. Some New York City schools already embrace this model, including about three dozen “consortium” schools

Banks also believes that the test-prep focus takes time away from other important work that schools should be doing with students in terms of “developing empathy towards one another.”

Some school leaders posit that test prep and the other subjects such as the arts can go hand-in-hand. 

Laurie Midgette, founding principal of the Cultural Arts Academy Charter school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, spent last week preparing her students for the state exams, while balancing those exercises with visual and performing arts, she said. During test preparation for mathematics, for example, the school celebrated World Maths Day, where students competed against peers from across the globe in 20 one-minute challenges. For Midgette, this enabled the students to focus on math concepts, such as fractions that involved drawing in fourth grade, while also participating infun, yet rigorous activities.”

But even though the testing is moving forward as usual, the lives of many of her students remain upended, she acknowledged. 

“The reality is that we are still experiencing a pandemic and we recognize that our scholars and families are facing many different circumstances due to the pandemic,” Midgette said. “Our school considers our scholars’ social-emotional needs as the highest priority during the pandemic, especially in this stage of recovery.” 

That said, she agreed with Banks “that at the end of the day, that all students — whether in public, independent, private and charter schools — they succeed when we create student-centered and highly engaging school environments where they are excited about learning, not for the purpose of passing a test, but for the curiosity of life.”

While many curricula guide educators through particular learning approaches, she said that few offer adaptations allowing teachers to use alternative assessments like project-based learning.

Echoing Banks, she said, “Standardized testing should not be the only way to measure learning and what happens in classrooms and schools; it should be one of many ways.”

The question is whether Banks will stand up to Albany on behalf of schools whose children don’t perform well on the tests, said one Manhattan elementary school principal, who requested anonymity. In previous years, test performance could land schools on a state list for needing improvement — which could then subject those schools to more scrutiny and standardized testing

In the past, this principal would have likely spent much of the day doing test prep in the weeks leading up to the tests, but this year did not want to sacrifice social emotional learning or arts education, in large part thanks to stimulus funding dedicated to the arts. For some of her students, this is their first meaningful exposure to the arts.

“The outcome of the tests is going to be what it is,” the principal said. “I don’t think these tests should be used against any school. We know it’s been harder for kids to catch up. The reality is that we have kids who are two to three years behind.”

From September through January, the principal noted, COVID cases were still shutting down many classrooms in the school, leading to inconsistent instruction. The school is hoping to catch kids up through small group work and one-on-one tutoring, but it will take time, the principal said. 

Perhaps because of concerns about children’s academics and social emotional state, a growing number of parents opted their children out of this year’s test, said the principal. Previously all of the school’s children sat for the test. This year several families requested their children skip it. 

The state tests were canceled in the spring of 2020 when schools first closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last school year, the tests were given, but only if families signed up their children. This differed from the typical default in which students take them unless their families opted out.

Last spring’s tests were only offered on-campus, and with more than half of New York City children learning from home full time, just one in five students across the five boroughs sat for them. 

Not only will it be the first time third graders to take state tests, but due to the pandemic issues, it also may be the first time for many of the city’s fourth and fifth graders. 

The lack of historical testing data for student performance could make it challenging for the tests to measure how schools are doing. 

Grades 3-8 math tests will be given in late April. Fourth- and eighth-grade science exams will be administered in late May through early June. Though Regents exams were canceled in January due to the omicron surge, they are expected to be administered in June and August.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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