Educator Insights

At forum, teachers share testing woes and parents talk opt-out

P.S. 321 teacher Alex Messer described the perils of over-testing at a forum in Brooklyn.
P.S. 321 teacher Alex Messer described the perils of over-testing at a forum in Brooklyn.

Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, couldn’t wait to read a city report a few years ago that promised to quantify his impact on students.

He had just led them in a rousing discussion of the British economic policies that provoked the Boston Massacre. He taught them to use “ubiquitous” and other “staggering genius” words, as he and his students call them. He knew he was a good teacher.

But when he opened the report, his heart sank: he was ranked in the 18th percentile. He called his mother that night for support. Later, he logged onto a job-search website.

“All I knew was that I had failed,” Messer recalled this week. “I was ‘18 percent.’”

As the state exams have become tougher, many critics have decried what they see as the tests’ spirit-crushing toll on children, even as officials and others argue that the assessments are needed to make sure students meet the higher standards. (Less than a third of city students passed the harder English and math exams this year.) But fewer teachers have publicly described the way testing can color the look and feel of their practice.

Messer and other members of a new group called Teachers Talk Testing aimed to fill that gap with a forum Tuesday evening at P.S. 321 where educators told their tales of a data-fueled drive for accountability that they say has run amok. The group, which grew out of a longtime parent committee at P.S. 321 focused on testing, formed this fall and now includes about 30 teachers from a handful of schools, mostly in high-performing District 15, according to Messer, who is also a union chapter leader.

Part of the group’s purpose, Messer said, is to provide firsthand accounts of testing to concerned parents who, on Tuesday, talked about opting their children out of the state exams.

“Whatever they decide to do surrounding testing,” Messer said after the forum, “I think it’s important that their actions are informed by teachers and our experience.”

The speakers — who included four teachers and the principal from P.S. 321, along with two other Brooklyn teachers and a professor — described mind-numbing exams of questionable quality that devour class time, sap the joy from teaching, and reduce instruction to helping students choose answers on a bubble sheet.

“Once we get into test prep, there’s no real conversation, just practice answering these questions and maybe we’ll analyze why ‘B’ is the right answer,” said Ronda Matthews, a 5th-grade teacher at PS 321 who said standardized-test work consumes about a month of class time per year.

Anxiety about test scores — which factor into student promotion, school grades and teacher ratings — drives many teachers to the lower, less-tested grades, Matthews said. In the past two years, seven new teachers have taken over 5th-grade classes at P.S. 321 as veterans flee the high-stakes grade, she added.

Julie Cavanagh, a special-education teacher at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, said she has watched the number of testing days multiply from six when she started teaching in New York in 2001 to 15 days in recent years. Meanwhile, her students with disabilities who found test days frustrating and boring received a perverse “accommodation,” Cavanagh added: extra test time.

“It sounds like hyperbole, but I really felt like I was participating in child abuse,” she said.

Many of the panelists mentioned problems with the state tests themselves: confusing passages, erroneous answers, above-grade questions and too little time. As for the so-called teacher data reports, like the one Messer received, those suffered from wide error margins and wild fluctuations. (Messer, for example, moved to the 70th percentile the year after he was ranked in the 18th.)

Liz Phillips, P.S. 321’s longtime principal, who has spoken out against the test-based teacher reports and the tests themselves, said she recognizes the value of assessment.

“What I’m strongly opposed to is the misuse of the data from the testing,” Phillips said Tuesday, “and the ways in which this questionable data has such high stakes for children, for teachers, for principals, for schools.”

An audience of parents and educators filled the auditorium at P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Tuesday.
An audience of parents and educators filled the auditorium at P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Tuesday.

P.S. 321 parent Diana Berger said she had become so “sickened” by the school system’s emphasis on testing that she was considering enrolling her daughter in a private school. But during the question-and-answer portion, she wondered if there was a way to fight the tests from within the system.

“My question is: should we opt out?” Berger said.

A teacher from the East Village’s Earth School, where about a third of parents opted their students out of the test last spring, said she expected a similar response this year. Another teacher, from M.S. 447 in Boerum Hill, said her school decided not to use test scores as an admission factor — an apparent boon for opt-outers.

But Phillips and others noted some drawbacks to the opt-out movement: students still are required to take a time-consuming alternative test that must be administered individually; and few parents from low-income and immigrant communities have so far joined the movement.

Teachers Talk Testing, which formed this fall with educators from P.S. 321 and a few other schools, has circulated a petition that calls for the incoming de Blasio administration to “lower the stakes” on testing by removing test scores as the main determining factor in student promotions, school admissions and school report cards.

The group is also asking teachers to submit videos with their thoughts on testing to its website, which it hopes will inspire families to take whatever actions they feel are necessary.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.