Dear Members of the New Jersey State Board of Education:
In July, I submitted to you a written testimony that detailed the many concerns I have with the overuse and misuse of standardized testing. I was thankful for the opportunity to share those concerns with you, and I was hopeful that educators who work with children every day would be given proverbial “seats at the table” for education policy-making in the Garden State. But since July, I’ve watched as the damaging reforms that concern me—and so many other educators and parents—have been pushed forward with dangerous speed.
So now I implore you, with urgency, to reevaluate these reforms–for they are harmful to the children of our state.
All good teachers know that if one student in a class of 30 struggles, the best course of action for the classroom teacher is to provide support to the struggling student while preserving the high level of instruction that allows the majority of the class to excel. After all, it would be unreasonable and foolish to make drastic curricular changes that would negatively affect all students to accommodate one who needs additional help.
The same common-sense, personalized, supportive policy should apply to districts in our state, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. No one disagrees that there are schools whose students aren’t performing to their capabilities, but it simply does not make sense, especially given that New Jersey’s students consistently rank among the best in the nation, to make sweeping changes that will hurt all students to “fix” problems that exist in localized regions (more specifically, areas of concentrated poverty, where students struggle because of factors outside of school) across the state. Who will benefit from the PARCC testing? from Student Growth Objectives and Percentiles? from AchieveNJ? The answer is categorical: not students or teachers–but corporations, private investors, politicians, and anyone else seeking to profit, either financially or politically, from our children.
Good teachers also know that many lessons that look good on paper can lack in substance and fail in execution—and the current reforms being imposed on students and teachers in New Jersey (SGOs, AchieveNJ, CCSS/PARCC testing) are plagued by those same problems. We’ve heard for years—mostly from non-educators who claim that our children and teachers are failures—that it’s as simple as testing students: we should test them at the beginning of the year and test them at the end of the year, because doing so will tell us whether they’re learning and whether their teachers are teaching. Sounds reasonable.
But the inherent flaws in such an oversimplified and ill-advised plan will cause ultimate, long-term damage to children. Here’s an incomplete list of reasons why:
- Neither standardized tests—nor standardized test scores—help students learn. Period. Conversely, high-stakes tests cause much anxiety in children of all ages (I’ve personally witnessed 17-year-olds cry and feel sick because of the pressures associated with the HSPA), and tests that are administered solely for teacher-evaluation purposes lose meaning for students who are not at all affected by their scores (I’ve witnessed high schoolers complain about End-Of-Course testing being a “waste of time” because its only purpose is to test “how good the teacher is”; I’ve also witnessed some students simply refuse to take those tests because they didn’t have graduation or grade implications).
- Standardized test results do not help teachers improve their teaching–especially since teachers are not even permitted see the tests they administer. Good teachers assess their students’ understanding each day; they don’t need a spreadsheet with meaningless (and many times, inaccurate or invalid) data to tell them how their students are performing.
- Many schools struggle to keep up with technological advances as it is, and requiring that districts have the means to administer online PARCC tests in the coming school year is an unreasonable mandate. What will happen when operating systems crash? when students are unable to submit answers to hours-long tests? when wireless connections fail? when pages fail to load? when hardware fails? when security is breached?
- Imposing top-down policies on all districts in the state drains our public schools of funds and diverts taxpayer money to testing companies, Wall Street bond traders, and politicians. Does Pearson, a company that gets contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, really know what’s best for our children?
- Increasing the number of standardized tests our students take causes narrowing of the curriculum and a great loss of instructional time. After all, vocational programs, graphic/performing/culinary arts, extracurriculars, and other electives cost money to run–so how can districts keep them and still afford to pay for all the unfunded mandates being imposed by the State?
- Evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores (please see Bruce Baker’s discussions about the glaring flaws with the SGP model) will jeopardize teacher autonomy and force teachers to teach to meaningless tests.
- Judging teachers, students, and schools by standardized test scores will provide reformers with flawed excuses to close neighborhood schools, privatize public education, and further segregate students by socioeconomic status and race.
- Judging teachers by students’ test scores will also cause dangerous competition and resentment among teachers: within any given school, who gets the high-achieving students? Who gets students with learning disabilities? Who gets the students who come from impoverished families? How are such determinations made? There is much danger in a practice that pits teachers against each other and turns students into commodities that are bargained for.
- Good teaching cannot and should not be measured by tests, so an evaluation system founded on the premise that educators can be rated based on numbers on a spreadsheet promotes the very kind of depersonalization that’s crippling public schools across the country. Evaluators–human beings–should judge teachers using a variety of measures, and evaluators who fail to do so accurately and efficiently should themselves be evaluated for efficacy. That ineffective teachers cannot be removed from the classroom is a glaring untruth that is perpetuated by programs like AchieveNJ.
- Above all, standardized tests do not measure the immeasurable talents of so many of our children, and an over-reliance on such tests will incorrectly label countless gifted children as failures. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s shameful.
I can assure you that while the stated goal of these reforms is to increase student achievement, the exact opposite will occur. All students, even the highest achieving, will be negatively impacted by these mandates–and perhaps worst of all, New Jersey’s neediest and most at-risk students will suffer the most.
In closing, I ask you to consider these questions: would you want your own children to be subjected to the reforms being implemented in New Jersey? Do any parents wish for their children to go to a school that relies too much on standardized testing–and cuts programs and personnel in the name of raising test scores? Do any children look forward to going to school and taking–or preparing for–standardized tests? Do the reforms being implemented in New Jersey foster in our children a love of learning and a love of school? Do these reforms send the message that even children who are not high achievers in math and Language Arts can be exceptionally smart, successful, productive, worthwhile members of society? And could–or should–the worth of the teacher who had the most profound impact on your life be measured by standardized test scores?
If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” please reconsider the mandates that are crippling public education in New Jersey–and focus instead on providing direct, personalized support to the students, educators, and districts that need it the most. Otherwise, we will knowingly and deliberately weaken all of our schools in the name of empty, unproven reforms that look good on paper but are supremely flawed and harmful in practice.
Thank you very much for your consideration.
English Teacher, Delran High School