It’s Good NYC Made Standardized Testing ‘Opt In’ This Year. Now, Let’s Cancel the Tests.

Issue 263

Why we need to reimagine how we measure student success.

Alexa Avilés Apr 16, 2021

Alexa Avilés

This year, I will not be giving my daughters the “test pep talk.” I will not be reminding them that they need sharpened #2 pencils, nor will I be giving them the candy that will get them through the day. They won’t be sharing nervous stares with their friends, and teachers won’t be giving them Smarties while anxiously drilling testing rules and quick strategies to use over the next several hours. My girls aren’t taking the state’s standardized exams this spring. And yours shouldn’t either.

Using poor standardized test results as an excuse to defund and close schools is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that has sold our students short and contributed to the privatization of New York’s public education system. 

In a year in which my daughters have lost loved ones and suffered through the uncertainty and confusion of our education system’s bungled response to COVID-19, I cannot fathom putting them through the additional anxiety of standardized testing. These tests don’t help our kids or our schools. Instead, they perpetuate injustice. 

Last week, the NYC Department of Education announced that the standardized tests given to students in grades third through eighth will be offered on a voluntary basis, where parents who wish to have their children tested must opt them in. Making the tests opt-in is a start, but now is the moment to talk about ending them entirely. 

The stated purposes of New York’s standardized tests, focused on English/language arts (ELA) and mathematics, are to track students’ development and “to help families and educators understand the performance of New York City schools in recent years.” They have failed to do so on both measures. Instead, standardized tests have reinforced the inequities inherent in our school system and perpetuated the de facto segregation of our schools, placing pressure and stigma on the students and teachers of underserved schools. Students from poor and working-class communities, and from communities of color, are set up to fail. Even when the system tries to accommodate students who face learning challenges, it falls short: For students who have a hard time paying attention, for example, subjecting them to a six-hour test instead of a two-hour one does nothing to address their actual needs. And teachers are caught between teaching exclusively to the test, at the expense of a more enriching curriculum, or risking the career consequences and lifelong impact on students that come with poor standardized test results. 

Using poor standardized test results as an excuse to defund and close schools is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that has sold our students short and contributed to the privatization of New York’s public education system. By their nature, standardized tests do not take into account a student’s individual experience, particularly the experiences of those who have suffered the traumas that, sadly, are common among our city’s youth. Regardless of a student’s background, high-stakes testing can never give us the full picture of their capacity, because no statistics could ever truly encapsulate a child’s strengths, weaknesses, potential, and passions. And, of course, non-English speakers are at a huge disadvantage, constantly forced to play catch-up and compete with the students for whom the tests, and the system, were designed. 

I speak from personal experience. As a Puerto Rico-born kid growing up in East New York, I was originally placed in a Spanish-speaking class, but my mother had me moved to an English one when she discovered that the bilingual classes were a full year behind their grade level. This kind of gap would be unacceptable anywhere, but it’s especially egregious in a city where 49 percent of households speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data from the New York City Department of City Planning. In Community District 7, which is comprised of Windsor Terrace and Sunset Park, that number is even higher — 75 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. I’ve lived in Sunset Park for nearly two decades, and I’ve helped countless parents opt their kids out of state testing for this very reason. 

Testing Is a Big Business

Freed from the constraints of teaching to what they often refer to as “that damn test,” our teachers could tailor their curricula to the needs of their students.

Despite this flawed system, we know why high-stakes testing proliferates: It’s big business. Nationwide, the standardized testing industry makes over $1 billion per year on state contracts, and just last week, New York State agreed to pay Questar Assessment roughly $72 million to develop new tests for grades third through eighth. This is state money that goes to private testing companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill instead of going to our schools. I’ve seen the overcrowding of schools in Sunset Park and the inadequacy of educational resources all over our city: the millions of dollars spent on ineffective and unreliable assessments could be better spent on providing enrichment, academic and social support, and smaller class sizes, all of which are proven to increase children’s academic achievement. 

This year, we have the opportunity to do something different. We have a chance to send a clear message to the DOE that we want a reimagined system of assessment for students and teachers. Now that it will be easy for parents to spare their children the stress and anxiety of these tests, let’s have a frank discussion about the usefulness of all that stress and anxiety, and how we might rethink an assessment model that doesn’t work for our children or their teachers.

Allow me to paint a picture for you of an alternative system, one that treats our students and educators like the complex, talented and unique human beings they are. Instead of basing educational decisions on test scores, we could listen to teachers, who understand their students better than any test. We should take their advice when they report on their kids’ development in critical thinking and creativity, and use holistic methods of tracking students’ development through content-based assessments, projects, teachers’ notes, and students’ self-evaluation of their work. Instead of spending money on testing contracts, we could use those funds to hire more teachers, lowering class sizes and ensuring that our students get more individual attention at school. Freed from the constraints of teaching to what they often refer to as “that damn test,” our teachers could tailor their curricula to the needs of their students.

Building a better world for our children starts with making our public schools into world-class learning environments. That’s what I’ve spent my life fighting for, and why I’m running for City Council in District 38, a beautiful and vibrant community that deserves better than the overcrowded, underfunded and over-tested schools we currently have. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I know we can get there. That means putting into place more child-centered and appropriate ways of assessing kids’ learning and progress, and in the case of standardized testing, opting out for good.

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