I view serving on my local school board as a privilege. We have an excellent school district and a community and a board that are committed to enhancing that excellence. Our administrative team is very strong and our teachers are a tremendous asset. We are not complacent; rather, we are moving forward from a position of great strength which serves the aspirations of our students very well.
But there are problems, created for the most part by state actions and regulations that are clearly counterproductive. We have an overemphasis on testing beginning at the third grade level. These tests, tied to the common core, are 90 minutes long (longer for kids with special needs who get extended time to complete examinations) and are a major source of stress for kids. In the early grades we should be fostering a love of learning and not an anxiety over too much testing.
I am a person who believes there is benefit in testing, both on a diagnostic level and also as a gauge of student progress. But in New York this testing is a dominant factor in the evaluation of public school teachers. We all know that so many factors, in addition to the teacher, enter into the test results of students. And as an economist, I know that many of these factors are often directly related to the resources available to a family. Nutrition, travel, counseling, tutoring and cultural activities, all are factors there that impact on student performance. And yet the teacher is held responsible even though factors carry significant weight.
Parents have reacted by opting their kids out of these tests in record number. On Long Island, the average opt out rate is approximately 40% and likely will be higher next year if changes are not forthcoming. Think about the message we are giving kids: it is a good thing to opt out of an exam. In this case, I understand why it is happening. But to say to young kids it is okay to not take an exam isn’t helpful when testing is a critical and usually valid measure of student performance. Students will be confronting tests for many years to come, through their high school education and their higher education and possibly graduate education. How often will they be able to opt out? It won’t be an option in the future so we should be very careful not to turn them off testing at an early age.
We have a new Commissioner of Education in New York and an opportunity to embark on a new path that gives priority to local control, where appropriate, including developing an accurate and meaningful evaluation tool for teachers. To not embark on such a path would be a tragedy I hope can be avoided.