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Changing State Testing From the 'Autopsy' Model

Today's guest blog is written by Michael Hynes, the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District.

When it comes to advocating what is best for our students, I try hard to push back but not push buttons. It's difficult to not push buttons. 

To date, the U.S. Education Department will not relent on requirements to test students on English Language Arts and mathematics in third through eighth grades. In December,  New York State reminded us that federal funding could be at stake if too many children fail to take the state tests. Because the parents of 240,000 students opted out of state assessments last year, hundreds of public schools fell below the 95 percent participation rate. This year will be higher.

Here are the facts for the testing season this spring:

1. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have said parents have the right to opt out their third- through eighth-graders of assessments.

2. Assessments of third- through eighth-graders will not count for students and teachers for the next several years. 

3. This year, the assessments in ELA and mathematics are still designed by Pearson. The state Education Department did not extend its contract with the company in July. In 2012, Pearson-made tests included several errors, including an absurd reading passage with the illogical theme "Pineapples don't wear sleeves."

4. The state Education Department has pointed to significant changes in this year's assessments. The new third- through eighth-grade assessments are now untimed and have fewer questions. It may sound like something significant is taking place, but the devil is always in the details.

In a memo from Deputy Commissioner Infante sent to District Superintendents in January, she highlights the "significant changes".  For example, the 3rd and 4th grade ELA tests will have four reading passages (one fewer than last year) and seven short essays (one fewer than last year). This is a slap in the face of students because those do not play out as significant changes.

5. The assessments are age inappropriate and aligned with the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards as we know them will no longer be in New York State. In December, Elia has said new standards would be designed and rewritten over the next few years. In fact, she has stated, "Substantive changes will be made to testing, teacher evaluations and the Common Core learning standards in New York State. We've already started it."

Knowing this, why would any student take these assessments? Over-testing our students with invalid and unreliable state assessments is not what's best for our children. The answer is to swing the testing pendulum back toward reality. A reality that consists of focusing on the whole child.

The whole child includes the social, emotional and academic growth for all our students. This means more play and recess for children. We can do this as we hold students, teachers and school districts accountable. The State must design a new direction from the misuse of standardized tests.

As the Public Education Visioning Institute suggests, there is value in appropriate and varied assessments for different purposes that inform students, parents, the school district and community. It should never be attached to teacher performance. For assessment to have any value it needs to move away from their autopsy model to a daily check-up. The autopsy model, which was first discussed by Douglas Reeves, means that the tests come in too late to have any real impact on student learning.

Using a daily check-up model will allow teachers and principals to continuously identify student strengths, accomplishments and talents so we can design the ideal learning experiences that meets every student's needs. Preparing students for the workforce takes a backseat to preparing our children for success in life. 

School districts with high-opt out rates should not be penalized with loss of federal education funds. The students need resources the most. In fact, school districts with the highest opt-out rates should be rewarded because it exemplifies that we value our children.

The next few months will set the stage for the next 40 years in public education. To get to the root of the problem, we first must define it. We don't have a child problem, we have an adult problem. The problem is the adult leaders who influence and set policy and mandates for school districts related to perpetuating this autopsy model.

These adults make decisions that reduce our children to a number and the "substantive changes" proposed by the state education officials is a fix that fails. Pushing the pendulum back to focus on the whole child is what's best for all children. 

Connect with Michael on Twitter. 

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