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Next week, students in grades three through eight across New York will take the annual state assessments in math and English language arts. Some parents have already said that their children will refuse the test, or opt out.
Aaron Pallas’s recent opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, “Chancellor Tisch’s empty rhetoric on opting out,” was probably intended to support this so-called opt out movement, but, in fact, Mr. Pallas uses the comparison of health care and annual checkups to essentially echo my point: it is always best to identify a problem as early as possible.
So why is it a mistake to opt out of the State tests?
It used to be easy to ignore the most vulnerable students. Without assessments, it was easy to ignore the achievement gap for African-American and Latino students. Without an objective measure of their progress, it was easy to deny special education students and English Language Learners the extra resources they need. Obviously we still need to do more for those students, but now is not the time to put blinders back on.
Without a comparable measure of student achievement, we risk losing track of the progress of all of our students in all of our schools. This risk applies not only to students of color, urban and rural students, and students with special learning needs. Many students from affluent districts do not make the year-to-year progress necessary in today’s world and need early support to get back on track. It’s far better to find that out while they’re still in the classroom than wait until they’re out of school and faced with real world challenges in college or the work place without the skills they need to overcome those challenges.
There is broad consensus on this point. There are very few times when national business organizations, national civil rights groups, and the national teachers union all agree, but these groups have all gone on record in the past few months calling for the federal government to maintain annual testing. All students must continue to count.
Every parent should know whether his or her child is on track for success in the fifth grade or high school graduation or success in college. Every parent should know how a child in his or her school compares to other children in the district, region, and State. And every taxpayer should know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments provide a piece of this picture. NAEP results allow us to study longitudinal progress across different student populations and make apples-to-apples comparisons between New York and other states. But NAEP results do not give us enough differentiation to know how individual schools or students are faring. Such broad results show where our students are collectively succeeding and struggling but do not help parents to know if their children need additional instruction and supports.
The primary motivation for annual assessments is to provide parents with information about their children. In New York, student progress on these assessments is a part of our evaluation system. Roughly 18 percent of teachers (those who teach grade 4-8 math and/or English Language Arts) have the annual evaluation based in part on state assessments. But student performance is not —and never should be — the only way our teachers are evaluated. A solid teacher evaluation system must be based on multiple measures, including observation.
New York’s newly passed budget tasks my colleagues on the Board of Regents and me with improving our current teacher evaluation framework. In the coming weeks, we will listen to superintendents, principals, teachers, and students as we create a system that is fair and demonstrates clear differentiation among educators.
Real differentiation will help us target resources and professional development to help principals and teachers continually improve their craft. Our goal is to get to a place where we collect the information we need to differentiate our teachers using as few tests as possible. It is bad practice to do otherwise.
Certainly test results are not the only way we gauge the progress of our schools, our teachers, or our students, but they are an important piece of objective information and the only common measure of progress that we have.
In short, test refusal is a mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing. Those who call for “opting out” really want New York to “opt out” of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well students are doing. We cannot go back to ignoring the needs of our children. It’s time to stop making noise to protect the adults and start speaking up for the students.
Merryl Tisch is chancellor of The New York State Board of Regents. A former elementary school teacher with degrees from Barnard College, New York University and Teachers College, Columbia University, she also chairs the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and serves on a number of executive committees.