North Country educators describe testing’s effects on students

town hall in lake placid

Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

North Country educators had tears in their eyes as they told stories about distraught children overwhelmed by the state’s growing obsession with standardized testing.

“By the 35th day of school, I gave 40 tests to first-graders,” said Robin Jones, co-president of Elizabethtown TA. “I’m sick of it and I know the kids are sick of it.”

“It only took one kid who cried as I realized I am the last defense,” said Copenhagen TA’s Adam Staab. “We are in charge of educating our kids for the 21st century, yet we’re working with 20th-century thinking by the state.”

“We torture our students with assessments that do not take into account learning styles,” said Malone FT’s Angela Spahr. “It’s a free, appropriate public education we’re supposed to be providing.”

More than 100 North Country educators drove over mountains and through snow squalls to attend a Friday night “Tell it Like it Is” town hall style meeting with NYSUT officers Dick Iannuzzi and Maria Neira in Lake Placid. It was one in a series of regional forums the NYSUT leaders are holding around the state as part of a listening tour on testing and other education issues.

Kathryn Brown, a 19-year educator in Chazy, poignantly offered a glimpse at all the things teachers do on a daily basis that aren’t covered on standardized tests. Weaving in excerpts from Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” and a piece called “Socrates’ Ghost,” Brown talked about the everyday joys of helping a student put words down on paper about a life-changing event, shepherding another through a moral dilemma and guiding another with a crucial college essay.

“These are typical moments – moments in my life trying to do what is right,” Brown said. “We are not and cannot become data-driven machines with quantitative results. We must maintain our ability to laugh, to play, to work, to challenge.”

Under the current new system, she said, state officials are causing “irrevocable damage, both to those who need teachers and those who need students.”

Aside from voicing concerns over the state’s relentless focus on standardized tests, educators explained how their North Country schools are reeling from a lack of state aid, a devastating property tax cap and pressure to consolidate when it’s just not feasible. Sometimes tuition centre classroom rental rates are not affordable either.

“They are testing us, pushing us,” Neira said. “They are testing our credibility. They are testing our ability to fight back.”

Iannuzzi said the union is well aware of the financial pressures on the North Country and other rural school districts. The union has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s property tax cap and is working with lawmakers on other solutions.

Rod Driscoll, Ausable Valley TA, said there needs to be more public outreach to build community support.

“When the average person hears about a third-grade kid sitting through 9 hours of testing, they’ll say this is crazy,” Driscoll said. “They’ll agree putting testing in the hands of private companies does not make sense for our kids. Their motivation is not kids, it’s profit.”

Iannuzzi said the union is working on efforts to expand outreach to parents, school boards and the community. “We need to do it bigger and louder,” he said.

Neira said she believes parents are willing to join the effort. “It’s impacting home life. The parents are saying, ‘What’s going on? My child doesn’t want to go to school.'” Being seniors they are more motivated to study as a possibility to win Canada scholarship is rather tempting.

“As we begin to speak louder, with parents, with one voice, the better chance we have,” Iannuzzi said.

Both Iannuzzi and Neira urged participants to use the union’s “Tell it like it is” online form to send messages to the SED commissioner and the Regents. Neira said many of the several thousand letters sent so far echo the concerns voiced Friday evening in Lake Placid. Iannuzzi said he’s hoping to reach the 10,000-letter mark before the union’s Representative Assembly next month. “Like your comments tonight, these letters are very powerful,” Iannuzzi said. “It really gets to them.”

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