This is a test . . . and yet another test . . . and still another test
By Peter Simon
Fourth-graders at Buffalo's D'Youville Porter Campus School 3 tackle work every morning designed to prepare them for state assessment tests.
"It's test after test after test," said Evelyn Pizarro, the school principal. "It's getting to the point where we're doing test preparation the whole year. We think we're testing kids to death."
And the testing load is getting heavier, not lighter. Since 1999, pupils in New York state have taken high-profile English and math assessment tests in both fourth and eighth grades. This school year, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, math and English exams will be added in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7.
The English exams will be given in January, and the math tests in March. Like the existing fourth- and eighth-grade tests, school-by-school results will be made public.
Pizarro said the new tests will make a bad situation even worse at her Porter Avenue school. "We're giving an assessment test almost every month," she said. "I think it's too much."
The new tests are intended to measure student progress from year to year, assure that teachers focus instruction on what students need to learn, and identify strengths and weaknesses at individual schools.
"I think it helps us pinpoint essential elements that we must be teaching," said Constance M. Moss, the Buffalo assistant superintendent who oversees assessment testing. "I don't look at this as over-testing or teaching to the test."
Some schools - including those in Buffalo - are balancing the load by eliminating other, nonmandated assessment tests while the new ones are being introduced. "For many districts, this is not an expansion [of assessment testing]," said James M. Kadamus, a deputy state education commissioner.
A state guide on the tests contends that where district curriculum is consistent with state standards, "students should not need extensive preparation to do well on the state assessments."
But critics say the new tests will place far more emphasis on testing. Schools that fall short of state standards on the new exams will be publicly identified. They will be required to develop improvement plans and, if scores don't improve, ultimately could be closed, they said.
Gone too far
Information gained from assessment tests is valuable, but the broader use of test scores has gone too far, said James P. Mazgajewski, superintendent of the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District.
"Education ought to be a journey of interest, discovery and understanding, tied to the talents and abilities of the individual student," Mazgajewski said. "What we're getting instead is a lot of regulation and sanctions."
The testing program, which is widely used to compare districts and individual schools, puts unfair pressure on schools with large concentrations of students who are disadvantaged, don't speak English or have disabilities, said Max E. Donatelli, executive director of the Parent Network of Western New York, which trains parents of special education students.
"I think we're going to lose good teachers who are in it for the kids," Donatelli said. "What's the incentive to work with high-needs kids when it looks like you're not getting results?"
That pressure is intense at School 3, where 30 percent of the pupils have a first language other than English and 17 percent are in special education.
"I'm tired of being compared to the suburbs and to other schools all the time," said Pizarro, the principal.
Kadamus acknowledged that the fourth- and eighth-grade tests have placed lots of pressure on teachers in those grades and said the new tests will spread out that responsibility.
"Now all the teachers have to be worried," he said. "It brings everybody into the accountability system. It makes them understand that it's a team effort."
Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams feels the tests put unreasonable demands on special education and English as a second language students, but says that otherwise they are appropriate ways to hold schools accountable for results.
"I'm an educator," Williams said. "I try to figure out how to make things work. There's no sense sitting on the sidelines complaining."
Focusing on the positive
In Williamsville, efforts are made to focus on the information gained from the assessment tests and not on the competition and pressure they can produce, said Linda L. Cimusz, assistant superintendent for instruction. "We really try hard not to make this anything more than finding out and celebrating what students know, and working on what they don't know," she said.
Nationwide, the testing program is expected to cost states between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion over six years, depending on the complexity of the tests they produce, according to a 2003 report from the Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency.
Kadamus said New York State will receive $85 million in No Child Left Behind funding from the federal government over five years, which should cover most but not all the costs of complying with testing and other federal requirements.
CTB/McGraw is developing the New York State tests under a $20 million, five-year contract, and The Grow Network will handle test score reporting for $12 million over five years.
The Williamsville schools expect to spend about $25,000 to administer the tests this year, mostly to hire substitutes to fill in for teachers assigned to grade them, Cimusz said. Another $70,000 will likely be spent to realign the district curriculum with state standards.
Results for the new tests given in January and March won't be available until next summer. In following years, results for individual students are expected about 31/2 months after the tests are given.
Critics say that time lag defeats the purpose of the tests, since teachers need quick feedback on the progress of their students. "It has to be instantaneous," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES