A NYSUT Task Force recently released a report, More Teaching, Less Testing, on excessive standardized teaching in public schools. A Blue Ribbon Commission of the New York State Board of Regent, the governing body for New York schools, made similar recommendations on high school graduation requirements.
NYSUT is New York State United Teachers, a federation of more than 1,200 local unions in New York State. Its more than 600,000 members either work in, or are retired from, New York schools, colleges, and healthcare facilities. They include classroom teachers, college and university faculty and professional staff, school bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, teacher assistants and aides, nurses and healthcare technicians. It is affiliated with both of the national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).
I agree with the NYSUT Task Force that there is excessive standardized testing in grades 3-8. As a result, test prep has taken over the school curriculum and subjects that are not tested end up being largely ignored. I also like the recommendation that alternative assessments be included in high school graduation requirements, but I disagree with the task force and the commission recommendations that New York State eliminate or make optional that students pass state “Regents” exams in content areas to earn a high school diploma. The state commission made its recommendation without explaining, field testing, or assessing what alternative assessments will look like. This seems more like a plan to lift reported graduation rates than to improve student learning.
Vermont made similar changes in diploma requirements in the 1990s. An assessment by the Rand Corporation in 1994 concluded “The Vermont program has been largely unsuccessful so far in meeting its goal of providing high-quality data about student performance."
The state commission claimed its recommendation to make the Regents exams optional would reduce testing in high schools, lead to a more equitable standard diploma, and open the door to alternative assessments. The report completely ignored the two “elephants in the room.”
Currently there are Regents exams in ten subjects. Students must pass at least one in each in English, math, science, and social studies to graduate with Regents certified diplomas. Even If New York changes its graduation requirements, federal law will still mandate testing in English, math, and science so only social studies will be eliminated as a requirement.
Meanwhile, Advanced Placement tests that are largely replacing Regents exams in New York State. New York City is committed to “AP for All” and advanced placement classes and tests are offered in about 400 of its almost 600 high schools. School districts pay for students to take these exams, nationally about $100 million a year, and have no oversight over curriculum or test design. Instead of ensuring equitable education and opportunity, most low income and minority students fail the tests and receive no college credit. The new system will create a new two-tier, AP and non-AP, whether it is officially designated on diplomas or not, because it will be reflected in student transcripts.
As a high school teacher, I used the end term social studies exams to help define the content, concepts, and skills I needed to include in my lessons. Instead of extensive end-of-the-year review, I included prompts from past exams in my teaching materials and class assessments so students would be familiar with the kind of reading passages, charts, maps, photographs, questions, and writing assignments they would see on the tests. The exams also helped keep students focused on what we were studying and generally they did very well on the exams.
New York State has a detailed social studies framework with content, concept, and skills goals. Eliminating the exam requirement may mean that many of them will not be addressed in classrooms. Every school district, perhaps even every teacher, will decide what to include and what to drop for Global and United States history. At a time when knowledge of history is vital for promoting civic responsibility, this would be a potential disaster. I suspect eliminating exams in other content areas will have similar consequences.
NYSUT Task Force Report Summary
From elementary school to high school graduation, standardized test scores rarely provide an accurate representation of the whole child or indicate a student’s full potential. NYSUT is recommending a reimagining of the current system of student assessments in the state of New York.
NYSUT argues that the grades 3-8 tests place undue stress on students, parents and educators, without providing significant educational value. These tests, driven by federal mandates and enforced by state regulations, are administered too often, and, in many cases, are developmentally inappropriate.
While appropriate testing is essential in gauging student progress, the focus on high-stakes testing has led to a narrowed curriculum and a push towards “test prep" rather than differentiated instruction.
Additionally, we should revisit the state's high school graduation requirements, which are currently based on four core Regents exams. While high standards should be upheld, we should broaden graduation requirements to include additional pathways, so our students are genuinely prepared for the demands of the modern workforce and higher education.
Our schools should be places where — from their earliest days to high school graduation — our students are provided with opportunities to flourish and succeed. This is what drives our educators and offers the best outcomes for our students.
U.S. students now take a devastating average of 112 standardized tests from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, according to the Council of Great City Schools. The existing federal testing mandates, introduced over two decades ago, originated from the No Child Left Behind Act and were later sustained by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. The federal mandate requires assessments in each of grades 3-8 and at least once in grades 9-12 in Math and in Reading or Language Arts. Science is administered less frequently: one time each during grades 3-5, grades 6-9 and grades 10-12. States can decide if these exams are given through a single summative assessment or through multiple interim assessments during the academic year that result in a single summative score. New York state’s current ESSA plan utilizes the single summative assessment option.
The committee made these recommendations.
Revise the federal testing requirements through the proposed More Teaching Less Testing Act so they take less of a toll on students and provide valuable information for educators and parents.
- Consider a return to a grade-span testing approach as opposed to the current annual testing requirement.
- Employ representative sampling rather than an all-students, all-the-time approach to testing.
Fix the flawed grades 3-8 assessment system.
- Revise the content and structure of the exams.
- Maintain options for pencil and paper tests amid the transition to fully digital assessments.
- Revise test results and scoring practices to have more real-world, instructional use.
- Delink test results and Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR).
Reimagine high school graduation requirements to ensure that students learn skills and demonstrate readiness for higher education and the 21st century workforce.
- Allow for additional pathways within the current graduation requirements to include alternative programs and assessments such as interdisciplinary capstone projects, project-based learning, performance-based assessments and dual-enrollment courses.
Provide opportunities for experiential and skills-based programs to be included as alternative graduation pathways to Regents exams.