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April 25, 2013

Sharon Springs teacher's letter goes viral

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — A letter from a Sharon Springs Central School English teacher complaining about new standardized state testing has drawn a lot of attention on the New York State United Teachers Facebook page.

The letter from Jennifer Field, posted April 18, details the stress of standardized testing on her children and her students. As of Wednesday afternoon, it was shared more than 1,500 times and liked 1,000 since it was posted.

The tests are given to students in grades three to eight, and will be scored at a date yet to be announced. The three days of testing covered English Language Arts last week, and are covering math this week. They’re the first exams using the common-core curriculum that started to go into effect this year. New York now uses the same curriculum as most other states.

While the exams don’t affect a student’s average, they are used to determine such things as who needs academic intervention. They’re also being used for the first time as part of teacher evaluations.

In her letter, Field talks about the frustrations she has seen by those taking the tests, as a parent and a teacher, wondering why they had to be so long. After taking the test herself, she asked: “Isn’t it possible for the state to assess how these students are doing with half the questions and half the reading passages?”

She did not return a call for comment.

Among the complaints about the tests cited in an email last week from Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, is that many students did not have enough time to complete the tests, and became frustrated.

“Generally, we hear that reading passages were fair and reasonable, but questions were difficult, even tricky, requiring students to go back and re-read passages to zero in on correct answers.” Several superintendents reported that high-performing students were frustrated by the tests, while special-needs students just gave up, he said.

Field went on to write “What are the state tests telling you? Well, some kids can rush through tests and do poorly ... and some kids can take their time ... and do poorly ... because they didn’t finish ... had to rush at the end ... The experiences that each student and each teacher draws on from life are different. Yet the state assessments are making us all into robots.

“The tests are not measuring anything except anxiety. ... It is proving that New York state will do anything for funding, do anything to keep the jobs at the state level, and do anything to keep the test-making companies in business.”

In a statement from the state Education Department on the subject, spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the Board of Regents announced in December 2010 that the state would begin testing students on the rigorous common-core standards beginning this year.

“We are now three years into a statewide effort to provide teachers with the professional development and other supports they need to make the transition to the common core. It’s hard to understand how some can claim that they are being caught unprepared for the change. It’s equally difficult to understand why anyone would suggest that the change is happening too quickly for teachers and students, when the exact opposite is true. If we want our children to be ready for college and meaningful careers, we need higher standards — and a way to measure whether those standards are being met — and we need them now.”

Sharon Springs Central School Superintendent Patterson Green supported Field’s right to voice her opinion as a parent and teacher.

“She has raises some valid points. It was very long,” he said of the tests. “A number of our better students didn’t have a chance to do a thorough job.” She discussed submitting the letter before she did it, he said, adding that he wasn’t sure how much attention it has received. But, “state tests have been around for a long time. It’s part of life and we are making the best of it,” and providing professional development for staff members to help them with the transition.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said “The letter gets to the letter gets to the heart of the issue. What parents and teachers understand is that tests have their place,” but such tests and data are driving the instruction, instead of what is educationally sound. The state Education Department has given guidance in using the results but they have stopped short of saying they shouldn’t have high-stakes results. Korn said the tests should be used only as a transitional tool in implementing the new standards.