A New York State Principal Speaks Out about Testing
Last week I asked why principals have been silent about reform. It turns out that not all of them have been.
Don Sternberg, principal of Wantagh Elementary School in New York State, opened the school year with a letter to parents that was anything but traditional. The first couple of paragraphs welcome everyone back, introduce new staff and programs – you know, the usual. Then we get to the heart of the matter:
“One significant issue as we move into this new school year,” writes Dr. Sternberg, “is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.”
can imagine parents suddenly sitting up and paying attention. Sternberg continues: “Unfortunately, if educators want to survive
in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments
measure teacher performance … we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers' union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.”
Last year, Sternberg notes, NYS fourth graders sat for over 11 hours of testing. This year students from kindergarten through fifth grade were pretested in September and will be tested again in January and later in April. Students will be assigned “level” rankings of 1-4 based on achievement. Besides the obvious concerns of labeling kids as they are developing and what those labels might mean to kids themselves, there are also less obvious concerns of what those labels will mean to teachers who will be judged by their test scores. “Guess what, “ says Sternberg. “Some children will be more desirable than others to have in class.”
“The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics,” concludes Sternberg. “The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.”
Sternberg presents an argument that is both eloquent and bold. He has been a principal for 31 years, and he and his school have received numerous awards, so his words carry the authenticity of some one who has actually done the job and been successful at it – unlike the majority of those who make the rules about whom to test, how often, and what to do with the test scores. Find the entire text of Dr. Sternberg’s letter here.
Next: Where do we go from here?