Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ
February 19, 2014
My name is Paige Vaccaro, and I am a veteran teacher and mother of four young children. I have taught for 12 years and have experience teaching in three states, in public and charter schools, urban and suburban settings, and in grades K-8th grade.
I attended the last public hearing in Jackson and listened to testimony after testimony destroy the crumbling promise of standardized testing. If this Commission chooses to ignore the evidence, then it will in turn ignore the best interests of the children of NJ. Education has suffered greatly since 2001, because of America’s obsession with testing.
Coincidentally, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the year that I started teaching in inner city Baltimore as a Teach for America corps member. My third graders faced poverty and violence daily in that drug-infested neighborhood similar to the streets of Camden, Newark, and Asbury Park here in NJ. Yet my job was to bring them hope and to somehow, some way create a foundation that they could build upon.
The PARCC website claims that their test was what I needed to get those kids on track. Well, I can tell you, with 100% certainty that what I needed was not an assessment. Had the PARCC been around back then, it would not have helped, no matter how rigorous it claims to be, or how much critical thinking it claims to require. I knew on my first day of teaching that my students were not on the path to career or college readiness. I knew that they were falling behind and so did their parents, well the ones that weren’t high on drugs, incarcerated or dead.
What I needed then, was support. I needed resources, encouragement, and a safer, healthier environment for my students. Tests don’t feed the hungry, they don’t love the neglected, and they don’t empower teachers to conquer challenges in their classrooms. In fact high stakes tests are the great equalizer, for they have lowered the quality of education regardless of socioeconomic status.
The more that is tied to these tests the more damage they do. In 2001, I witnessed cheating first-hand when my principal made my students change their wrong answers, as she walked around the room commenting aloud about how stupid they were. In 2003, I taught in a middle school in Brooklyn where again I witnessed cheating. A mysterious test booklet from the previous year showed up in our classrooms. No one knew where it came from, but each booklet had a note attached that said that we should review it with our students. I flipped through it then threw it in my desk, because I was sick of test prep.
When test day came, I walked around the room and thought it was odd that many questions looked familiar. Then I realized they were repeated from the previous year’s test, the same test that we had all received from an unknown source. My colleagues were panicking, because almost all had gone over the practice test the day before and students were accusing them of cheating. No one wanted to lose his or her job. We never did find out where that test came from, but the school did celebrate a rise in test scores that year.
You see, when you tie money to school performance, schools will cheat. When you tie teacher evaluations to test scores, cheating will only get worse. Some teachers and administrators will find ways to maintain their reputation and keep their job security at all costs. On a larger scale, students will be cheated out of field trips, recess, and meaningful project-based learning. Students will be cheated out of having happy teachers who love their jobs and cheated out of developing a love of learning.
I was a teacher who pushed all of my students to reach the highest standards, until I resigned in August. It was not easy to walk away from the community, in Monmouth County where I taught middle school English for 8 years. However, I saw what testing and the new teacher evaluation system were doing to our schools. With the advent of SGO’s, testing taints every inch of education. Students start the school year with benchmarks in every subject including specials like art, music, and library. Many parents do not know that benchmarks are designed for students to fail in the beginning of the year and pass at the end. Students are told that benchmarks do not count, but why start the year with planned failure, just so that the teacher can look good?
We had to search for a better alternative. Unlike many families in poverty, we had the ability to seek better education for our children by relocating.
When we visited the schools in Linwood, we felt like we hit the jackpot. The schools were designated Blue Ribbon Schools and the middle school a National School to Watch. The elementary school, where the majority of students ride their bikes or walk to school, had walls covered with student work and a vegetable garden. The middle school principal inspires his students and staff to achieve greatness in attitude, leadership, and scholarship.
Yet, even in Linwood, education is suffering. There is pressure to maintain the district’s history of high test scores. Third graders are receiving typing homework now in a school whose principal stressed limiting screen time at Back to School Night. Science and social studies in the elementary school is limited and lacks continuity due to emphasis on the tested areas of reading and math. Math instruction is riddled with confusing word problems and test prep worksheets. Instructional time is being lost at all levels due to PARCC-specific prep, instead of being engaged in the authentic learning experiences that make those schools so great. Over-testing has now infected every school, from the best to the worst without discrimination.
Though I celebrate the victories of the refusal movement, “sit and stare” policies never should have been considered. Asking children as young as 8 years old to sit and read a book silently in a testing room or even in an alternate location for over 8 hours is not acceptable. They need to move. They need to talk. They need to interact. Above all, they deserve to be educated while they are in school, not left in a holding pattern because their parents won’t just fall in line.
We shouldn’t have to refuse these tests. Our children shouldn’t have to sit quietly and patiently while the state of NJ wastes time and money on a test that has been abandoned by so many other states and proven not to be in the best interest of our children.
[At the end, I adlibbed something about homeschooling my children in the PARCC is still around next year. I didn’t have time to read the last part.]
Instead, this Commission should recommend that:
- Teachers are treated like the professionals they are and have input in education reform.
- Teachers should be protected and feel able to speak openly about what is happening in their classrooms and schools without fear of retribution.
- The state should institute portfolio-based teacher evaluations. Independent review boards by county could be set up with funds reallocated from expensive standardized tests and the ever-increasing technology and training budgets needed to sustain them.