Editor’s Note: This column was written by Kathy Zahler, president of TST BOCES and Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. She often writes about the nexus of education and politics on her blog, Dryden Daily KAZ.

To submit a guest column, contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.


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Call me cynical. Just do. Now the Ithaca Teacher’s Association has published a statement in the Ithaca Voice encouraging parents (I mean “informing parents of their rights”) to opt their kids out of the “high stakes New York state ELA and Mathematics tests for 3rd through 8th grade students” that will “begin on April 14, 2015.” Imagine it! “Commercially prepared state tests”!

Well, I guess if you have young kids in school or have lived under a rock for a decade and a half, you don’t realize that we’ve had “commercially prepared state tests” for grades 3 through 8 since No Child Left Behind (a federal law, not a state law) was implemented. Other states have had them, too. In NYS, the tests, created by CTB McGraw-Hill, were first presented in January 2006, which was the very last possible time states were allowed to introduce them, according to NCLB.

Mind you, prior to 2006, NYS had plenty of testing, just not at every grade. Fourth and eighth graders had state tests, and we’ve always had the Regents tests for graduation purposes. So-called “state tests” were created by McGraw-Hill, or by Pearson, or by McGraw-Hill, or by Pearson—and both companies were busily creating state tests for the other 49 states as well.

Along the way, there were complaints about the quality of tests, or the meaninglessness of tests, and those of us in the textbook business complained that we were testing too much and teaching too little.

So what changed? Well, with the development of Common Core State Standards, there was no longer a need for 50 different tests. Some states chose to get their tests from one of two consortia, PARCC or Smarter Balanced. PARCC tests were designed by Pearson. Smarter Balanced were designed by CTB McGraw-Hill. NYS, being persnickety, decided not to go with either one but rather to keep overseeing the design of their own tests—by Pearson.

So that’s not really much of a change, is it? Okay, the real change is this: In a decision completely divorced from Common Core, which includes no such directive, NYS teachers were told that they personally—not just their schools or districts—would be held accountable for student improvement, as based on test results. And now we have Opt Out.

“High-stakes testing” is testing whose outcome has great consequence for the test-taker. By that definition, these are not “high-stakes tests,” whatever the union might think. Or rather, they are “high-stakes” for the teachers and districts, not for the students, whose graduation or even promotion is never determined by the 3-8 state tests. The most that ever happens to a student based on a test score is that the student might receive extra help—and that usually only happens if the school has carefully done a gap analysis of the data to determine where each student had difficulty.

I don’t have any objections to parents standing up and saying “We’re testing too much and teaching too little.” I’ve been saying that for a long, long time. I think testing at 4 and 8 and disaggregating those data is probably good enough for determining where the gaps lie in a district. (Disaggregation helps you to see equity in a district—whether a school is as competent at teaching its students with disabilities, ESL kids, students in poverty, and students of different races and ethnicities as it is at teaching any other student.) I do object to unions using parents’ ignorance about educational history to their advantage. I do object to teachers and parents transferring their hysteria onto children for whom these tests should mean little to nothing at all.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.