NY’s biggest teachers union throws in against testing

Saranac Lake Middle School students take the state standardized English language arts test in April 2012 in the school’s gymnasium. Photo: Chris Knight via Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Last week we reported that parents in some of the North Country’s local schools are pushing back against the increasing reliance on standardized testing in New York State. In fact, they’re boycotting the third and eighth grade testing still underway this week. Last week, the kids took the English portion of the tests; this week it’s math.

Chris Knight followed up that story in The Adirondack Daily Enterprise with the news that the Saranac Lake boycott of the English test drew 54 students – double what organizers had expected.

Reportedly, thousands joined the boycott statewide. Now it seems the state’s largest teachers union is piggy-backing on the parent concerns, and throwing its weight in with an ad campaign and a petition. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has its own oar in the water on this,  as test scores are now to be used in teacher evaluations. (Here’s a press release from NYSUT stating the organization’s position on state testing.)

The Albany Times Union reports this sympathy with the parent boycott comes despite the union’s public agreement on using the test scores in teacher evaluations, which dates back to Feb., 2012, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo brokered agreement between teachers unions and the state Education Department:

New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi stood on stage with state Education Commissioner John King to announce the hard-won plan. Leaders of the state’s two powerful unions had finally agreed that the tests were a valid method of assessing teacher success when paired with other measures…

Iannuzzi hasn’t recanted, the TU reports, and NYSUT has a lot of issues on its to-do list besides testing. But at the same time, the union’s website includes an account of its president’s visit to Rome, in Oneida County, under the headline: Iannuzzi: Over-testing a communitywide concern:

Iannuzzi said that the state’s obsession with standardized testing  — which Rome Teachers Association President Rob Wood called “a set-up for failure — has brought together teachers and parents like never before. NYSUT has led a very public campaign against the over-emphasis on tests, even though the new curriculum has not yet been taught in many cases.

There’s a handy “Too Much Testing?” petition for parents and educators to sign at the union website. And an account of a meeting of union members in a six-county area in Central new York focuses on the impact on students:

The auditorium was silent listening to the account of a gifted student – an incredible thinker – who burst into tears at the words, “Pencils down,” because she hadn’t had time to finish the last essay. Minutes later, she was still “walking down the hallway with tears streaming down her face. And she’s 8.

The Central New York meeting comes during the run-up to a major NYSUT “rally for education”, on June 8, in Albany.

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17 Comments on “NY’s biggest teachers union throws in against testing”

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  1. dave says:

    Buried in this whole issue is an interesting (to me, at least) contradiction of values.

    On one hand you have growing sentiment (especially within conservative circles, it seems) that teachers need to be held accountable and their jobs should be tied to the performance of their students.

    On the other hand you have this growing backlash (across both political persuasions, as far as I can tell) that standardized testing has become a problem.

    Those growing public opinions don’t jive. If we are going to insist on holding teachers accountable for student performance, we need some standardized way of measuring that performance.

  2. Paul says:

    What does this entail exactly? How many tests? Is it just one test for 3 or 4 subjects?

    If a girl reacted this way to the test it has to be because too much was made of the exam in the preparation. I have seen my kids way to stressed about something they should not be. I have to blame the administration for this. At one of my kids school they told him not to read on these nights before the exam to make sure he got a good nights sleep before the test. That is ridiculous.

    I have seen him doing a lot more home work right now based on some of the prep stuff, that seems like a good thing? Just take off the “test” label and maybe we are all set?

  3. dan3583 says:

    This is a cunumdrum. I agree that there should be minimum standards that all must reach in order to advance academically. I also agree that teachers should be held accountable. I am not certain that there has been shown to be a meaningful relationship between standardized testing, teaching to the test, and real learning. What are we measuring? When we know that intelligence falls on a bell curve, how do we apply that to standardized testing?

  4. newt says:

    Many teachers, parents, and observers believe that standardized test have a role to play, but have come to overused and corrupt in the frenzy over education in the last few years. Here is a link to a petition seeking the removal of Pearson as a contractor for NYS testing. It makes some makes some interesting points. http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/nys-cancel-pearsons-contracts-with-the-schools/

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    Standardized testing has some limited value. SAT tests, for example, give a pretty good idea of how well a particular student takes tests. College students take lots of tests, so test taking is a useful skill for college and college admissions look at test taking ability carefully. Standardized tests for younger students probably gives a pretty good indication of individual problem children who arent getting the resources at home that they should be. Lots of problem children is a big problem itself.

    What those tests dont tell is how good or bad the teachers are. If the point is to hold teachers accountable, the yearly tests should be dropped in favor of some other system. In my experience, most parents who pay attention know who the good teachers are and fight to get their kids in those classes.

  6. Zeke says:

    My next door neighbor here in the NC, who is a middle school teacher, claims the test are not high stakes for the students. How the students do has no bearing on anything for them.(e.g. impact on wether they continue on to the next grade) However for the school, administrator and teachers they are high stakes. Hmmm, the student takes a test and knows it doesn’t matter for them how they do? Not sure what I think of this.

  7. Zeke says:

    OOps “Whether” I guess I failed proofreading oh wait spell check could cure that, if I had that app.

  8. Paul says:

    Newt, by overused what does that mean? How many tests? I thought it was just a few days, what would be the right amount?

  9. mervel says:

    Zeke is correct.

    The testing has no impact on the students grades or outcomes or anything. It is mainly judging the school. I don’t understand why kids would be “stressed out” about these tests, unless they are getting that from the teachers or parents? Our kids do pretty well on them some of our kids really really well and some pretty average, well very average. But they are never stressed about them as we have always emphasized that they don’t matter, just have fun and do your best. Now getting a C- on something, yes they better be stressed about that.

    It does not impact their GPA, it is not seen by colleges, I mean from a student perspective, yes it is a boring hassle, but frankly that is not always a bad lesson to learn, that sometimes things are boring and stupid but we still have to do them.

    It annoys me that schools try to put this big pressure thing on the kids, when these tests have no impact on a child’s future.

    The key is having the ability to do reasonably well on standardized college tests, this is real and it can really help you. Other than that these standardized tests you take in 8th grade are utterly meaningless to the individual student’s future. I hope that is being conveyed to the students.

  10. Walker says:

    “…yes it is a boring hassle, but frankly that is not always a bad lesson to learn, that sometimes things are boring and stupid but we still have to do them.”

    Yes, that is the chief function of our educational system: by going through it, one demonstrates ones ability to tolerate rigid rules, fulfill requirements, and toe the line. Do that, and you’ll make a fine employee. This is why, as Woody Allen said, eighty percent of success is about showing up.

    Every now and then, though, students accidentally learn how to think.

  11. newt says:


    I’ve been out of the system about years now, but my understanding in the last years I was working was that there was a lot of stress placed on prep for the state tests, and, esp. in the Elementary grades (4th and 5th) this had a negative impact on a lot of kids, both in preparation, and taking the tests. By this I mean some (not all) students showing anxiety, crying and otherwise breaking down before, during, and after, and complaints from parents. I heard this from teachers. It seemed to get worse with each year, and the complaints I’ve seen and heard since indicates it has gotten worse.

    It is true that Middle School tests only evaluate the the school, and , indirectly, the teacher. As an 8th Grade Social Studies teacher I worked to keep my student’s scores up (even though with tenure and with the highest seniority in my department, my job was safe regardless of kids’ State scores) . One way I did this was by telling them that their State test Score could be used as a final exam score, if they met or beat their year’s average up til then, so a good State score would get them out of my final
    (This was universally effective as a motivational tool) . I reviewed using old tests, which did not change much from year to year. Good students would figure out the new questions, so-so students would usually still pass. I felt ethically fine doing this, because the material on the State 8th Grade SS tests was pretty much what I thought they should have learned about US History, although over my 18 years in that system I saw these tests get more and more dumbed-down.

  12. newt says:

    Writing the above reminded of something that may be pertinent to the testing issue, if true in other public schools.

    I insisted that my 8th Graders write a (short) research paper (in addition to other research assignments). Introduction, body, conclusion, footnotes, bibliography, all that stuff. I did this partly because remembered how much I hated doing this in high school, and how valuable the knowledge and skills I learned from it were later in life. I was surprised to learn that my HS Social Studies Regents course colleagues never assigned research papers. The reason: “No time to do research papers. We need it all to study for the Regents.” I don’t know how widespread this practice was, or is, but I do recall being surprised to learn that neither of my own older kids did research papers in their school until they were Seniors.

    If NYS public school students are commonly not being assigned research and writing in favor of studying for State tests, well, this would explain a lot.

  13. Gary says:

    It wasn’t that long ago the big buzz word in education was “self esteem”. This past fall my grand daughter, who is in elementary school was told she would be taking a series of tests over the next few days. The test were designed to identify where each student was in terms of curriculum. At the end of the year a series of test is given to determine the extent of growth over the year. Here is the problem: the exams in the fall purposely had questions the student was most likely not prepared to answer. They were told this ahead of time. My poor grand daughter came home in tears because she didn’t know the answers to many of the questions. She felt stupid! So much for self esteem!

  14. Martha Foley says:

    Re. Newt’s research papers assignments: I hope other 8th grade teachers are doing the same.
    I graduated from South Glens Falls High School in 1970 with Regents and National Merit honors, earned by an ability to do well on “the tests.”
    I had never, though, written a research paper. “Book reports,” yes. An actual paper, no. There was no such thing as an AP class, either…just Regents, “business” or vocational tracks at South High in those days. It was a bit overwhelming being in class at St. Lawrence the next fall with kids from high schools and prep schools who had at least a three-year head start, on the skills (including critical thinking) and the reading lists.

    So…how far have we come in (eesh!) 43 years?

  15. EVH says:

    It isn’t so much that the students are directly affected by their results on the 3-8 assessments, as noted above by a number of posters, it’s the school and teacher. Given this emphasis and the broad implications of poor scores, the time, energy, and opportunity costs associated with the assessments leads to less time, energy, and funds to teach the far more valuable skill of critical thinking. In a nut shell, that is the problem with the overuse of standardized tests.

  16. newt says:

    Wow, Martha. Your experience, while anecdotal, really tells the tale, I suspect.

    I’d love to see a sampling of how many New Yorker students are required to do research papers in high school Regents Social Studies or ELA courses (my own kids did theirs in non-Regents courses, I think).

    I wonder if I would have insisted on the research papers had I not gone to public school in another state (It had no statewide standardized tests –then).

    For a while there was a “portfolio” assessment movement in New York, at least for Elementary kids. I think it got squashed by the testing mania. There would be problems with these too (more expensive to evaluate, for one thing), but portfolios plus tests would, I think, provide both accountability and reasonable breadth of learning. Teaching to the test alone would not work.

  17. newt says:

    Portfolios (and I am thinking of elementary through high school), would also allow kids to demonstrate learning and talent in subject areas “outside the box”. I remember one kid who just scraped by in regular assignments but turned in an incredibly elaborate hand-made model of the Wright Bros. first flyer, or the girl, a good student who is now an Art teacher, who made a beautiful scale-model of Ford’s theater with plastic-cowboy painted to be J.W. Booth assassinating a plastic Lincoln, with Mary looking on in shock and horror. Makes me remember why I loved my job,( when I wasn’t hating it).

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