Friday, October 12, 2012

New Year, New Tests

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, I expressed my displeasure with the three-week test-taking marathon students endured in my school district. Now I’m going to kick off the 2012-13 school year by griping about a fresh crop of tests that reach a new level of ridiculous:

Pre-tests – These tests are administered at the beginning of the school year to assess a student’s knowledge about a subject before the student takes the course in the subject. Apparently, the scores on these tests compared with the scores on the year-end tests are supposed to gauge the teacher’s success. I’m astonished that this seriously flawed plan was implemented because it offers nothing but disruption and frustration at a critical juncture in the school year. Testing a student on a subject before the student learns the material is pointless. In addition, standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s skills or knowledge, so they are certainly not a valid indicator of a teacher’s performance.  

Field Tests – These are pilot tests that student guinea pigs are forced to take to help education officials and testing companies determine which questions are appropriate for the actual test. These tests are an egregious waste of the student’s valuable time.

Art Tests - A standardized, multiple-choice test in art is counterintuitive. Art is about creativity and self-expression, not conformity. An artist’s skills cannot be evaluated by a written test. It’s debatable whether an artist’s skills can be evaluated at all, since art is highly subjective.

Physical Education Tests – A written test in physical education is also counterintuitive. Physical education is by definition physical. Students should be engaging in physical activity and benefiting from exercise in this class, not sitting and taking a test. To determine whether a student has learned the skills involved in a game or sport, or understands the rules, ask them to participate in the activity, not take a test about it.

Standardized tests divert time and money from meaningful educational activities, and they are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. Yet education officials continue to think up new ways to impose them on our teachers, students and schools.

What’s next – a test about lunch?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Test Obsessed

My kids have spent the last three weeks trapped in a stifling cage lined with bubble sheets and number two pencils. 

Week one, they had three days of state English/language arts assessment tests.

Week two, they had three days of state math assessment tests.

Week three, they had two days of another standardized test that is similar to the state assessments.

The worst part is, they’re not complaining.  They’ve just accepted insipid, monotonous test taking as a necessary part of life, like death and taxes.  So they stoically and obediently head off to school for another joyless day of boring and useless tests because the bureaucrats in Washington think this is a grand idea.

But I’m not taking it as well.  So to vent my frustration, I’ve compiled a list of reasons why I oppose the recent test-taking marathon:

1. Standardized tests waste time. Education experts agree that standardized multiple-choice tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. They are certainly not indicative of a teacher’s abilities or a school’s success. Even if standardized tests accurately reflected a student’s competency, they are still not a valid measure of teacher quality because many other factors affect student performance.

2. Standardized tests divert time from meaningful and enriching educational activities.  For example, middle school students in my school district missed out on a dynamic program that teaches American history through experiential learning methods because testing dominated the spring calendar. The spring book fair was also cancelled.

3. Standardized tests are administered inefficiently. Why are students forced to take two tests covering the same subject? Why do they have to endure three days of tests on the same subject? If we have to give students standardized tests, can’t we eliminate the redundancies and limit the time involved?

4. Standardized tests are used improperly. Standardized tests should not be used in student placement decisions since they are not an accurate reflection of a student’s abilities or aptitude. They should not be used to evaluate teachers and schools.  I will concede that standardized tests could potentially provide value if they were used to identify possible gaps in student learning. But to accomplish this goal, three things would have to happen:

a. Tests for each grade level must be developed with input from teachers to ensure they cover concepts taught at that grade level.

b. Test developers must ask clear, straightforward questions instead of attempting to confuse and trick test-takers. Anyone who experienced “Pineapple-gate” in New York knows what I’m talking about.

c. Most importantly, teachers should be allowed to give students their tests back after they are graded so the students can learn from their mistakes. This is the most egregious error in the government’s approach to testing. Students never see their tests after they are graded and, therefore, miss out on an opportunity to learn.

5. Standardized tests divert funding from educational programs. The only beneficiaries of the focus on testing are the companies that develop and sell standardized tests. Shamefully, funds that are sorely needed for educational programs and instructional materials are being spent on testing.

If you are also frustrated by the federal and state governments’ unjustified obsession with standardized tests, consider supporting educators, parents and concerned citizens in New York State and nationwide who are voicing their opposition.  For more information on this initiative, visit the following website

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The How Not-To Guide To Parent-Teacher Partnerships

When Richard Gray was elected president of the Malliford Elementary PTO, he aspired to forge a constructive relationship with the school’s principal, Ms. Rutherford, although he disliked her approach and policies. But during his stint as PTO president, his chilly relationship with Ms. Rutherford rapidly deteriorated into intense hostility, with bitter consequences for the school community, as well as his marriage, his son, his reputation and his life.

Although Richard Gray and the other inhabitants of Malliford Elementary are fictional characters in the novel Chain Gang Elementary (Thornbriar Press), by Jonathan Grant, many of the characters’ missteps are all too real.

While the book is not autobiographical, Grant is a former PTA co-president. He initially intended to write a non-fiction guide for parent leaders. But he ultimately decided he could make a bigger impact on readers with a cautionary tale. He considers the book a “how not-to guide” for parents and administrators.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Grant and asked what advice he would give to parents who want to avoid Richard's fate.

Play Nice

The advice that you received on the playground still applies today. The dominant message in Chain Gang Elementary is that parents (particularly parent leaders) and administrators have to get along. Parents should check their animosity at the door and keep their conversations with administrators and teachers positive and productive.

For example, if your child is upset about an incident that occurred at school, ask the teacher about the situation rather than accusing them of wrong-doing.

“Parents need to stow their anger and remember their child may be part of the problem,” Grant says. “Don’t assume that your six-year-old child, who has their emotions and fears at stake, is going to tell you objectively what happened.”

Similarly, administrators should take a step back and listen to parents instead of constantly pushing their own agendas. Parents often bring valuable insight to the table. For example, when a parent expresses a concern, the administrator should address the cause of the issue instead of appeasing the individual parent.

“School systems I’ve seen are more interested in fixing 100 squeaky wheels than in going back to the assembly line and making adjustments on the assembly line that prevent the squeaky wheels from being produced,” Grant says.

He speaks from experience. When Grant had an issue with a school policy, the school responded by making his child exempt from the policy, rather than re-evaluating its merit.

PTOs and PTAs should advocate for parents to ensure administrators take their concerns seriously. “Schools really marginalize any complaint if an individual parent brings it in,” Grant says.

Meanwhile, principals should publish their policies to ensure fairness to all students and parents. And when rules and policies are established, principals should adhere to them. “Nothing makes parents crazier than loopholes,” Grant says.

A PTO/PTA president who has tried to communicate with the school principal but faces an impasse should invite a third party in to facilitate the discussion, such as a district administrator, Grant suggests.

Shun Teacher Shopping

The practice of teacher shopping – when a parent demands a specific teacher for their child – is rampant at Malliford and has serious consequences.

Grant has witnessed the negative effects of teacher shopping and says it’s “damaging to the whole system.” He advises parents to avoid teacher shopping and suggests principals disallow it.

Sometimes teachers will receive a reputation that’s undeserved, so parents need to keep an open mind, Grant adds.

Volunteer for the Right Reasons

Volunteer to lead the PTA because you want to help and support the school community, not because you want special treatment for your child.

“If you approach being PTA president as a humbling experience, that’s a good thing,” Grant says. “Try very hard to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”

As a former PTA co-president, Grant offered up three ways PTAs can improve their schools:

1.) Facilitate Volunteerism: Organize work days on weekends to give parents who don’t normally volunteer a chance to be involved.

2.) Encourage Reading: Grant’s PTA invited a local librarian to an “open house” to accept library card applications from parents. “Children emulate their parents. They need to see parents reading,” Grant says.

3.) Discourage Electronics: Organize a “No Electronics Week,” during which students must pledge to avoid TV, videogames, iPods and other electronic devices. The goal is to promote an appreciation for reading and other activities that foster a child’s growth and development.

For more information on Chain Gang Elementary, visit