Last night a large crowd gathered at Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights Educational Campus to hear feedback on the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) proposed plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Speakers were each given three minutes to testify. I ran out of time and Luis O. Reyes, a member of the NYS Board of Regents, summoned me to the front table to ask for a copy of my speech. NYSED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was sitting next to him so I used the opportunity to share with her this message: “Get rid of the NYSESLAT. It’s horrible!” Here is my June 6, 2017 testimony.
The current Common Core package of high-stakes testing, developmentally inappropriate standards and dull curricula is unsustainable. Unfortunately, the state’s proposed plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does not improve the learning and teaching conditions of our schools. In fact, it further penalizes schools, particularly those located in areas of concentrated poverty. With regards to high-stakes testing, which is the focus of my testimony, we have not been fooled by the state’s so-called revisions; the state continues to insult our intelligence. Thus the most effective way for us to fight back is to boycott state tests. There has been much (justified) denunciation of the state ELA (English-language Arts) and math tests, but few people speak out publicly against the Common Core-aligned NYSESLAT, the annual state English as a Second Language (ESL) test that all English-language learners (ELLs) in New York State must take. In fact, many parents are in the dark about this grueling assessment that is given right after the state ELA and math tests. Tonight I wish to highlight this lesser known test because it is yet another example of a wrongheaded state test, and its administration shows just how over-tested our children are, particularly our ELLs.
The NYSESLAT is tedious, dense, long, boring, developmentally inappropriate, poorly constructed and confusing, and it is comprised of four testing sessions, which means four days of testing. The kindergarten NYSESLAT has 57 questions and the assessments taken in grades 1-12 each contain 66 questions, which are a combination of multiple choice and constructed written responses. The passages are largely non-fiction, containing social studies and science content, and some of the topics are obscure, outside of the students’ everyday life experiences. The NYSESLAT is more of a content assessment rather than a true language test. It’s also excessive in its use of close reading. The listening section, for example, requires students to listen to passage excerpts over and over again ad nauseam. Many teachers bemoan the NYSESLAT, claiming that native English speakers would struggle to test at the proficiency level, which is the primary way an ELL can exit the ESL program. I have students, already overburdened by state testing, that will remain at the advanced (expanding) level on the NYSESLAT because they don’t score well on standardized tests. To subject them to this poor quality assessment year after year is abusive.
New York State administers the NYSESLAT to comply with federal law, but it’s the state that creates this developmentally inappropriate and highly flawed test. I often wonder if any of the decision-makers at the state level have actually looked at the test. Anyone who signs off on the NYSESLAT should be required to sit down and take this arduous four-part assessment (as well as the math and ELA tests). At the local level, why aren’t more district leaders publicly condemning the state testing program? We are past the point of using fear as an excuse to remain quiet. We can no longer shrug our shoulders and say yes this is a horrible test but we have to give it. What can we do? We can refuse, is what we can do, in spite of the state’s increasingly threatening tone. How can the state penalize schools for refusing tests that are toxic? I’m not talking about a fringe group of educators that feels this way. The tests are widely derided by working educators: teachers and school leaders alike. If ESSA gives states more leeway in designing their own accountability systems, why not honor assessments that are truly holistic, meaningful and developmentally appropriate? U.S. labor leader Emma Tenayuca once said, “I was arrested a number of times. I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.” The opt-out movement seeks justice for all students. Every child in this state is deserving of a rich and well-rounded education. The state’s accountability system – centered on high-stakes testing – robs our children of this.
You can send your own comments on the proposed plan through June 16 by emailing ESSAComments@nysed.gov
Here are some additional resources that look critically at the state’s proposed plan: