Despite Protests, New York Increases Student Testing

Don't put down those pencils yet; standardized tests for students in New York are about to get longer. The changes are arriving steeped in controversy and criticism, which is nothing new for the state.

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The Tests Get Longer

Starting in April, elementary and middle school students throughout New York State will take longer standardized tests in language arts and mathematics. The tests, which are given to students in grades three through eight, will each last three days and approximately three hours for each subject area. For third graders, that's an additional 70 minutes for math, which had previously taken just two days to complete, and language arts is about half an hour longer.

Behind the Changes

New York's tests, like tests in other states, are designed to comply with the No Child Left Behind law. The state uses the results to determine each district's standing and to assess overall state academic performance and trends. Starting this year, the results will also play a role in teacher evaluations; from 20 to 40% of a teacher's evaluation will be based on how his or her students perform on the tests.

As explained by John B. King Jr., the state's education commissioner, the changes will enable the state to make future tests stronger. This spring's tests will feature experimental questions that are exclusively used to help develop subsequent tests. These questions won't count towards the students' scores. While this is a new concept for New York's tests, the experimental questions have long been a standard component of the SAT.

Controversy and Criticism

The changes to the tests are not popular among teachers, principals and parents. While other states have longer tests, critics in New York note that the longer tests will put an increased strain on already stressed out students. Also, the test time will come at the expense of instructional time. The added time may seem minor in relation to the school year as a whole, but when makeup exams and extended-time accommodations for students with learning differences are factored in, the time adds up quickly.

There's also concern about the increased importance of standardized tests in the education system. The United Federation of Teachers has chastised the move; they argue that it will lead to an increase in teachers preparing students for test taking instead of teaching.

The new link between the tests and teacher evaluations is likewise under fire. Nearly one-quarter of the state's principals have signed a letter protesting this policy. Their complaints are many, including the haphazard manner in which the policy was instituted and the lack of reliability that's been seen with the tests in recent years.

A Difficult History

The changes to the tests may spring from good intentions, but the track record in the state is poor. While the Princeton Review rated New York's testing program as the best in the country in January of 2003, they were forced to quickly retract the statement. By June of that same year, 70% of seniors failed their algebra tests and the state threw out the results.

Since then, quality hasn't consistently improved. There have been regular complaints about poorly worded questions, inflated scores and inconsistency between results on New York tests and national tests, such as the SAT. In July of 2010, Dr. Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the Board of Regents, said that the tests were so flawed that only a fool would take their results seriously.

Unfortunately, as education officials wrangle over how to get the tests right, teachers are left to sacrifice true teaching time in order to perform test preparation and to administer the tests. Meanwhile, the students lack a consistent, reliable system of evaluating their performance.

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