As New York City enters its third year of the pandemic, public schools are administering assessments to gauge learning loss among students. But multiple teachers and parents worry the tests themselves have become obstacles to students’ progress.
“Everyone is freaking out about learning loss,” said Liat Olenick, a second grade teacher at PS 321 in Brooklyn. “You need more teaching, not more tests.”
In interviews, many teachers and administrators across the city said the assessments take away precious instructional time. They also said the tests are redundant to evaluations they already do with students, and the information they get from them is less useful.
Schools are using standardized tests produced by several different companies, including Acadience, iReady and MAP Growth.
But some teachers said the tests are age-inappropriate and do not provide useful data. Some pointed to math assessments with 20-25 problems in small font squeezed onto a single page that elementary schoolers are supposed to complete within three minutes or less.
Others said they are being asked to evaluate young readers based on the number of words they use in response to the passages they read, not their comprehension or content. In the upper grades, the tests are supposed to take 45 minutes to an hour but some administrators said the assessments were taking as many as three hours per student.
“It’s hard for me to believe they spent millions of dollars on this,” said Jessica Smith, a teacher at The Earth School in Manhattan, who administered the tests in October and is now on sabbatical. “As a veteran teacher, I would be able to come up with something better for free.”
Some educators said they appreciate the new tools. Damaris Ramirez-Bello, an assistant principal at the Bronx Delta School, said her team had been using the exams for a few years as part of a pilot program.
“I can only speak to what our experience has been,” Ramirez-Bello said. “For us it has been valuable.”
She said kindergarteners spend about five minutes each on the reading tests, and then about half an hour each on math. She said the screenings have been especially helpful to hone in on phonetic gaps, and teachers are sharing what they have gleaned from the results across grade levels.
“It’s hard for me to believe they spent millions of dollars on this ... I would be able to come up with something better for free.”
Under the city’s $36 million contract, the tests are to be given three times a year for three years to students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The first batch was administered this fall, and they will be taken again later this spring.
“Now more than ever we must position our students for growth and success, and these screeners allow schools to keep their finger on the pulse of student progress and address the pandemic’s impact on learning,” said Sarah Casasnovas, a spokesperson for the city's education department.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans for the periodic assessments more than a year ago as studies on the pandemic’s academic impact began trickling in.
Since then, the data has become even more alarming.
Nationally, studies have shown that the pandemic slowed learning in math and reading across the board, with the most severe impacts on Black and Latino students and kids from low-income families. Many New York City students spent a year-and-a-half attending school from home; others attended school on a hybrid schedule that was interrupted by individual school and systemwide closures.
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Education, said tests like these are helping districts across the country evaluate students’ needs, and hone instruction in response.
“I honestly cannot imagine a more critical moment for our schools to be assessing where kids are academically,” said Lake. “There is no perfect assessment for every age and subject… That said, tests like MAP are vetted and tested and while they surely have imperfections, they will still give meaningful and valid data.”
But Brooklyn parent Reyhan Mehran, a steering committee member of NYC Opt Out, which opposes standardized and/or high-stakes testing in schools, said the tests are the wrong tool to address the challenges of the pandemic, and she said parents have not been adequately informed.
“These kids have not been in school and there’s been a lot of trauma in the city,” she said. “This is not the time … to be sitting them in front of the computer …testing them for hours and hours and hours.”
Multiple parents and teachers said the tests are likely to increase anxiety at an already stressful time, and if the city wanted to accelerate learning, it should require smaller class sizes.
Officials said parents can inform their schools if they want to opt out of the tests or to see the test results.