By Andrea Fonseca
I am a teacher at Castle Bridge School, a dual-language, inclusive, progressive school that opened in Washington Heights in September 2012. Because this is only our second year we have students in grades pre-K to 2, and none of our students take the state-mandated tests for grades 3–8.
With the new teacher evaluation system that uses children’s test scores as part of teachers’ “ratings,” the DOE faced a challenge: How would it use its new system for K–2 teachers in schools without testing grades? The answer: a multiple-choice math test for kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders in those schools.
The tests were delivered to those schools and in most they were also administered to children without their parents even knowing about it. A colleague and friend working at one of these schools told me how awful the experience was and how confused her kindergartners were.
Many children scribbled all over the pages of the test booklets, a few even ripped them. Imagine the frustration of a four- or five-year-old being presented with such an unfamiliar and impossible task. It reminds me of First Grade Takes a Test, a wonderful children’s book by Miriam Cohen, in which first-graders take a multiple-choice test and get confused by its logic. One child, for example, draws what he thinks would be the correct answer to a question rather than mark one of the choices.
In our school we could have decided to give our children the test. We could have just followed along with yet another ridiculous mandate from the DOE. Even though we knew that the test would be completely meaningless, we could still have given it to the children. We could have explained to our families and to ourselves that we really did not care about the teacher ratings or how the children’s performance on the math test would affect them. Our principal knows us well, she is in our classrooms daily, we have a meeting with her every week—she knows what we are doing as teachers and supports us in the areas that we need to improve. Whatever happened with the ratings would not be that important to our school community. So why not just comply?
We could also have explained to our children: “We are giving you these booklets and you can just do your best. Don’t worry if it seems confusing. They are not really important; some strange people who happen to be the bosses of principals and teachers want you to try this out. It makes no sense, but could you please just try it so that we can continue with the rest of our day?” We could have just done this. But I am so glad we did not. Our principal did inform our parents about the test, and parents and teachers agreed that we did not have to passively comply this time. The parents organized and wrote opt-out letters. Over 90% of our families signed. Our principal cancelled the test.
This year our kids will not need to sit through a meaningless task. They don’t need to know about these weird bosses of ours who wanted us to sit children in front of a booklet that is completely inappropriate to assess their growing abilities as math thinkers and their exciting discoveries about how numbers work. Our children who are beginning to learn English will not have to sit through this task listening to incomprehensible instructions in English either.
Our school community also sent a message of resistance and hope. We (teachers, parents, principals, and children) should not stay silent anymore. We should not continue to comply and mutely observe how the obsession with high-stakes testing and teachers’ evaluations and numbers and percentages that purport to measure the unmeasurable destroys our schools, our children’s natural desire and love of learning, and the joy of teaching and learning. We also cannot consent to a test that opens the doors for high-stakes testing for K to 2 grades in all schools.
This is my 12th year working as a teacher in the public school system. I have seen how high-stakes testing, and the system of punishment and rewards that the DOE has built around them, has deeply hurt our children, teachers, and principals. I have been in wonderful schools where from one school year to the next, the dialogue during teacher meetings changed from describing children and their work and deeply thinking about ways to support their learning to looking at charts of test scores and referring to children as “ones,” “twos,” “threes,” and “fours.” Instead of teachers talking about Maria and how much she loves books, and figuring out ways to support her in learning to decode words with more confidence, the dialogue turns into “These are our ‘ones.’ What can we do to get them to be ‘twos’?” I also worked at a beautiful K–2 school where the sand and water tables, the blocks, and the pretend area furniture ended up being stored in the basement because, even though we did not have testing grades, the principal felt there was no time for children to “play” at school. I feel so lucky and proud to now work at a school where the principal, the teachers, and the parents are taking a stand and saying “no more.” We will not waste even one hour of our children’s time in meaningless bubbling of multiple-choice answers.
I don’t need to write here about what children need to learn, grow, and thrive—we all know. And we also know that most children are not getting this in our public schools. We cannot continue to quietly comply. We need to begin questioning, resisting, organizing, and protesting. We need to reclaim teaching and insist that our children be truly respected.