I was recently at a meeting of 19 New York City and New Jersey educators who are preparing for a trip to Reggio Emilia, Italy. We will be part of a larger group of 69 educators from around the country and also from international schools in places as far away as Mumbai and Singapore.

Our meeting drifted towards a discussion instigated by a question posed by a visitor from the New York City Department of Education. “Could you share thoughts on how the Common Core standards are impacting on the your classrooms?” Anyone who is at all involved in education can probably imagine the fire that this match of a question set off. The main sticking point seemed to be the way that constant assessments consistently got in the way of teaching.

Before having the discussion about testing, assessment and the common core, we viewed some wonderful segments from a video, An Amusement Park for Birds, where we saw five and six year old children in Reggio Emilia take part in an exciting, intellectually, and creatively challenging project. During our talk about assessment, it became apparent that the rich inquiry-based kind of project described in the video could not take place in a classroom where so much time is spent on testing and test-prep.

When I returned home later in the evening, I recalled an email that I had recently received from a kindergarten teacher working in a New York City public school.

“Assessments are killing me. I have spent the past month doing the TC assessments and especially running records. It takes up ALL of my time with the kids because I have to get them done. And, as you know, in K, it is all done one on one. So I have to sit with a child while the rest of the class is on their own. At the same time I’m supposed to be teaching, conferring, conferencing, doing small groups. There is no time set aside specifically for these assessments, so they go on during “teaching time.” When there is ONE adult in the classroom with 19-25 kids, I don’t know how these assessments are supposed to be realistically done. Even with my student teacher in the room…I am responsible for the assessments. I don’t allow my student teacher to assess because I like to know exactly how my student answers the questions.… (And, yes, I will sadly admit, that I do assess during choice time. Not because I want to but because I don’t have much of a choice. They HAVE to get done.)”

According to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is on the rise, with nearly one in 10 American children receiving an ADHD diagnosis. If we add the speeded up curriculum imposed by the Common Core standards coupled with and increase in testing and classroom assessments, then the increase in ADHD does not seem so remarkable.

I can’t help wondering why parents are not up in arms over the standardized testing and resulting standardization of instruction? I’m sure that there isn’t a simple answer to this question but, nevertheless, it really does disturb me. I know that in some areas, parents are beginning to be more active in opposing the standardized testing. I do wonder, however, if they are also aware of the amount of classroom time teachers are spending throughout the year on a variety of assessments? I also wonder if they are aware of how the common core state standards are jacking up the curriculum so that kindergarten children are being asked to master what is developmentally appropriate for first and second graders and so on through the grades? What is the purpose of having kindergarten children:

“Count to 100 by ones and by tens.

Count forward beginning from a given number within the known sequence (instead of having to begin at 1).

Count to answer “how many?” questions about as many as 20 things arranged in a line, a rectangular array, or a circle, or as many as 10 things in a scattered configuration; given a number from 1-20, count out that many objects.

Work with numbers 11-19 to gain foundations for place value.

Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (e.g., 18 = 10 + 8); understand that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.”

I’m wondering how we, the educators, can inform parents about what is really happening in schools today? Below is a wonderful letter, written by a brave and concerned principal. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more administrators would reach out to parents in a similarly forthright fashion?

September 4, 2012
Dear Parents,
On behalf of the teachers and staff of the Wantagh Elementary School, I would like to welcome you back to school. I anticipate that the 2012-13 academic year will prove to be an exciting year.
…One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.
Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them.
Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come. Standardized assessment has grown exponentially. For example, last year New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subjected to roughly 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state assessments which does not include state field testing.
This year there will be a state mandated pre-test in September and a second mandated pre-test in January for all kindergarten through fifth grade students in school. In April, kindergarten through fifth grade students will take the last test [assessment] for the year.

Excessive testing is unhealthy.
When I went to school I was never over-tested and subsequently labeled with an insidious number that ranked or placed me at a Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 as we do today. Do you want your child to know their assigned ‘Level’? What would the impact be on their self-esteem and self-worth at such a young age?

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society.
Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security. Additionally, what should be shocking to you as a parent is that state and national databases are being created in order to analyze and store students’ test scores – your child’s assessment results and your child’s school attendance! Do you realize that the state has mandated that classroom teachers must take attendance during every math, ELA, social studies and science lesson – everyone, every day for the entire school year! Those records are sent to the state and become statistically part of the teacher evaluation process. It will no longer be enough that your child ‘was in school.’ Rather, if he or she was at a band lesson or out of the room for extra help in reading and a math lesson was taking place in class, he or she will be noted as absent from that instruction. That will be factored into the teacher evaluation. Thinking of taking your child to Disney World for a week during the school year or leaving a day or two early for a long weekend skiing? Think again! Those absences will be recorded as illegal, missed seat time and sent to the state – as mandated by the state.
This is all part of the massive, multi-million tax-payer dollar teacher evaluation processes started by our Commissioner of Education, our governor, and our state legislators and fully supported by statisticians employed by the state and assessment-making companies. No one in Albany is selecting to see the end of the journey; that 98 percent of the students graduating from Wantagh Schools go on to two- and four-year colleges. Their myopic view is focused on the ‘parts’, not the whole.
Who will eventually suffer? Your children!

The balance must now be struck between maintaining the special nature of an elementary school setting and the cold and calculating final analysis rendered by statistics. The use of assessment data to drive instruction is a tenet of good educational practices. The use of assessment data to render a yearly prognostication of teacher competency is ridiculous.
You have the greatest impact on your child’s school performance. Each teacher only has your children for 180 days per year and for less than six hours per day [minus lunch and recess times, art, music, and physical education classes]. It is our expectation that as partners in your child’s education, you will be doing your part as well.
As part of any evaluation of student performance, Albany must simultaneously be asking parents the following questions: 

Does your child read at home each day for at least twenty minutes? 

Do you read to your child every day? 

Are math facts gone over daily until they are known automatically?

Is there a quiet location in the house for homework time and do you check your child’s homework each night? 

Is your child sent to school ready for the day with a good breakfast following at least eight hours of sleep? 

Are after school activities monitored so that your child is not ‘overbooked’ and their stamina compromised? 

Is your child in school daily [except when they are sick] and not taken out of school for any reason other than illness?
We will continue to have field trips, assemblies, and special school events but some events will be curtailed or rescheduled with an eye toward prudent times during the school year to maximize student seat time. However, it is unmistakable that we have entered into a new era of educational practice with higher stakes than ever before. 

I look forward to working with you and your child as we start our new school year because….together we make a difference.

Thank you.

Don Sternberg, Ed.D.

[1]By Don Sternberg, Ed.D., Wantagh Elementary School, and SAANYS 2009 Elementary Principal of the Year


  1. Tomasen

    Imagine if we had more school leaders who were so honest. It is a critical time in education for our kids. Thank you for writing and if you don’t mind I am going to post this on our Learning Through Teaching FB page.
    We WILL meet face to face. Of that I am sure!! Safe travels!!


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