Tag Archives: P.S. 321

Teachers Talk Testing

Celia OylerThis past Tuesday, December 3rd, P.S. 321 in Park Slope Brooklyn, hosted a forum titled Teachers Talk Testing. A panel made up of five teachers, a public school principal (Liz Phillips) and a professor from Teachers College (Celia Oyler) all spoke with great passion and knowledge. They presented very specific examples describing the destructive effect that high stakes testing is having on public school children.

The teachers and parents have set up a very impressive website, teacherstalktesting.com.

I hope that you will all visit it often. It will be continuously updated.

New York city residents are URGED to also sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio, which is posted on the site. 
While there are more aspects of high stakes testing that need to be changed, the petition asks that the new mayor take the following actions once in office:
1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.
It is pointed out that these changes won’t fix everything, but they’d be a great start in helping to lower the weight these high stakes tests are currently placing on teachers and their students.
Once again, please do go to teacherstalktesting.com to sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio and read more about actions being taken to oppose these high stakes test.

Here is an article about the meeting that was posted on schoolbook.com:

Brooklyn Teachers Blast Emphasis on Testing
Wednesday, December 04, 2013 – 04:00 AM
A group of veteran teachers described in detail Tuesday night how an emphasis on standardized tests was sucking the joy out of the classroom, adding undue stress to students and educators themselves.
“The tests are kind of ruining what we love,” said Sara Greenfield, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 321 William Penn in Park Slope. She said that the time needed to prepare for the tests has displaced experiential learning.
“At this point it’s a luxury for most New York City teachers to choose to take their classes to a dance performance, instead of read about a dancer and answer multiple choice questions about that dancer,” she said.
Greenfield and others spoke to parents and fellow teachers in the P.S. 321 auditorium at a forum under the umbrella of Teachers Talk Testing, a newly-formed group seeking to reduce the emphasis on testing in three ways: ending grade promotion tied to test scores; ending middle school and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores; and revising the way test scores factor into school progress reports.
For some, the issue of over-testing was connected to the implementation of the Common Core learning standards. Tuesday’s panel came at a time when the New York education commissioner, John King, has been holding community forums — at times contentious — around the state. The New York City forum has not been scheduled yet.
King recently defended the push for the Common Core — and the new tests aligned to the standards, saying that too many students were graduating high school unprepared for college. But critics have said that the standards and tests are being pushed too fast, especially after less than one third of students statewide passed the tests last spring.
“There’s a lot of good things in the Common Core standards, and I think most good teachers would agree that we want to hold our students to high standards,” said Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321. “But the Common Core standards have come out quickly,” without enough time to work out the kinks, he said.
P.S. 321’s principal, Liz Phillips, bluntly brought the problem with the Common Core back to testing. “The value of the Common Core has become totally tainted because of the tests,” she said.
Teachers reported that despite their best efforts to avoid test prep, they felt it would be unfair to put students in a testing situation without familiarity with the format and types of questions they would need to answer. And, despite an effort to downplay the importance of the tests, students were fully aware of the stakes involved, they said.
“Children, contrary to popular belief, are observant,” said Sam Coleman, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park. “They pick this stuff up.”
Ronda Matthews, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 321, said watching her students struggle with the tests was painful.
“The high-stakes associated with testing has such unforgiving consequences for my students and myself,” she said. “I find it hard to stomach that such extreme decisions and labels are placed on students and teachers alike based on a few days of a high-pressure situation.”
Now, with student performance on state tests also factoring into teacher evaluations, the system may not only weed out ineffective teachers but also discourage highly effective teachers as well, said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly in Red Hook.
“I find myself subjecting these kids that I love to this thing that’s not good for them, doesn’t benefit them, doesn’t give me the information that I need — which is supposed to be the purpose of assessments,” she said. “It is the definition of insanity.”



I am so proud of these New York City principals for taking a strong stand against unfair and highly flawed high-stakes tests. Here’s their letter to John King:

Dear New York State Education Commissioner John King,

We New York City and Metropolitan Area Principals hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that all of our students make consistent and meaningful academic progress. Although we are skeptical of the ability of high stakes tests alone to accurately capture students’ growth, we understand a system’s need for efficiently establishing and measuring milestones of learning.

We have been encouraged by the new National Common Core Standards’ call for more rigorous work that promotes critical thinking, and many of us have been engaged in meaningful curriculum revisions as a result. We were hopeful that this year’s state exams would better represent the college preparatory-type performance tasks that Common Core exemplifies. Unfortunately, we feel that not only did this year’s New York State Exams take an extreme toll on our teachers, families and most importantly, our students, they also fell short of the aspirations of these Standards.

For these reasons, we would like to engage in a constructive dialogue with you and your team to help ensure that moving forward our New York State Exams are true and fair assessments of the Common Core Standards. As it stands, we are concerned about the limiting and unbalanced structure of the test, the timing, format and length of the daily test sessions, and the efficacy of Pearson in this work.

In both their technical and task design, these tests do not fully align with the Common Core. If one was to look closely at the Common Core Learning Standards (www.corestandards.org) and compare them to the tests, it is evident that the ELA tests focused mostly on analyzing specific lines, words and structures of information text and their significance rather than the wide array of standards.

As a result, many students spent much of their time reading, rereading and interpreting difficult and confusing questions about authors’ choices around structure and craft in informational texts, a Common Core skill that is valuable, but far from worthy of the time and effort given by the test. Spending so much time on these questions was at the expense of many of the other deep and rich common core skills and literacy shifts that the state and city emphasized. The Common Core emphasizes reading across different texts, both fiction and non-fiction, in order to determine and differentiate between central themes—an authentic college practice. Answering granular questions about unrelated topics is not. Because schools have not had a lot of time to unpack Common Core, we fear that too many educators will use these high stakes tests to guide their curricula, rather than the more meaningful Common Core Standards themselves. And because the tests are missing Common Core’s essential values, we fear that students will experience curriculum that misses the point as well.

Even if these tests were assessing students’ performance on tasks aligned with the Common Core Standards, the testing sessions—two weeks of three consecutive days of 90-minute (and longer for some) periods—were unnecessarily long, requiring more stamina for a 10-year-old special education student than of a high school student taking an SAT exam. Yet, for some sections of the exams, the time was insufficient for the length of the test. When groups of parents, teachers and principals recently shared students’ experiences in their schools, especially during the ELA exams with misjudged timing expectations, we learned that frustration, despondency, and even crying were common reactions among students. The extremes were unprecedented: vomiting, nosebleeds, suicidal ideation, and even hospitalization.

There were more multiple-choice questions than ever before, a significant number of which, we understand, were embedded field-test questions that do not factor into a child’s score but do take time to answer and thus prevent students from spending adequate time on the more authentic sections like the writing assessment. In English, the standards themselves and everything we as pedagogues know to be true about reading and writing say that multiple interpretations of a text are not only possible but necessary when reading deeply. However, for several multiple choice questions the distinction between the right answer and the next best right answer was paltry at best. The fact that teachers report disagreeing about which multiple-choice answer is correct in several places on the ELA exams indicates that this format is unfair to students. Further, the directions for at least one of the English Language Arts sessions were confusing and tended to misdirect students’ energies from the more authentic writing sections. The math tests contained 68 multiple-choice problems often repeatedly assessing the same skills. The language of these math questions was often unnecessarily confusing. These questions should not be assessing our students’ ability to decipher convoluted language. Instead, they should be assessing deep understanding of core concepts.

Finally, we are concerned about putting the fate of so many in the education community in the hands of Pearson – a company with a history of mistakes, most recently with the mis-scoring of the NYC test for the gifted and talented program. (Thirteen percent of those 4 to 7 year olds who sat for the exam were affected by the errors; Pearson has a 3-year DOE contract for this test alone, worth $5.5 million.) There are many other examples of Pearson’s questionable reliability in the area of test design: In Spring 2012 only 27% of 4th grade students passed a new Florida writing test. Parents complained, the test was reevaluated, and the passing score was changed so that the percentage of students who passed climbed to 81%. The Spring 2012 NYS ELA 8th grade test had to be reevaluated after complaints about meaningless reading passages about talking pineapples and misleading questions. (See Alan Singer, Huffington Post, 4/24/13; John Tierney, The Atlantic, 4/25/13.) Parents and taxpayers have anecdotal information, but are unable to debate the efficacy of these exams when they are held highly secured and not released for more general analysis. These exams determine student promotion. They determine which schools individual students can apply to for middle and high school. They are a basis on which the state and city will publicly and privately evaluate teachers. The exams determine whether a school might fall under closer scrutiny after a poor grade on the test-linked state and city progress reports or even risk being shut down. These realities give us an even greater sense of urgency to make sure the tests reflect our highest aspirations for student learning.
So, we respectfully request a conversation about the direction of New York’s Common Core State Exams. As the state is in its early phases of Common Core assessment, we have a wonderful opportunity to align our efforts towards learning that best prepares our children for their future lives. We believe we can do better – and we are committed to helping New York realize the full promises of Common Core.


Ellen Foote
Principal of Hudson River Middle School, I.S. 289

Mark Federman
Principal of East Side Community High School, H.S. 450

Stacy Goldstein
Principal of School of the Future, M413

David Getz
Principal of East Side Middle School, M114

Laura Mitchell
Principal of Young Womens’ Leadership School of Astoria, Q286

Rhonda Perry
Principal of The Salk School of Science, M.S. 255

Kelly McGuire
Principal of Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, M896

Jeanne Rotunda
Principal of West Side Collaborative Middle School, P.S. 250

Ramon Gonzalez
Principal of The Laboratory School of Science and Technology, M.S. 223

Paula Lettiere
Principal of Fort Greene Preparatory Academy, K691

Amy Andino
Principal of The Academy of Public Relations, X298

Maria Stile
Principal of Heathcote Elementary School, Scarsdale Public Schools

Rex Bobbish
Principal of The Cinema School, X478

Elaine Schwartz
Principal of Center School, M.S. 243

Elizabeth Phillips
Principal of William Penn Elementary, P.S. 321

Chrystina Russell
Principal of Global Technology Prep, M406

Giselle McGee
Principal of The Carroll, P.S. 58

Elizabeth Collins
Principal of University Neighborhood High School, H.S. 448

Jennifer Rehn
Principal of Wagner Middle School, M.S. 167

Anna Allanbrook
Principal of Brooklyn New School, P.S. 146

Henry Zymeck
Principal of The Computer School, M.S. 245

Julia Zuckerman
Principal I.A. of Castle Bridge School, P.S. 513

Alison Hazut
Principal of Earth School, P.S. 364

George Morgan
Principal of Technology, Arts and Sciences School, M301

Alicia Perez-Katz
Principal of Baruch College Campus High School, M411

Sandra Pensak
Principal in Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools

Peter Carp
Principal of Institute for Collaborative Education, M407

Sharon Fiden
Principal of Doris Cohen Elementary, P.S.230

Lisa Nelson
Principal of Isaac Newton JHS for Science and Math, M825

Alyce Barr
Principal of Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, K448

Christina Fuentes
Principal of Spuyten Duyvil School, P.S. 24

Naomi Smith
Principal of Central Park East II, M964

Rebecca Fagin,
Principal of John M Harrigan, P.S. 29

Bernadette Fitzgerald,
Principal of The School of Discovery, P.S. 503

Alex White,
Principal of Gotham Professional Arts Academy, K594

Maria Nunziata,
Principal of Hernando DeSoto School, P.S. 130

Lindley Uehling,
Principal of Central Park East I, M497

Christine Olson,
I.A. Principal of James Baldwin School, M313

Robyn S. Lane
Principal of Quaker Ridge School, Scarsdale

Robert Bender
Principal of The WIlliam T. Harris School

Lauren Fontana
Principal of The Lillie Devereaux Blake School

Erica Zigelman
Principal of MS 322

Sharon Fougner
Principal of Em Baker School, Great Neck Public Schools

Kelly Newman
Assistant Superintendent, Great Neck Public Schools

Ron Gimondo
Principal of John F. Kennedy School, Great Neck Public Schools

Lydia Bellino
Assistant Superintendent, Cold Spring Harbor Public Schools

Eric Nezowitz
Principal of Saddle Rock Elementary, Great Neck Public Schools

Arthur Brown
Principal of The Museum School, P.S. 33

Constance Bond PH.D.
Principal of St. Hope Leadership Academy


Night Scene 2 (Simon Dinnerstein)

Today was the first day back in school after Hurricane Sandy for New York City children. The devastation is difficult for adults to process. What, then, are the children thinking? How are they making sense of the way that their world has turned upside down?

This disaster followed, by only two days, an incredible trip to Reggio Emilia, Italy that I took along with 67 other educators. We visited schools, spoke with teachers and parents, attended lectures and spent hours in small groups attempting to process this exciting experience.

It will take me awhile to clarify my reflections on all that I observed. However some words and personal interpretations flash in my mind as though they are lit up in neon: “Belief in children”, “valuing the childish words of children”, “constructivist approach to teaching.” I wonder how the educators in Reggio would deal with this storm that we have just experienced? How did they help their children puzzle out the destruction done by the recent earthquakes in their region?

Yesterday, over lunch, Bill Fulbrecht, kindergarten teacher at P.S. 321 and I spoke about this with regard to the children in his class. I asked Bill if the experience in Reggio would influence how he would broach the topic with his students. “Absolutely,” he replied. He told me that he wanted to start totally with their thoughts. Perhaps it’s not the scientific background that will interest them or the force of the water. Our neighborhood lost many trees during the storm. Huge, old trees were uprooted. Bill thought that this might be what could upset his children the most. How do the trees feel? What is it like to be pulled out of the ground?

He was planning on inviting discussion by asking some broad, open-ended questions. He was going to then follow the lead of the children in pursuing the topic. I’m so curious to speak with him about where this line of inquiry led them.

Earlier today I received the following email from Lucas Rotman, a wonderful kindergarten teacher who’s school is in Battery Park City, an area that was terribly flooded during the storm: “During the hurricane, I was e-mailing back and forth with the families of my kids who live in Battery Park City, an area that was evacuated and knew that the families were dealing with a lot of stress in regards to the storm. I was also listening to NPR quite a bit and they had a number of child psychologists and educators on discussing ways in which parents could talk with their kids about events of this nature and also gave tips about how to use this the time they had together when power goes out (games, story writing, chapter book reading, etc.). I did not see many resources for teachers of young children however in terms of helping kids share their feelings (the sesame street episodes were decent though) and in terms of discussing the science behind hurricanes and storm surges in a way that doesn’t overwhelm and is developmentally appropriate.”

Perhaps the most important resources are the teacher’s ability to listen to the words of the children, observe carefully their drawings, constructions, dramatic play and schoolyard play, and provide opportunities for children to find creative and personal outlets for voicing their thoughts, interpretations, theories and questions.

This is an opportune time for all of us to use this space for sharing suggestions, strategies and questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

An Important Letter to the NYS Commissionner of Education

My former colleague, Liz Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321, Park Slope, Brooklyn, wrote this important letter to the commissionner of education in New York State. It’s a must read. Your thoughts will be shared with her if you like.