Letter to the NJSBOE 2/5/14

Dear Members of the New Jersey State Board of Education,

 

As a special education teacher, I have always had concerns with the amount of testing that our students have been subjected to. Within the past few years, this is growing increasingly worse. The rush that New Jersey has created to implement the Common Core State Standards, the PARCC assessment, and the new evaluation procedures, TEACHNJ, is an example for other states to examine about what can go wrong when such enormous mandates are not fully vetted and carefully planned before implementation.

 

To begin with, the Common Core was not a set of standards that we needed. New Jersey has been ranked high in the list of states with top educational programs and results. When I first learned about the pending release of a set of national standards, I considered this to possibly be a good idea. There are a lot of areas in the country that could benefit from a set of nationwide standards, to help improve their educational systems. I also assumed that the standards that were released would be a product of educational excellence that was fully researched according to what has been researched and proven about teaching and learning. I believed that it would align with human brain development and pedagogy.

 

Instead what we got was a set of standards that were developed by a committee that, at first, did not have a single educator on board. They were developed by a committee that was led by a man that has ties to several entities that wish to destroy our public educational system. Eventually, two teachers were added to the committee to give their input about the standards. Not only were their recommendations rejected, but these two have publicly denounced this set of standards as being inappropriate with regards to several learning theories.

 

Personally, the implementation of the standards in my classroom has come about with such a rush that I find that my students are ill-prepared with the background knowledge that is required to teach them the current set of standards. Enough time was not given to allow the student progression towards these standards to occur in such a way that the students would have a chance at understanding some of the material that they are required to learn. Time must be spent teaching these students the concepts that they need to understand in order to progress towards the level they are expected to be at. In the classroom , frustration levels are mounting in a rate that is proportional to the rate that these mandates have been thrust upon our schools.

 

To pile on top of the Common Core State Standards, we also have the new PARCC test. The PARCC is created as an online assessment tool from the same people that had a monopoly on our previous assessment tool, the NJ ASK. One of the first things I was told about the decision to move away from the ASK assessment was to create a separation of the assessment from a company that also mass produces textbooks and curriculum materials. There were concerns being raised about this connection giving an unfair advantage to districts that chose to purchase Pearson material. An additional edge will be given to the districts that can afford to immediately purchase these materials, leaving under-funded districts to fall further behind.

 

There are various issues that can be raised about the use of on-line assessments. The obvious being the cost of such a venture, to purchase the updated technology that will be needed. But there are hidden costs as well. Other things need to be considered, such as the cost of training for the test proctors and the future upkeep and maintenance of this technology. But what about the costs that are not measured by money. To fully implement these tests there are additional supports that need to be put in place. Test proctors need to be trained in how to use the different tools that accompany the tests. Students need to be given time to become familiar with the use of these tools; time that will be taken away from general classroom instruction. Meetings need to be held for any student eligible for testing accommodations need to be held with teachers, parents, and case managers to develop a personal testing plan. School-wide procedures need to be planned, written, and established to facilitate these new tests.

 

In my school district, the MAP testing program was implemented a few years ago. This was done, in part, to get the students acclimated to taking online assessments. As a math teacher, this has turned into a day of horror for me. Students need paper in front of them with the printed text that they can circle and underline important information that they need in order to answer questions and solve problems. They do not have the patience to write everything down on scrap paper. Visual manipulations are need of some drawing that can not be done with a computer, such as turning the paper to help identify geometrical rotations. The students have no concept of how to identify key information from the computer screen and write it down on paper to be able to solve the problem, nor as a participant in a timed assessment, will all of them have the luxury of doing so. An increase in the number of errors can already be predicted as mistakes will be made from the transfer of information from the computer screen to scratch paper.

 

The stress that these students are facing will only increase as these assessments are fully implemented. Added to the pressure that our educational system is putting on the students in the form of new curriculum and new assessments, is the new teacher evaluation system. The implementation of this mandate should not have a direct impact on our students education, except to theoretically improve it. But that is not the case. As the possibility of a teacher’s future career is directly related to how well a student performs, school has become a pressure cooker as the teachers feel that they need to push harder for the students to learn the necessary state mandated curriculum that they will be tested on. Student growth objectives must be ties to these new standard, and mounds of paperwork needs to be compiled to track the progress towards these objectives. Time has been spent in and out of these classrooms to plan for and create this necessary paper trail.

 

In order to track such growth, a creation of a base line data analysis of what levels of understanding the students have when they enter the classroom. To do this, an assessment that includes material that is to be taught that year is given. In the beginning of the school year this is already setting the students up to feel like they are failures. It does not matter that the students are told that they are not expected to understand most of the material on the assessment. It does not matter if you tell then that the grade will not count towards their report card grades. All they understand is that you are asking them to answer questions when they do not have all of the tools and background knowledge to be able to do so. Throughout the year, the students are asked to take additional tests or complete additional tasks that will continue to measure this growth.

 

Overall, these mandates are creating an atmosphere of stress within our school districts that will eventually cause our system to implode. As emphasis is placed upon the understanding of these inappropriate standards, the completion of these online assessments that directly relate to these standards as well as impact the career of a teacher the true purpose of education will be lost. Schools were created to meet the needs of the students and of the communities. Within all of these mandates we do not see one piece of evidence that this is a consideration. Instead, we see our educational system being turned into a data study that does not take into account the one true client of education, our children.

 

I have to ask you, when will we direct our educational system and consolidate our efforts to benefit those that need it the most, our children?

 

Sincerely,

 

Melissa Tomlinson

Special Ed Math Teacher, Buena Regional School District

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