Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lauren Cohen: Today's Testimony to New NY Education Reform Commission

One of the mission statements of this Commission is to examine what is in the best interest of children - not what is in the best interest of testing companies, policy makers, children/schools as a business model; but students as human beings
---- Lauren Cohen, NYC Teacher

The Truth About High Stakes Testing from Change the Stakes/GEM. New version just out. Download from the CTS site. We are making some black and white copies here in Detroit.

What can I say about Lauren Cohen without gushing? I never met her until the April Change the Stakes/GEM/Class Size Matters event GEM/Change the Stakes event held with Carol Burris, Gary Rubinstein, Leonie Haimson, Khalilah Brann and Arthur Goldstein (See links to videos below).

A 7-year teacher who just got her just rewards with after leaving a school with a principal from hell with a position at one of the best schools in NYC, Lauren has impressed everyone she meets with her talents, dedication to children and her smarts. When Lauren was applying for jobs she made sure to include her activism on her resume. "I don't want to work for a principal who considers my activism a negative." Some smart principal grabbed her up. Whenever I think of dropping all this activism and being a couch potato, I think of the pleasure of working with people like Lauren and so many others.

By the way. Did you see who Gotham profiled for testifying today: Anna Hall.

StudentsFirstNY adds an "educator" in time for Cuomo task force (my quotes).

Some educator. Teaches a few years, becomes Asst Princ then princ and after 9 years goes to Students Last. Today people like Carol Burris and Lauren will be testifying -- real educators, not phony ones like Anna Hall. Where are their profiles?

Lauren Cohen
Elementary Educator and member of Change the Stakes

I am submitting this testimony on behalf of the Change the Stakes campaign. We are parents, teachers - both current and retired, administrators, college professors, students, and other citizens who share a concern about the effects of high-stakes testing. We may not share the same relationship to the education system, but we are united in our disquiet about how children are affected, and will continue to be affected, by this testing obsession. One of the mission statements of this Commission is to examine what is in the best interest of children - not what is in the best interest of testing companies, policy makers, children/schools as a business model; but students as human beings --young and open, curious, spirited and eager human beings whose natural inclination leans toward learning, which is not measured by test scores, but enhanced through interactive, meaningful, explorative and rich curriculum.

At a time when schools across the state are underfunded and cutting resources, we see exorbitant amounts of money being spent on testing. I refer not only to the $32 million contract offered to Pearson, but to decisions made at the school or district level. When test scores are used to grade and rank schools, schools must pour an unacceptably high amount of their limited financial resources into improving those scores. A parent in our group reported that his child received two brand new test-prep books from the school, along with a note from his teacher begging parents to donate glue sticks and hand soap. Many similar schools can't afford to keep their art teacher or librarian. Often, instead their priority has been to deploy teachers as "assessment coordinators" and "data specialists." If we want to improve student learning, we should focus our schools’ human resources on working with children directly.

I taught 3rd grade for four years, and an informal experiment on last year’s class illustrates the importance of treating learners as human beings rather than as data points. I gave Book 1 of the 2009 3rd grade NY State English Language Arts test, available on the NYSED website, to my class at different points throughout the year - September, December, March, and June. If I were an effective teacher, all students' scores would go up, and I’m proud to say that most of them did. Some students did well the first time I gave the test at the end of September, leaving them with little room to show “progress.” A few students did poorly every single time I gave the test, even though they had moved up reading levels and made visible strides in their written work (Those were the students who tended to misunderstand the question being asked - a few kids with diagnosed speech/language delays fell into that category). But here is the most interesting part: no student was consistent in multiple-choice questions they answered correctly or incorrectly. This inconsistency has grave ramifications for educators who use test data to determine instruction. Question #5 measures whether a student can infer character emotions from text. Johnny gets that question wrong in September, correct in December, then wrong again in March. Do we believe that Johnny learned the skill of inferring character emotions from text, and then lost it? Of course not. The test is a snapshot of each child for one hour on one particular day.

We worry about how high-stakes testing damages children's self-esteem and their attitudes about school and learning. The way the testing program has been conducted and the stakes have been intensified has had consequences for students: test anxiety; children becoming ill over the exams; the way they are being labeled/sorted/tracked from an early age; the reinforcement of convergent thinking; and the real danger that the emphasis on doing well on the tests will stifle children’s joy of learning and spontaneity. During this year’s testing sessions, one of my third graders spent twenty minutes crying hysterically because he had spilled some water on his test. He was genuinely terrified that he would be left back because he had “ruined” his test.

We are concerned about how basing teacher evaluations on test scores deforms the student-teacher relationship. Some of the most valuable and effective educators are those who work compassionately to build bonds with the most hard-to-reach students. These educators have the ability to see the positive in students and to recognize the progress they make as learners and citizens. What will happen to these students when a teacher’s job depends on maintaining high test scores? Will they become “unwanted” by teachers who fear poor ratings? How will we recruit new teachers as stories propagate about the arbitrary nature of value-added measures - the “worst” math teacher in New York City being a teacher of gifted children at the Anderson School, the teacher who received a rating of 96 one year and 7 the following year without changing her methods, the 5th grade teachers in affluent neighborhoods where parents pay for tutors to inflate children’s 4th-grade test scores for middle school applications. What message does it send to children when their own teachers feel powerless?

Donald Campbell, a founder of the field of program evaluation, found that attaching high stakes to evaluation led to the distortion of the processes being evaluated. High-stakes testing creates an incentive for schools to narrow the curriculum to focus more on test preparation. Untested subjects are pushed to the side, or even canceled, so that students can have more periods of reading, math, and drilling for the exams. It alarms us that the solution proposed by PARCC involves testing more subjects, including early childhood and the arts.

Preparation for standardized tests often bears little resemblance to the subjects that the tests supposed to measure. Reading and math are no longer about applying those subjects in authentic contexts, but about "test-taking skills." Experienced teachers consider the test a genre in itself: to succeed, students need explicit instruction in navigating the items: looking for cues that may give away the correct answer; recognizing trick questions, along with the kind of “right” response the item writers expect; working backwards from the possible answers on multiple-choice items to the reading passages on which the options are based.

On the open-ended questions that require students to produce a short or extended written response to solve a math problem or respond to a text, the highest-scoring written responses are usually not the ones that show thinking, insight, or creativity; the highest-scoring responses are the ones that follow the prescribed structure and regurgitate the relevant text details. Students are molded to earn more points by answering narrowly in a prescribed mechanistic way. Children must be taught to check their prior knowledge, imagination, and flexibility at the door; and they must be repeatedly reminded that the test-scorers don't want to hear their thoughts and ideas. The tests measure a very limited type of academic success, one that we agree is important; but it is damaging to insist that this one type of success is the one that matters most—simply because it is the easiest to measure. While some people see the testing and accountability movement as “improving our educational system,” we argue that it is actually deteriorating the system. Children are receiving the message that test scores matter more than learning, and in the process they are discouraged from creative thinking, risk-taking, and collaborating with peers. Children who believe that every question has a “correct” answer will not be prepared to grapple with the nuance and complexity of the real world.
The April CTS forum was Julie Cavanagh's last event before hunkering down for the baby. As usual her amazing organizing talents were on view (as was her belly). I can't say enough about how much she has been missed, in addition to her always wise advice. Really, there are not many people who can control my lunacy. She is one of the few that I would follow anywhere (other than changing diapers.)

See all videos from the forum
Leonie Haimson:
Carol Burris:
Khalilah Brann:
Gary Rubinstein:
Arthur Goldstein:
Q and A:


  1. Gotham Schools - all the education reform-friendly news that's fit to post.

  2. Your kind words help keep me going, Norm. The Education Commission did not choose to hear my testimony, nor Carol's. They did however hear from $tudentsFirst's Anna Hall and not one but TWO representatives of E4E (with nearly-identical testimony - tenure protects ineffective teachers, the teaching profession suffers because teachers remain in the classroom for 20+ years, the state needs to impose an evaluation system on any districts that have not approved one)

    The most baffling part is why this nonsense continues to surprise me.

    1. ...and that was after security stopped us because "no more people [were] being allowed upstairs" (even though somebody already inside had just texted that there were plenty of seats). Then a uniformed guard and a beefy guy in a suit came down and announced that people "on the list" could go up. I handed him my ID, and he took a cursory glance at the list and informed me I wasn't on it. "Yes I am! I can see my name on it! It's right there!" I pointed to my name and he flipped the script to, "oh, only people on THIS part of the list can go up..." Then Suit Guy raised his voice and ordered me to leave the building and get on the line that was still outside. After a couple of minutes of Uniform Guy barking at us to make our line single-file, they announced that they would let us inside 5-at-a-time.

      One of the more demoralizing mornings in recent memory. (Up there with Day 3 of the 3rd grade ELA test.)


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