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State Ed should pay attention to concerns about tests

It will always be necessary for schools to evaluate the way they evaluate their students, and it is easy to understand why some students and parents are stressed about the new state assessment tests, but there is a bottom line here, and it is this: Testing is necessary.

Without testing, schools cannot evaluate how well they are teaching their students. If they can’t evaluate their performances, they can never improve and if they can’t improve, education in this country will fall behind that of other nations more committed to educating their children.

Still, it is important for the state’s education administrators to pay attention when increasing numbers of families are “opting out” of tests, potentially imperiling a district’s standing with the state and risking similar action by other parents who only reluctantly allowed their children to take this year’s tests.

For example, Hamburg school officials reported that 132 students stayed home during recent student testing, and that two of those students were children of a member of the School Board.

It’s a knotty issue, bound up with teacher evaluations, children’s stress, parents’ fears and the best way to educate the state’s youth in a world that is only becoming more competitive.

Part of this may be a problem of communication. It is a difficult task for a government bureaucracy to inform and persuade millions of parents about the need for testing, especially when that testing causes stress levels to spike. But difficult isn’t the same as impossible, and we aren’t sure the State Education Department has made any diligent effort to rally parents to the cause.

But also, the parents do have some valid arguments. The tests have become so important that schools are spending valuable time teaching students how to take tests, at the expense of time spent educating them on the subjects covered in the tests.

Lisa Beckwith pulled her son from state tests in the Frontier School District. “One of my biggest issues with this is the amount of time spent on preparing for the test,” she told a reporter for The Buffalo News. “That equals a loss of real education for our students because preparing them for a test is not educating them for the real world.”

There is no doubt testing can have other unintended consequences. Earlier this month, the former superintendent of schools in Atlanta, Ga., was among 35 educators indicted in a cheating scandal in which student test scores were allegedly inflated. Similar scandals have been reported elsewhere, including Washington, D.C.

The problems may call for some kind of official acknowledgement and adjustment, but that doesn’t mean we should end testing, which has the goal of ensuring that teachers are teaching and students are learning. Albany is spending $20 billion on education this fiscal year, a huge amount of money that doesn’t include money provided by Washington and local taxpayers. It is crazy not to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs that money supports.

At a minimum, Albany needs to make a better effort at explaining these tests to parents and students. Education officials should also be willing to listen to parents and to propose changes where they make sense.