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Another Voice: Cuomo’s focus on standardized tests undermines the cause of education

By Joel Weiss

The recent Buffalo News editorial “Manufactured crisis” misses the target. The issue isn’t the revamping of teacher evaluations; rather, it’s looking at what teachers are doing in the classrooms preparing their students to live productively in the 21st century.

That includes not only the typical elementary, middle and high school subjects, but also areas that are immeasurable by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s vision – the love of learning, an appreciation for the arts and the responsibility that we have to develop every child into becoming a caring, contributing member of our society.

Evaluating test scores alone doesn’t help. Instead, the fear and concern teachers and administrators have that they will be negatively judged takes away from their creativity and needed relationship with their students.

Before retirement, I was a principal in two very different districts – Buffalo and Clarence. If I were judged solely on the basis of my students’ test scores in Buffalo, I likely would have been fired. But wait, there’s more: As a principal, my school’s attendance rate rose dramatically and suspension rates dropped to near zero. Do these “scores” count? Isn’t it important for students to feel and to be safe, especially in a district where student attendance and violence is such an issue?

When I was a principal in Clarence, my school’s test scores were close to the top. Ah, I finally must have become a good principal; after all, the standardized test scores were great, and isn’t that Cuomo’s measuring stick?

The fact is, I probably was a better principal in Buffalo than I was in Clarence. It’s a shame that test scores on standardized tests that are used and supported by our governor are the major criteria for evaluation.

It seems clear to me that quality instruction is being compromised by pressure in the form of accountability and tougher standards. It’s even a bigger shame that Cuomo is dangling educational funding in front of school boards, requiring them to comply and take away opportunities for real learning in classrooms in the state.

More than once I’ve told colleagues that if I were to rank the 50 top factors in evaluating teachers and schools, test scores would probably be number 49 on the list. Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, writing in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” says it best: “Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education.”

Joel Weiss is a former principal and a past president of the Western New York Middle School Principals Association, and is a part-time consultant for New York State Department of Education.