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Teachers union calls state tests flawed

The union representing New York State public school teachers is calling for more changes in the ELA and math exams that third- through eighth-graders are taking this week and next month.

New York State United Teachers is launching a campaign to "Correct the tests," and is demanding the state Education Department take significant steps to address the "stress and anxiety" created by what the union says are "flawed" exams.

Union tweets last week supporting parents opting their children out of the tests sported a "Game of Thrones" logo, and the union with more than 600,000 members wants to draw attention to what it sees as the drawbacks of the test.

"They can be better. They can be developmentally appropriate," said Jolene T. DiBrango, executive director of NYSUT.

The issues, according to the union, include:

• Inaccurate benchmarks that incorrectly label children as under performing.

• Untimed nature of the test that causes stress for some children.

• Developmentally inappropriate questions.

• Technical and other problems with computer-based tests.

• Not enough teachers involved in creating the exams.

The state Education Department disagrees with the union's position.

“Over the past four years, Commissioner Elia and the Board of Regents have listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and made significant changes to the exams as a result," said Emily DeSantis, spokeswoman for the department.

Those changes include shortening the tests, having more teachers involved in creating the tests and giving students unlimited time to finish them. Meanwhile, the state Education Department tweeted a link to a fact sheet on what every parent should know about participation in the assessments.

The state reduced the number of test sessions last year to "lessen testing fatigue for students," according to the Education Department. The tests will continue to be untimed, a change that was instituted in 2016. Students can continue on with the test as long as they are "productively working," according to the state.

DiBrango said there are disparities between the percentage of students deemed proficient in elementary school and their performance on high school Regents exams. For example, in 2017, 22 percent of eighth-graders in New York State were deemed proficient in math. A year later, when many of them took the Algebra 1 Regents exam, 70 percent were considered proficient.

"Something's broken," DiBrango said. "Our ninth-grade teachers are fantastic, but they are not magicians."

State Education Department officials said teachers experienced in the grade level content area have recommended the expectations for each grade. The state said educators who participated in reviewing the tests made substantial contributions to the test design.

While the state reduced the number of testing days from three to two for the ELA and math exams and took away time limits, the tests are still too long, and some students worked all day on them, she said.

"Kids get stressed, they're anxious, they panic and they freeze," she said.

NYSUT also has called for research to be done into computer-based tests, questioning if the test assesses learning or computer use and keyboard skills.

"We know that students who do not have access to computers at home, do poorly on the test compared to students who do have have access," DiBrango said. "We want to make sure these tests are assessing learning that is taught in the classroom."

State Education Department officials said feedback on the computer-based testing has been positive. Computer-based tests have the potential to provide easier access to written responses and will speed up the release of the final results, they said.

DiBrango also said more teachers, as well as special education teachers and grade level reading teachers should be involved in designing and producing the tests. The union also wants to be involved in picking those teachers.

NYSUT is launching a website to provide parents and educators with information about the tests and to provide an outlet for parents and teachers to submit stories about testing issues in their schools.

DiBrango said the union's campaign has nothing to do with the past use of the tests in teacher evaluations.

"We have solutions to this. We could be developing tests here that are appropriate," she said.

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