Guest Column: State education should focus less on blame game

02/05/2019 6:00 AM |

Did you go to elementary school in the 1970s or ’80s? Was it the 1950s or ’60s? If so, you probably took statewide standardized tests along with 100 percent of your classmates — tests that were designed to give our teachers valuable information on how to help us improve as students.

Contrast that with how tests are used today, when as many as 83 percent of students in Greenport School District did not take the tests that are now used to rank and sort students, teachers and schools. No valid conclusion can or should be drawn from such a small sample size; a mere 17 percent of students actually took the tests. Yet that is exactly what happened when Greenport School District was labeled as needing academic improvement.

These tests fail to account for many factors, even beyond the small sample of test-takers. Take, for example, the fact that 60 percent of Greenport’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs. As a result, our district decided to fund a pre-kindergarten program in 2014 to level the playing field for those children who need early support at school. None of the recent “New Accountability Designations” released by the New York State Education Department take into account the incredible support provided by this relatively new program. This program is locally funded with no state government support.

Why are tests being used differently now?

The reason stems in part from the 1983 report titled “A Nation at Risk.” This report set the stage for one of the more recent education reform movements in our nation’s history. There have been many such movements, dating back to the early 1900s. Yet while early education reform primarily focused on experiential learning, the current reform is based primarily on standardized tests.

With ultra-sophisticated tools at hand, these tests are used to record, decipher and spin data in a myriad of ways. The algorithms that have brought us Amazon Prime, Yelp reviews and automation at speeds unparalleled in human history are now being used to predict and project the success or failure of our public schools and the students who attend them.

Does this seem right to you?

I began my career as an elementary school teacher in the early 1980s and I’ve dedicated my career to education. I have seen an overwhelming amount of research that shows standardized testing, which takes place early and often in a child’s education, does little to predict his or her future success — and even less to help address more immediate academic and other concerns. Lost in these analyses are the real stories of what builds capable, thoughtful and decent citizens. Allow me to tell you about a few of those stories from our school — the same one that has recently been labeled with a target on its back. 

In a six-month project that was completed in January 2019, technology teacher Mike Davies worked with students in both middle school and high school to build a sophisticated hydroponic growing system that provides fresh produce for our students in the cafeteria in the middle of the winter. It gives kids an experiential learning opportunity that also helps provide fresh, healthy produce for the entire school. 

I’m also thinking of the 50-plus Greenport students who participate in our award-winning ROTC program, which provides hundreds — if not thousands — of hours of community service every year.

Then, there’s one high school student in our school who was inspired to study the reason why the honeybee population is in decline. He won prestigious scientific awards along this self-directed, staff-supported learning journey.

I could go on about the authentic learning — in theater programs, classroom projects and student newspaper and TV broadcasting programs — that we provide, along with the required reading and writing lessons taught by our dedicated teaching and support staff. These are just a few examples of the active engagement of students and staff that no standardized test or algorithmic target label could ever record.

Lawmakers and education policymakers can help.

If there is any academic achievement gap in our schools that needs to be closed, I believe the first way to do this is to support struggling readers and writers with robust early intervention programs. Millions of dollars now spent on annual testing should be redirected to programs such as the nationally renowned and well-researched Parent-Child Home Program. This brings books and training directly into the homes of our most at-risk students.

Funding our pre-K program — and other schools with programs like ours — would also be a tremendous help. And I’d like to see more support to maintain other important academic programs, especially in an effort to stay under the state tax cap.

It’s my sincere hope that New York State starts to focus their efforts on less shaming and blaming, and steps up with more funding of programs that will actually make a difference in the lives of our children.

Mr. Gamberg is the superintendent of both the Southold and Greenport school districts.

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