Teachers’ union leaders press call to ‘correct’ state tests

Immediate stop of computer testing sought
Schenectady Teachers Union President Juliet Benaquisto on the steps of the SED building.
Schenectady Teachers Union President Juliet Benaquisto on the steps of the SED building.

Teachers union leaders and lawmakers on Monday pressed for dramatic changes to state tests, including an immediate stop to computer testing and a further shortening of the math and English language arts tests.

While the Board of Regents met in Albany for its monthly meeting, teachers from Schenectady, Mohonasen, Schoharie and other Capital Region districts rallied on the steps of the state education building and urged lawmakers to “correct the tests” currently underway in schools across the state.

“They are actually hurting our children, hurting their self esteem,” Maria Pacheco, a Spanish teacher at Mohonasen High School, said of federally mandated tests given to students in third through eighth grades each year. “You feel helpless [as a teacher]. How do we help our students?”

Pacheco said it was important parents know they can still refuse to let their children participate in math tests slated for May.

“You don’t have to put your children through the math test,” she said. “Our children are not a number. They are children.”

Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of NYSUT, said state Education Department officials have “a lot of explaining to do” after last week’s computer-based tests, which last Tuesday were crippled by delays and submission problems caused by insufficient memory on the servers of Questar Assessment, the testing company contracted to administer computer and paper tests statewide.

The computer problems caused problems as students and teachers tried to log in to the testing portal or attempted to submit finished tests, resulting in yet more stress and anxiety over tests, many educators say.

After the technical glitches threw Tuesday’s computer testing in chaos, state officials halted computer-based testing on Wednesday while they ironed out problems. Computer testing resumed Thursday and appeared to finish out the week without major issues.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Monday repeated comments from last week that education officials would hold Questar accountable for the glitches. She also defended the state’s broader push to transition to across-the-board computer-based testing and noted districts are not required to employ computer testing and that all schools were given the option to switch to paper testing after last week’s problems.

“Anybody that took the computer-based assessment, they volunteered to do it, they came out as the beginning group that wanted to really move forward,” Elia said. “We are in the 21st century … I think we have to be able to move forward and have our students exposed to the use of technology for a purpose.”

When asked about third-grade students struggling over tests for three hours or more – on paper or on computers – Elia said teachers are the ones who develop the state tests.

“The test questions that are in front of a third-grader were determined by third-grade teachers from New York state,” Elia said.

But the teachers also used the renewed focused on testing last week to highlight what they see as a litany of other issues with the state tests: the tests are too long; measures of proficiency are too high; scores unfairly label students and schools as failing.

“Students were basically sitting in front of a computer screen the entire day,” Schenectady teachers’ union president Juliet Benaquisto said at the rally outside the education building Monday. “We are stressing our students with high stakes testing and in the end it provides very little data for our teachers to learn from.”

Natalie McKay, a third-grade teacher and president of the Schoharie Teachers Association, said some of her students cried over the tests last week while others fell asleep during an exam that took her students over three hours to take – comparable to how long students sit for the SAT, McKay noted.

“We are asking our youngest learners to sit for as long as a college entrance,” she said.

Lawmakers on Monday also did more to enter the fray over the testing problems, ramping up political pressure over the tests that have long stirred furor among parents, teachers and lawmakers.

Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, ranking member of the Assembly Committee on Education, called for legislative hearings into last week’s computer testing issues. In a Friday letter to the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Walsh said she wanted a chance to question officials from both Questar and the state Education Department.

“It is alarming and unacceptable that Questar’s software has proven itself to be faulty for a second consecutive year,” Walsh said in a Monday media release. “Our students and educators have spent countless hours preparing for these state exams, and they should not be burdened with any additional stress from unforeseeable system malfunctions.”

Democratic lawmakers, Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Phil Steck, D-Colonie, on Monday joined teachers outside the education building, voicing concerns with how Elia has handled the state’s testing regime.

Santabarbara said state officials need to do more to assure lawmakers, educators and families that the computer systems have been thoroughly tested and proven reliable before students are asked to log in for tests.

“It seems like it’s being tested on our kids,” he said of the computer-based testing system.

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