“I Have a Headache”

I checked on the status on my niece, now a 5th grader, to see how she is doing in school.  She complained of continuous headaches at night that prevented her from doing homework, playing video games, practicing her ballet, and watching television.  My niece is a very active kid who is full of energy.  Being lethargic and unengaged is a new development for her.  After brainstorming and troubleshooting with my sister, we concluded that my niece is experiencing test anxiety.  These headaches occurred at the same time her school was selected to administer field tests this October.  Just after she had to take pre-tests in early October (as part of the new teacher evaluation system ratified by the Governor and State Legislature) this soon to be 10-year-old, is subject to field testing in mid-October.  The upside to this situation is that she did not have any testing in art, music, and physical education because these programs have been cut in the school.  Were it not for the PTA paying for a part-time physical education teacher, there would be no physical education in this New York City school.

When I ask my niece what she learns in school, she has difficulty articulating anything besides packets of literary passages and math problems she receives as part of drilling information.  Learning has been reduced to repetition and low-level skills.  It bothers me, as an educator, to hear my niece say that school is “boring.”  However, reading through her packets of disjointed and unconnected passages, who can blame her?  It is boring!

Once student achievement is quantitatively measured by performance on pre-packaged exams, student learning is reduced to the expectations of these exams.  Students become adept at answering multiple-choice questions and formulaically responding to writing prompts.  The skills required of thinking critically and creatively are no longer part of the educational sphere.  This narrowing of the curriculum will continue in the future as the New York State Education Department (NYSED) is planning to increase the number of exams students take and make these assessments computer-based (gone will be the days of paper and pen exams).

Why is the NYSED moving in this direction?  These reforms are being conducted to comply with new Race to the Top (RTTT) requirements, which require teacher accountability as measured through exams that convert into a number.  A recent report (click here) by the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents show while 18 school districts in our region received $520,000 from RTTT funds, these districts spent a total of $6.5 million to begin implementing these reforms.  Once again, taxpayers are paying for an unfunded mandate.

In the meantime, students, like my niece, are casualties of these technocratic measures.  Principals in New York State are reporting increased test anxiety among students, loss of subjects that allow students to think creatively, elimination and electives and extra-curricular activities, and narrowing of the curriculum.

It’s a Crap Shoot

It’s a Crap Shoot

In order to secure federal funds from the Race to the Top Program, New York State had to commit to using an APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) system that included test scores. In September, principals and teachers received scores based on this new APPR system.  Teachers and principals were rated as “Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective” (HEDI) based on student test scores on the English and Math Assessments that were administered in April 2012 to students in grades 4 through 8.

In September, I conducted a survey of Principals in New York State to determine whether the scores teachers received from the State Education Department were congruent to the principal’s ratings of these teachers.  Additionally, I surveyed principals to ascertain whether the APPR as currently employed is a valid system of measuring teacher achievement.  Out of the almost 4,000 principals in New York State, 511 responded to this survey.  Principals reported the following anecdotes:

  • “An 8th Grade math teacher, who has over the past several years in a row, had the top results regionally, is given a score of 0 [ineffective] because he happens to follow our 7th grade math teacher, who has top scores over the past several years, regionally.  Students at level 4 [highly effective]…are not going to grow as much as students who have lower scores…The state fails to take into account this factor, and, therefore, is categorizing the best 8th grade math teacher in the region as ineffective.  RIDICULOUS.”
  • “The majority of [ineffective] teachers are teachers of self-contained [classes] of students with disabilities.”
  •  “One of our most engaging teachers rated very poorly.  This absolutely contradicts our data which includes almost a decade of student reports.  Last year, this one particular teacher was nominated (by a former student) as the most impactful in that student’s life.”
  • “I have teachers who volunteer to take the students that have IEPs and those that fall behind in reading…Now with the APPR system, I doubt that anyone will volunteer to have these students in their class.  This is a travesty because these teachers are excellent and are very kind, compassionate and caring.”
  • “A consultant special education teacher who is on an improvement plan received highly effective ratings because she got credit for the classroom teachers who have those students and are very strong.”
  •  “If the intention was to disable the educational system in NYS you have found the perfect tool with the new APPR.”

Survey data shows that:

  • Seventy-three percent (73%) of principals indicated that a rating of “Ineffective” was either not a very accurate or an inaccurate reflection of a teacher’s ability based on previous performance.
  • Almost half of principals surveyed indicated that a rating of “Highly Effective” was not a very accurate or an inaccurate reflection of a teacher’s ability based on previous performance.
  • Fifty-two percent (52%) of the principals responded that the scores teachers received in their school were not a very accurate or an inaccurate reflection of teachers’ ability based on observations and student performance.
  • Eight-one percent (81%) of the principals responded that the new APPR is either a tool of limited value for teacher evaluation or an ineffective tool for teacher evaluation.
  • Eighty percent (80%) of all principals described their reaction to the APPR as “reluctant with doubts” or “opposed with serious concerns.”


  • Teachers of students with disabilities receive more “ineffective” ratings than other teachers.
  • The scores negatively impact 8th grade teachers who teach Integrated Algebra (a 9th grade course) to 8th graders since these teachers are assessed using student scores from the Math 8 State Assessment and not student scores from the Algebra Regents Exams.
  • The scores are incongruous with principals’ evaluation of teachers.
  • Time and effort is diverted from promoting sound educational practices to ensuring that test are administered according to regulations.
  • The new APPR process is not an accurate measurement of teacher performance.
  • Public funds are being diverted from public schools to private companies.

Some principals commented that there is no rhyme or  reason to the assignment of scores and ratings.  The following descriptors were used by principals in regards to the new APPR: a “mess,” “disaster,” “crime,” “ridiculous,” “luck of the draw,” and “crap shoot.”  Principals reported that they will re-assign good teachers, often teaching the most challenging students, to other classes to prevent them from receiving “ineffective” and “developing” ratings.  Carol Burris, award winning principal in Rockville Center, wrote about how the new APPR negatively impacts students.  You can read her article here:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/new-teacher-evaluations-start-to-hurt-students/2012/09/29/f6d1b038-0aa6-11e2-afff-d6c7f20a83bf_blog.html#pagebreak.

Donald Sternberg, principal of Wantagh Elementary School, sent the following letter to his parents about the effects of excessive testing: http://www.schoolleadership20.com/m/blogpost?id=1990010%3ABlogPost%3A120983.