Reform of high-stakes testing for schoolchildren, a groundswell movement of lawn signs and small-scale protests, became an earthquake Wednesday evening.
The Summit for Smarter Schools, organized by a group called the Partnership for Smarter Schools and hosted by State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo; Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo; and State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, filled Kleinhans Music Hall with more than 2,500 parents, teachers and school administrators.
Cheers erupted as Kennedy and Ryan called out the names of districts represented in the audience. It sounded like a school closing list in the middle of a blizzard, encompassing schools from Barker to Allegany-Limestone, with a couple from the Rochester area thrown in for good measure.
“We’ve had a lot of quote-unquote educational reform in the past decades aimed at poor schools in the cities,” Ryan said before the session started, “but now all schools are feeling the pain, regardless of their previous performance. This is why you see a lot of suburban parents here tonight. They’re all being treated poorly. They’re mad about these tests.”
The stage, decorated with a banner that read, “Get Testing Right,” looked like a Western New York State Legislature roll call. In addition to the hosts, there were Assembly Members Ray Walter, R-East Amherst; John Ceretto, R-Lewiston; Michael Kearns, D-Buffalo; and Jane Corwin, R-Clarence. State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, was in the front row of the audience.
After the introduction by Kennedy, Ryan and Amherst principal Mike Cornell, a succession of speakers laid out the case against standardized testing in a series of 12-minute speeches that were followed by standing ovations.
West Seneca School Superintendent Mark Crawford charged that the tests fail to provide a diagnosis of student strengths and weaknesses.
“They only create a lot of anxiety for students and parents and teachers,” he said. “Why do we want to bunch children into groups of 1, 2, 3 or 4?”
Tonawanda Principal John McKenna argued that testing doesn’t take into account differences among students and communities, a point illustrated by Naomi Cerre, principal of Buffalo’s Lafayette High School, who talked about the difficulties of getting resources to work with and test students from 30 nations who speak 45 different languages.
Jaekyung Lee, dean of the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, gave a PowerPoint outline that showed how high-stakes testing does little to improve student performances and how high-achieving nations like Japan and Korea are de-emphasizing testing and encouraging creative thinking.
Mark Garrison, director of doctoral programs at D’Youville College, contended that standardized testing not only didn’t accomplish its goals of measuring student and teacher achievement, but also represented a shift in political power away from localities to state and federal officials.
“Maybe it’s always been a political problem,” he said. “It’s a question of who decides. Who sets the standards for our schools. I think it’s time that we rise to the challenge.”
Preethi Govindaraj, a parent and co-founder of Minerva Professional Development, after noting skill in high-stakes tests does students no good in college, drew loud cheers for proposing that teacher evaluations no longer be tied to test scores.
The most compelling talks, however, were given by a pair of mothers.
Laura, mother of a 12-year-old with attention deficit problems at Starpoint who did not give her last name, told a harrowing and tearful story about how her son became so anxious and upset over the tests that he required medication and psychological help. “I’ve watched it affect his self-esteem bit by bit,” she said. “He calls himself stupid and a loser.”
Molly Dana, of West Seneca, whose sons, Gus, 9, and Oliver, 6, led the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the program, brought them out to read an imaginative illustrated story, “Not a Box,” then professed, “My biggest fear is that the joy of learning is being taken away from our children ... and all the things of value not mandated by the state will be cut. Personally, I want my child’s teacher to see the same creativity that I see when I look into his eyes. Every child must be valued beyond a number.”
Maziarz, who spoke last, summed up what the parents, teachers and administrators should do next. “Join the Partnership for Smarter Schools,” he advised. “Send your postcards to the Regents and the chancellor. Form groups in your districts. And first and foremost, keep prodding us. Hold all of us accountable.”