Draft of a Letter to the New York State Board of Regents 2011

Jose Vilson Guest Posts, Resources

To Whom This May Concern:

Anytime I get the opportunity to score the New York State Mathematics Exam, whether as scoring leader, table leader, or part of the scoring team, I try to ingest the super-technical rubrics and guidelines in order to be the best scorer possible. Every time we sit through the trainings, whichever end I sit on, the sea of groans often shakes the walls of the gymnasium with disgust. Disgust turns to disappointment when the sample papers look very much like the actual papers we start grading. None of this is in self-interest as we don’t grade our own schools, and never do we get to think of the ramifications of the students who miss a certain grade level by a few points.

With that said, if these exams are how we’re going to judge our students’ academic worth or our teachers’ effectiveness, then this is way off.

I’ve done an adequate amount of reading about the direction of mathematics in this state, and the assessment isn’t looking good. For one, it still leaves a critical piece of the educational agenda in the hands of a semi-independent corporation. I find it dubious that the same people who make the critical tests at the end of the year also make the textbooks that are often suggested (if not mandated) for teachers to follow. Thus, if teaching to the test isn’t outright stated, it’s certainly implied. We’re making believe that the people on the ground level, like teachers, students, and administrators can’t see the name sprawled across the booklets and the budgets everywhere they go in their schools.

Secondly, because it leaves lots of this in the hands of third-party vendors, it assumes that teacher expertise means nothing. Now, Bill Gates and others might have you believe that mastery of an academic subject doesn’t matter when it comes to student achievement, but better research has shown that teachers who stay within their content area for extended periods of time and get more professional development under that content area, the better they are as teachers. These sorts of things make sense. Akin to the call for teachers to not teach to the test, we shouldn’t align our policies to Race To The Top; we should align them so we’re already racing towards success for all students.

In New York City, the barrage of testing through April and May has been exhausting to most parties involved … except for those who just make everyone else do it. Third party vendors are still sneakily suggesting one-day professional development meetings (the worst kind, by the way) to introduce their new gadgets that will only pass as fads. Central office managers still turn principals into compliance managers, and force middle men upon middle men into the foray. Budgets still get cut while bombs still drop on poor people across the world.

But the bombing is happening at schools like mine.

For instance, at this point, an 8th grade English Language Learner in an Advanced Math class will have taken 3 city interim assessments, the 8th Grade ELA and Math tests, the NYS English as a Second Language test, the 8th Grade Science test, and the Advanced Math Regents. With all the time we spend on testing (almost a month, if you add it up in real-time), when do teachers actually have time to teach? And, if your Board of Regents plans to use these tests to assess teaching instead of learning, then are we getting a 20-30 day discount on their Teacher Data Reports?

The better question here should be: when do we stop the overuse of tests?

All this testing reminds me of the times when I was a scoring leader and a teacher questioned whether a question is even valid. The usual response, as with any top-down management, is “Hey, don’t blame me. This is what I was told by the state.” If your objective is to improve the teaching profession, then having teachers tell other teachers that the power is not in their hands, then it’s obvious that we lose out on this. If your objective, on the other hand, is to give sovereign powers to the snapshot of a yearlong’s progress towards approaching a few (non-piloted) Common Core standards, then I simply can’t ingest that.

As a professional working for you all, I understand the rules of the game, and I’ll continue teaching such that my students can hope to do well on these given assessments, but as a private citizen, I understand the harm you’re all doing to our students. I live by a set of guidelines that simply won’t allow me silence.



Jose Vilson, Teacher