Teaching Worth Testing To


Each Spring students in 3rd through 8th grade devote part of three days to the New York State English Language Arts (ELA)  and Math exams. Each year, it seems, there is breathless coverage of the tests.  In 2013, the claims were that teachers and principals "across the city ...  reported the test required more stamina and concentration than students were used to." One eagle-eyed 14-year-old told the New York Times that β€œAll the kids were, like, open-mouthed, crazy-shocked and very upset.” Thank goodness adolescents are never prone to exaggeration.

But even skeptics conceded that "Parents and schools want to know how their children are doing and standardized exams are one way of measuring that."

Girl looking at Camera cropped
Girl looking at Camera cropped

A dataset of two isn't much larger, but my 5th grader did not report much stress, and she is an absolutely 50th percentile kid. My 8th grade son, who is probably closer to the 90th, was (by teen age standards) excited to report he'd learned that crows and ravens are related, and crows are 'really smart.' And that he had to write an essay on Samuel Gompers and the fight for the 8-hour work day.

Sturm und Drang? Nicht!

I've written about these tests (and their flaws) over the years.  But the headline at ICS is we have no issue with the state asking us to show, once a year, that we're meeting the standards for your kids to be considered literate and numerate.

We think this is a perfectly reasonable request when you entrust us with your children. More broadly taxpayers fork over $13,700 a student so we can hire teachers and buy books and supplies. If we can't 'show you the money', as it were, we don't deserve your trust or your tax dollars.

The ICS Approach

Of course we believe our commitment to building our students background knowledge through a coherent and sequenced curriculum that includes foreign language, arts and music is a not-so-secret weapon that will pay huge dividends come April or May of 2017. And in the years to follow. We see state tests as part of the proof of our students' achievement, but certainly not the primary goal of it.

We also think that our curricular approach means that apart from (briefly) familiarizing your children with how the tests work, we will not have to spend much formal time on test prep.

As a parent, I've always been upset by the idea that each January (or February, or March) schools across the city stop teaching and start devoting hours each day to preparing for tests. As though their typical instruction in reading, writing and math is somehow insufficient to prepare children to pass a state test? As though the state is going to ask kids about topics of which they have never heard?

Better Tests, or Better Schools?

Of course we want to count on the test developers and the state Department of Education to produce a minimally effective test. And this has not always been easy for them. The headline below is from the 1950s.


The bigger picture, as one observer of Pearson's latest snafu over G&T testing noted, is "the fact that so many children qualify to get a better education than what DOE offers in gen ed. [Which] says more about the low standard of education provided than anything else." Again, a challenge we address head on at ICS.

Despite the history, we're hopeful that by the time your children are in 3rd grade New York will have increasingly reliable tests. Regardless, we plan on doing what we know is right: teaching them a love of learning, the joy in figuring things out, and the pride that comes from being able to share their knowledge with others.

If we get that right, the tests will take care of themselves.