The president of the American Federation of Teachers called for a moratorium on using the results of new high-stakes tests associated with the Common Core standards now being adopted by New York and more than 40 other states.
In a speech before the Association for a Better New York in midtown Manhattan, AFT President Randi Weingarten said she did not oppose testing students on the new standards. But she said she wanted to “put the brakes on the stakes.”
“We aren’t saying students shouldn’t be assessed,” she told the audience of business leaders, educators and elected officials. “We aren’t saying teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. We are not saying that there shouldn’t be standardized tests. We’re talking about a moratorium on consequences in these transitional years.”
Weingarten, who was previously president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, pointed to New York as an example of the hazards of rolling out new tests before teachers are fully prepared. None of the state’s school districts had a new curriculum, and yet the first exams linked to the new standards were given this month.
In New York State, she said, “the assessment has been fast tracked before the other pieces were put in place. And the result is this destructive anxiety that kids and teachers have endured these past few months.”
Weingarten said most teachers supported the new standards, which she said hold “potential to create deeper learning.” She pointed to a lesson she recently saw at the NEST+m School on the lower East side, where fourth-graders were reading passages from Columbus’s diary describing his visit to the New World instead of old-style textbooks.
But she said lessons like these require intense preparation and that what she saw at this gifted and talented school is “by far the exception, not the rule.”
New York is now the second state, after Kentucky, to test students on the Common Core standards. In Kentucky, test scores dropped precipitously after switching over to the new standards. Most states will begin using Common Core tests next year.
Weingarten insisted she wasn’t opposed to that, but she called for more field testing to ensure that the standards, curriculum and teaching are all aligned with the new exams. She said this is what any business does before rolling out a new product.
Following Weingarten speech, New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch, who was seated in the audience, gave a vigorous defense of the state’s roll-out of Common Core standards and testing.
“We take this seriously,” she told reporters. “But let everyone understand that if we continue to educate to a lower standard, what we are doing is we’re saying New York State cannot and will not be competitive in a 21st-century economy.”
Tisch added that no teachers or schools will be penalized if students fare poorly on the new exams, as expected, because they will be compared against each other and not to scores from previous years.
New York State Education Commissioner John King struck a similar bridge-building tone in his statement. He said the state has gone to "great lengths" to take into account the more difficult tests and the expected drop in scores when it comes to teachers' performance reviews.
"In fact, we expect roughly the same percentage of teachers to be identified in each performance category (Ineffective, Developing, Effective, Highly Effective) this year as last year. We have asked districts to be thoughtful in their use of the data from this first year of Common Core assessments when evaluating teacher performance and we have every confidence that they will be."
While King and Tisch took pains not to criticize Weingarten, Andrew Kirtzman, senior advisor to the chancellor, came out swinging.
“This is about a special interest that doesn’t want this to happen because of fear for their jobs,” he said, noting that this is a mayoral election year. “This is about the union protecting itself. The UFT cannot wait to get control of the city schools again in the next administration and New Yorkers should be very, very worried about it.”
Although the Department of Education only chose a new curriculum for teachers two months ago, Kirtzman said city teachers have been using Common Core materials all year and that the D.O.E. is not “oblivious” to the stress that they and their pupils experience. But, he said, “we are holding kids to a higher standard so that they can do better in college and their careers. This isn’t a game. This isn’t about politics. This is about improving the future of the children of the public schools.”
Another union critic, StudentsFirstNY, issued a statement referring to the “education status quo” that “would prevent progress in order to hold on to its power.”
But Weingarten, who sat across from the D.O.E. for many years as union president, bristled at its characterization of her and the union as a special interest.
“We are special interest for children,” she stated. “And frankly, if the [D.O.E] in the city was a special interest for children they would be working with us on taking responsibility, jointly, to make standards and this implementation work in every single school in the city.”