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Chancellor Zimpher

Opting Out of Our Future

pencil taking a multiple choice test

When it comes to whether students should opt out of standardized testing, no one is actually talking about what’s best for our kids. Standardized tests have become a pawn in political debates about teacher evaluations and we have lost sight of what they are: a way to measure what students know so we can help them improve.

For too long, our education system has failed to track students’ progress toward college and career readiness. Parents, educators, and policymakers have an obligation to use standardized assessments to shine a light on how best to support students.

Parents need to know these assessments are just one of our tools to support college readiness, not the whole toolbox. And I know firsthand – as many testing opponents will argue – that we don’t yet have it exactly right. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: we will have no way to track our progress and improve our tools without annual assessments.

If we are truly trying to do “what’s best for kids,” we would use standardized test scores to diagnose where we need to improve teaching and learning so that kids come to college ready to succeed. We need those results to support students, whether with early intervention when they are falling behind or to guide them toward advanced coursework when they are ahead of the curve. If kids opt out, we risk them being left behind.

That’s what’s happening today, as fewer than 40 percent of New York students are considered college-ready when they graduate high school. Each year, community colleges at the State University of New York (SUNY) spend over $70 million on remediation while 20 percent — or $93 million — of financial aid awarded to community college students goes toward remedial classes. That’s $163 million taxpayer and tuition dollars wasted every year to get our high school graduates ready for college courses. And these students will graduate college with more debt because they have to pay for courses that don’t count toward their degree just to catch up.

I started my career as a classroom teacher, and I know how hard the job is. Since then, I have spent my career focused on how we can do a better job of preparing teachers. As Chancellor of the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the nation, I insist that we – all of higher education – share the responsibility for the problem and have an obligation to help find the solution; we prepare the teachers who teach the kids who come to college ready or not. We own this challenge.

And SUNY’s 17 teacher preparation programs are committed to working with our graduates and pre-service teachers to enhance curricula and make sure we use assessments as a flashlight – to guide improvement – rather than a hammer to punish failure.

It’s up to us to make sure that we are preparing our kids to succeed. Opting out is not a choice that leads to success – not in college, not when it comes to finding a job, and not in life.

Nancy Zimpher

Written by Nancy Zimpher

Nancy Zimpher is the Chancellor of The State University of New York.




Join the Conversation:


There are 12 comments

  • Lulu says:

    Chancellor, please educate yourself on what these tests can and cannot do. There is no way for them to be diagnostic. Several months after children as young as 8 and 9 sit for days and days and hours and hours taking these tests, their parents get a number, a 1, 2, 3, or 4 for math and one of those numbers for ELA. There is no breakdown as to which part of the test the child scored lowest on to tell teachers where a child may need extra help. Neither parents nor teachers can see which problems the child answered incorrectly to see where a child may need help. It has already been documented that passages and questions on the tests are often written at several grades above grade level-so a child who is rated as not proficient may in fact be proficient and at grade level but is still labeled as a failure. There is no way to defend these tests in unless one is ignorant of their actual make up and use or unless one is forced to for political purposes. Please educate yourself. It is an embarrassment to your office and the University for you to defend these tests because your defense demonstrates your complete lack of knowledge about the tests.

  • Leslie says:

    NY has been in the vanguard of states able to predict college and work readiness. The high school regents exams are the best predictor, according to my daughter’s SUNY college admissions counselor. (And my daughter did fine in college.)

    Notice that no one considers opting out of regents exams. There are several significant differences:
    1) the regents exam exactly matches what is supposed to be taught/learned.
    2) scores are available within days.
    3) tests are written by educators.
    4) tests are scored by teachers.
    5) scorers see immediately where students are making mistakes and can analyze whether it is a poor question or poor learning, and the next time the subject is taught adjustments can be made.
    6) tests and answers are available online soon after the exam, and students can see what problems they may have had. Educators, parents, students can all see if the exam matches the curriculum.

    Needing a better way to test is just nonsense. And the amount of time devoted to test prep and test taking is cutting into instructional time dramatically. Add to that the amount of time the teacher is out of the classroom or school is closed for scoring, and we are providing much less time for learning than we have in the past. It is just silly to think this will improve learning.

    I would advocate for opting out, since the existing tests:
    1) do nothing to improve instruction.
    2) put six days of stress on young learners.
    3) have no benefit in any way to the learners.

    • Agreed that the Regents are better tests, but as with the statewide tests, I don’t think the kids get their individual tests back to see what they got wrong. Also, not everyone takes the Regents exams. One could argue that having experience taking standardized tests in grades 3-8 helps kids when they take Regents, the SAT, and other standardized tests in high school.

  • Jessic says:

    Why is this article implying that there are no standardized tests or that teachers do not value assessment data? This couldn’t be further from the truth! In my 15 years of teaching, we have always had state standardized tests. In the past, I have used assessments to inform instruction. I have prepared students with life-long test-taking strategies. However, these tests are not fair. They use texts and questions that are written well above students’ grade level according to multiple measures. I am not an actual supporter of the Refusal movement, although I do respect a parent’s right to choose. I asked my own 3rd grade son what his thoughts were and I was brimming with pride when he said, “I know it’s going to be hard but I want to do my best. I want to take the test.” These test are rotten, chancellor. They are not fair for our children and they are not fair for our children. As 50% of a teacher’s evaluation score, these tests will result in many teachers losing their jobs which will ultimately effect the young adults entering into the SUNY system. By the way, I’m a SUNY Geneseo grad. I got my master’s degree from the University at Albany. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I was college and career ready thanks to a strong foundation in public education in New York State.

  • Reader’s Report on “Opting out of our Future”

    This essay argues that parents should not opt out of standardized tests. The main evidence is that many high school graduates have to take remedial classes at SUNY. There is no mention of what the tests are or who is refusing and why. The article does not explain who made the tests, if they’re any good, and what they will be used to do, namely, fire teachers who students’ test scores don’t grow at the appropriate rate.

    This essay should clearly be rejected. It is a basic academic principle that authors should address the strongest arguments against their position. This author needs to read the best scholarship against the Common Core and the aligned tests, including Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon, Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, and Mercedes K. Schneider’s Common Core Dilemma—Who Owns Our Schools?

  • Josh Rogers says:

    Chancellor, with all due respect, have you been in the classroom when the students are taking these exams? Do you even know what’s being asked? Today, our fifth and sixth grade students were given 6 different reading passages (1-2 pages long) and 42 questions to answer, and all of this had to be completed in 90 minutes. That gives students 2.1 minutes to answer each questions, without factoring in any reading time whatsoever. These tests are NOT designed to measure student success. They are designed for student failure, and many of them will fail because they could not properly complete the exam in the allotted time frame. Very few fifth graders could read that many passages and answer that many questions in that time frame. So, how are these exams helping the students?

  • becky silverberg says:

    Great comments here…. Virginia Anderson —blest???? – you are an MD????

  • Lauren says:

    But Chancellor, HOW do high stakes standardized tests improve learning? How? You say they “shine a light on how best to support students.” Can you point me toward an instance in which state tests have led to ACTION to support students? You seem to be under the misconception that if you weight something a bunch of times, it will get heavier.

    The State of New York wants 8 year olds to take tests that last longer than the SAT or the GRE or any number of licensing examinations. Why do these tests take so long? It’s not for the benefit of the students, that’s for sure! Isn’t it true that the reason the tests take SIX days is so that there the data on student performance in finely graded enough to perform “value added” calculations on teachers? So that teachers can be rated for the purposes of retention or firing?

    Governor Cuomo seems to think that he can fire his way to an excellent teaching corps. Again, this is as ridiculous and obviously false as the idea that frequent, detailed, high stakes standardized testing is going to lead to children learning more.

    Ms. Zimpfer, I assume you wouldn’t be Chancellor without many years of education, but this essay fails on evidence and basic logic. Parents are opting children out from the state tests as an act of protest because politicians and policy makers are not listening, or if they are, they aren’t thinking clearly. I’m sorry to see that you are among the muddled thinkers.

    • Lauren says:

      As I would just add that not only are these tests obviously worthless in terms of improving educational outcome (remember, testing doesn’t equal learning!) but it is also clear that high stakes standardized testing, where teachers’ jobs depend on students’ performance, is ruining public education by narrowing the curriculum, encouraging rampant test prep, and driving potential teachers away from the profession.

  • andy says:

    While you are correct on many of your statements, the idea of the article seems misguided. Nobody is arguing that kids should opt out because the tests are too hard, or to promote laziness, or to avoid a challenge. Opting out is a peaceful protest against an education system that is heading in the wrong direction.
    My family and I recently left New York, and one major reason was the education system that our 6 and 4 year olds were about to enter. Just as these tests are “one tool, not the whole tool box,” opting out is just one way of many to resist the asinine policy changes that have taken place in the NYS Department of Education.

    Here’s another example that has nothing to do with testing: My son started receiving speech therapy when he was 3. He’s an active child, like most boys, and my wife and I had planned to keep him out of school until he turned 6. His birthday is in July, so at just barely 5 he would have been the youngest in his class, and we, his parents, decided that was not best for his future. As it turns out, the State of New York says that if you do not send your child in their first year of school eligibility, you can no longer receive services such as speech therapy. Or rather, you can, if you want can afford to pay out of pocket. The State is trying to make life choices for my family, while using a slight disability as leverage. Then when he got to school (and I’m hypothesizing now, since we moved away) they most likely would have diagnosed him with ADHD because he doesn’t sit still for 8 hours at a time, rather than letting him stay home another year, maturing a bit, and coming into school more ready, a better speaker, and more confident in himself.

    But back to the tests. In today’s rapidly changing world, we must value creativity, collaboration, and problem solving as the highest educational goals. When these tests are made to count for now 50% of teacher evaluations, the teachers have absolutely no choice but to teach only the material on the tests. There is no room for creativity. No room for “outside the box” teachers. And those are the teachers kids remember. Those are the teachers that get through to some students, who otherwise can’t stand school.

    Also, what about socioeconomic standing? Let’s look at Rochester. You’re going to give the same test to the kids in the City Schools (where, according to a recent letter from a retiring teacher there are literally rats in the classrooms) as you are to the kids in Pittsford. And you, I get that. We need to be able to compare apples to apples. But how can a teacher in RCSD be evaluated on her students’ scores equally to the teacher in Pittsford? There are teachers in Rochester who are happy to make it to the end of the day without getting physically abused by students. Others bring extra lunch, because they know at least a handful of their students won’t be able to have lunch if he/she doesn’t provide it. These teachers are teaching survival, while in Victor, they are studying for the exam. Taking nothing away from the Pittsford or Victor teachers, but how can you compare them to the City teacher?

    Any way you slice it, more testing, and more evaluating teachers based on those tests is not helping education in NY.

    I think the best line in your article was this: “…make sure we use assessments as a flashlight – to guide improvement – rather than a hammer to punish failure.”

    But the hammer should not only be spared for children, but for educators as well. I’m not a teacher. I work in tech support. I have two performance evaluations per year. It’s my boss’s job to make sure I”m doing my job, and doing it well. We should be able to trust principals, vice principals, superintendents, and other administrators to supervise their staff and weed out the bad teachers.

    The last thing I’ll say is that teachers are not the enemy. Anyone that knows any teachers personally can tell you that most (not all, but most) truly and genuinely care about the children they teach and want them to learn and excel. Most of them have gave money out of their own pockets for classroom supplies to enhance their curriculum. As in any profession, there are bad teachers, and they should be identified and removed. But evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students won’t work.

  • Shana Circe says:

    Thank you Chacellor Zimpher for your insight. My child will be sitting for his test today and I will be proud of him regardless of his test score. I will be proud of him because he is taking on a challenge. We revel in challenges in our home and delight in overcoming them and feeling accomplished when we meet our goals. If he falls short of perfect, great! It means we still have more goals to work towards. He will forge ahead from where ever he lands in his scoring to continue to meet and exceed his potential and we will encourage him to do so and praise his work ethic not his score. If he falls at a 1 he will work towards a 2, If he falls at a 2 he will work towards a 3.

    However, my favorite quote from your piece is this,

    “Parents need to know these assessments are just one of our tools to support college readiness, not the whole toolbox. And I know firsthand – as many testing opponents will argue – that we don’t yet have it exactly right.”

    We as parents, educators, politicians need to keep fighting for what is better in education. What we had before was not good, what we have now is not good as a whole either. Based on it’s own grading standard, I would say the roll out and implementation of Common Core, and the preparation we have given educators to teacher common core, is at a 1 right now. Too many people feel attacked and punished for not achieving perfection immediately. I know there is a lot of money, politics, and large corporations involved and that makes things very muddied. As parents and educators, what can we do and where do we go from here to push this system to something that is in fact ” using assessments as a flashlight – to guide improvement – rather than a hammer to punish failure.”?

    What are the plans for the system to asses itself to improve its current state and how do we shine a light on the “other” tools in the toolbox that are being used? I know answers to these questions would be very helpful to me in supporting and fighting for the improvement of my child’s education system.

  • Virginia M. Anderson MD says:

    NYS and SUNY are blest to have Chancellor Nancy Zimpher as our fearless leader! Without supportive parents undisciplined students and faculty lack the intellectual curiosity essential for lifelong learning. This is a cultural crisis that blames the victims: students, teachers and families for a cultural crisis that requires all responsible adults to work together for the sucess of our students.

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