Should First Graders Take a Test? Teachers Say No

New York City’s new teacher evaluation system uses children’s test scores as part of teachers’ “ratings.” Those ratings will be released to parents and used to judge teachers’ competency.

I am a teacher at Castle Bridge School, which opened in Washington Heights, Manhattan, in 2012. Washington Heights is a diverse neighborhood, with a high percentage of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrant families, particularly from the Dominican Republic. Because this is our second year, we have students only in grades pre-K to 2—so none of our students take the state-mandated tests for grades 3–8.

The city Department of Education (DOE) faced a challenge: how would it use its teacher evaluation system in schools like ours? The answer: a multiple-choice math test for kindergartners, first-graders, and second-graders.

Kids’ scores could then be used to evaluate their teachers. There was never a pretense that the testing might help the children themselves.

The tests were delivered to K–2 schools, and in most they were administered without the parents even knowing.

A teacher at one of these schools told me how confused her kindergartners were. Many scribbled all over the test booklets. A few even ripped them. Imagine the frustration of a four- or five-year-old being presented with such an unfamiliar and impossible task.

It reminds me of First Grade Takes a Test, a wonderful children’s book by Miriam Cohen, in which first-graders get confused by the logic of multiple choice. One child, for example, decides to draw what he thinks would be the correct answer rather than mark one of the bubbles.

Why Not Comply?

In our school, we could have given our children the test. We could have just followed along with yet another ridiculous DOE mandate.

We could have explained to our families and to ourselves that the ratings would not be that important to our school community. Our principal is in our classrooms daily. She knows what we are doing well, and supports us in the areas where we need to improve. So why not just comply?

We could have explained to our children: “We are giving you these booklets and you can just do your best. Don’t worry if it seems confusing. They are not really important. Some strange people who happen to be the bosses of principals and teachers want you to try this out.

“It makes no sense, but could you please just try it, so that we can continue with the rest of our day?”

We could have done this. But I am so glad we did not.

We Opted Out

Our principal did inform our parents about the test. Parents and teachers agreed that we did not have to passively comply.

The parents organized and wrote opt-out letters. Over 90 percent of our families signed. And our principal cancelled the test.

Our kids will not need to sit through a meaningless task or learn about these weird bosses of ours, who wanted us to sit children in front of a booklet that is inappropriate to assess their exciting discoveries about how numbers work.

Our children who are beginning to learn English will not have to sit through this task listening to incomprehensible instructions in English, either.

Our school community sent a message of resistance and hope. The DOE wanted numbers and percentages to measure the immeasurable.

We—teachers, parents, principal, and children—refused to mutely observe how the obsession with high-stakes testing and teachers’ evaluations is destroying our children’s natural love of learning and the joy of teaching. We also refused to consent to a test that opens the door for high-stakes testing for K–2 students in all schools.

How Tests Hurt Kids

This is my twelfth year as a teacher in the public schools. I have seen how high-stakes testing and the system of punishments and rewards have deeply hurt our children, teachers, and principals.

I have seen schools where, from one school year to the next, the dialogue during teacher meetings changed. It went from describing children and their work, and thinking about ways to support their learning, to looking at charts of test scores and referring to children as “ones,” “twos,” “threes,” and “fours.”

Instead of teachers talking about how much Maria loves books and figuring out ways to support her decoding words with more confidence, the conversation became, “These are our ‘ones.’ What can we do to get them to be ‘twos’?”

I also worked at a beautiful K–2 school where the sand and water tables, the blocks, and the pretend-area furniture ended up being stored in the basement—because, even though we did not have testing, the principal felt there was no time for children to “play” at school.

I am proud to now work at a school that will not waste even one hour of our children’s time in meaningless bubbling of multiple-choice answers.

We all know what children need to learn, grow, and thrive. And we know that most children are not getting it in our public schools.

We cannot continue to quietly comply. We need to question, resist, organize, and protest. We need to reclaim teaching—and insist that our children be truly respected.