An Open Letter to Education Policymakers in Albany: Why High Stakes Testing Makes no Sense During a Pandemic

Despite the hint of the air being a bit more crisp on a recent early September morning, a day that traditionally marks the return to school throughout much of New York, the devastating effects of COVID-19 remain.

This is the first time in 34 years that I have not joined in that perennial moment when we celebrate the return of our students with shiny floors and all the trappings that accompany the start of any school year.  As a teacher and administrator I always loved the opportunity to welcome back students and staff with a clean slate, a chance to start out fresh with all of the learning possibilities that would lie ahead.

When I announced my retirement in early January as the shared Superintendent of Southold and Greenport Schools, little did I know how challenging it would be over the ensuing eight months in school communities throughout New York and our nation for students, families and staff, a challenge that will continue for the foreseeable future.

Things clearly remain very different than any other school year.  The question is how and where do we look to adjust the patterns and practices of schooling in the year ahead.  While making any attempt to go back to the normal function of school in a safe and healthy way, we must simultaneously address the compelling need to restore the social and emotional well being of students of all ages, as well as the staff that support their learning journey this year.  

There are many areas that need attention to help our school communities.  There is, however, one area that should be placed on hold for this school year -- the accountability system (APPR) and overuse of standardized testing of students.  With some schools already being forced to delay opening, and the patchwork of systems from in-person, to remote, to hybrid, the concept of measuring student learning and teacher effectiveness is a weak proposition at best.

I argue that the emphasis must be on capturing the hearts and minds of our students, and not primarily seeking to make up for lost ground academically as noted by education author Alfie Kohn.  We must abandon any pretense that the metrics used in recent years to judge, sort, and separate students, teachers and schools through a ranking system based on data that focused on math and ELA standardized testing will serve them well in the near future.

Therefore, the first step is an immediate cessation of the current accountability system, based primarily on the use of high stakes, standardized testing in grades 3-8 that has preoccupied students, teachers, administrators, Boards of Education, families, and school communities since the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002.

Former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch has repeatedly written about the failed attempts at education reform in her numerous published books on the subject. Her extensive research demonstrates that the movement towards vouchers and charters has not resulted in making our nation more globally competitive. 

With a one year moratorium on testing and the accompanying accountability system focused on teachers we have a responsibility to design a better system.  Now is the time to revisit, rewrite and rework the accountability system for students, teachers and schools. FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing offers a compelling call for authentic assessment and accountability for K-12 students.  Evidence of lawmakers taking a fresh look at state testing has already begun in Massachusetts, and the Nashville School Board, among other learning communities that have begun to recognize the need to place a moratorium on such systems during a global pandemic.

Now, however, is the time to reimagine school, not with high tech, quick fixes.  Instead, let’s think in a more profound way about what it means to go to school in 2020 and beyond.  The discourse about schooling has never reached this level of attention on the part of governments, families, and society at-large.

Now is the time to seize the moment to refocus, reprioritize, and reinvigorate the covenant of America’s communities and their public schools.  As we transition into a new and challenging landscape where we will depend upon one another to solve vexing societal problems, the concept of a free, public education as the bedrock of a functioning democratic republic is essential.  It must be supported, and not through a test and punish agenda.  There is a compelling need to foster creativity and ingenuity in our students, thereby allowing the next generation of civic leaders, scientists, and artists to carry forward our 244 year experiment in self government.

Harnessing the power of technology, while maintaining a deep and abiding love of history, science, literature, the arts, and fostering the habits of mind that promote health and wellness are all the foundation of a wise and capable student, one who can contribute to his or her community.  Holding on to the antiquated metrics of high stakes testing has not, and will not, accomplish the goals of society set forth by anyone interested in the future of our state and nation.

I have written about such revised ways of looking at school, teaching, and learning here, here, and here.


In my career  in education I have seen many efforts to address a wide range of educational issues that confront our schools and communities.  None, however, compares with the challenges that appear before us at this time in our nation’s history.  Let us seize the moment to meet the needs of our students, teachers and families in ways that would honor the legacy of public education in America espoused by Horace Mann, America’s first great advocate of public education, who famously stated, “Public Education is the cornerstone of our community and our democracy.”

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