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CAB Minutes: February 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY

Moderator: Shavonne Johnson, member of CAB
Panelists: Richard Giaquinto, Dept. Chair, St. Francis, Lilitha Vasuvedan, Teachers College, Columbia University, Graeme Sibirsky, Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters (UAAAL), Jonah Estess, 8th grade student at UAAAL, Alexis Sarris, 7th grade student at UAAAL

The meeting, which was in the form of a panel discussion, ran from approximately 7PM-9PM. The topic was "Teaching to the Test." Biographies of the panelists were available in the form of handouts. Approximately 32 people were in attendance, including 2 WNYC staff members, 8 CAB members, and about 3 children. Tim Houlihan, the dean of academic affairs, welcomed the audience. Leslie Gaye gave a brief introduction and then turned things over to the panelists. I have noted the major points made by each panelist below, along with some of the audience Q & A. As these comments have been consolidated, they are not presented in exact chronological order.

Richard Giaquinto:
-Discussed origin of current emphasis on tests & No Child Left Behind. The current system was apparently modeled on Houston's system and took place concomitantly with the rise of outcome-based education. "And now we have a system that measures schools but doesn't fix them."

Jonah Estess:
-Said that students hate tests. They're not about subject matter or education, they're just for assessment. A once a month test to check progress would be useful, but 3 months a year should not be wasted on test prep.
-Teaching to the test is like teaching only the "good" parts of history. "You're going to be confused when you get out of school because life's not like that."

Alexis Sarris:
-Said that the tests should be later in the year, like April or May, to give students more opportunity to actually learn. There should also be more opportunities for creative learning, such as the round tables they have at UAAAL. (Round tables were explained in more depth by Mr. Sibirsky.) "The tests themselves are a good idea but the method and the timing could be better."

Graeme Sibirsky:
-While standardized tests can give you some good data, eg by helping you identify students who are having difficulty, there are numerous problems: (a) there is an overemphasis on test prep (b) you're not making kids smarter; scores can be pushed up without actually increasing knowledge (c) testing is not a terribly accurate assessment and gave lead to false conclusions (d) testing is wrongly used to assess administrative and staff programs, and can be used as a political tool. Although such is use is prohibited, it still happens.

Lilitha Vasuvedan:
-Talked about her background working with adjudicated youth age 16-20 and how that led her to her current interest in students for whom school has been an interrupted experience. She agrees that testing & test anxiety are pervasive. She feels that there are measures and activities outside the realm of school and testing that are being completely ignored. Children are engaged in a variety of technological, media-oriented, and creative work, but their work is not being recognized. How can we support teachers who recognize and use that work?

Shavonne Johnson introduced herself as an instructor and asked the panel if the testing was precluding instruction, and if there is there a solution. If they had more time, how would they bridge the technology gap?

Richard Giaquinto:
The emphasis on testing takes away from other important things we could be working on, such as technology, music, foreign language, and drama. All are getting pushed aside and all are vital. Children need to learn habits of mind, not just the facts. "Tests don't measure what makes a person successful. Communication skills are critical." Schools should be assessed differently. "I believe in the 3 K's: Kids, Quality, and Community." We must do away with No Child Left Behind. Students are not being taught problem-solving and other skills that employers seek. Teachers should be evaluated by their administrators and by other teachers, and students should be evaluated by their teachers.

Lilitha Vasuvedan:
Radio could bridge the chasm between what we know—the data and the narratives we have—and the public's ignorance. Radio Rookies does a lovely job, but there are other opportunities to partner with people doing research and get the word out about testing and teaching to the test.All of us are tested everyday. My students are gamers; what do we mean by "test?" There are all kinds of real life tests, and people rise to these challenges, e.g. in the context of games. Challenges are presented and met. Kid can be successful. They are not disengaged; they are very curious, intellectual beings.

Shavonne Johnson: Are online resources being used in the classroom, and how? How can WNYC be used as a tool in the classroom? WNYC has an archive system—can those resources be mined?

Graeme Sibirsky:
It's up to the principal, how to use the budget, whether to find extra money, etc. I believe every school in NYC is wired. At my school we go online frequently. We also use Radio Rookies in my school. The next question, after all this critique, is what can we do? All media can play a role, not just WNYC. Discuss standardized testing & then we can hold politicians to account and create school reform.

Lilitha Vasuvedan:
I do use links from the site in courses I teach. I share via Facebook rather than emailing. Might there be opportunities for people to send in material that they produce, a la Free Speech TV? Can we increase the interactivity of a resource like WNYC? For example a block of user-produced material.

Audience member:
I teach with Lilitha Vasuvedan; we teach teachers. WNYC has tremendous opportunity. For example, Beth Fertig does a lot of education stories. WNYC should open a larger conversation in order to educate the public so that change can come about. There is no forum on education, even on All Things Considered, just isolated pieces. Should have a regular feature. And education takes place in many different contexts, not just in school.

Gaye Leslie:
What might you (the students) choose if given the choice in subject?

Alexis Sarris:
In our school we do have some choice. I'm bad at math. I'd like less textbook and more actual activities, including going outside more.

Jonah Estess:
I'd move away from regular subjects. Ask students what their hobbies are and use those topics as a basis for inquiry. For example, with coins, we could study history, math, social studies, etc. It's all there.

Audience Member:
This is called activity-driven learning, and it had been part of the NYC Board of Ed. mandate. She herself was a teacher but had to retire early. The students were "dying"...intellectually, socially, etc. We should have an organic, holistic way of teaching. How are we going to change? We're moving into a socially responsible society but retaining the old model of government in charge.

Graeme Sibirsky:
It's not a budget issue, it's a priority issue. Standardized testing is cheap. You learn all these great teaching techniques, and then you can't use them. The full story is not being told. We must be more savvy re: what they're telling us about standardized tests. It's a scam, and it saves money.

Basya Mandel thanked the audience and the panelists and asked audience members to fill out a brief questionnaire before leaving that she said would help the CAB advise the station.