Tweed Hall Official Takes Public Fire Over High-Stakes Testing

Panelists Shael Polakow-Suransky, Sean Feeney, Elijah Hawkes and moderator Meredith Kolodner speak to an audience of parents, teachers, and administrators
Principal Sean Feeney presents his opposition to high-stakes standardized testing to DOE official Shael Polakow-Suransky and an audience of parents, teachers, and administrators. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball)

At the Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens, D.O.E Chief Accountability Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky faced a tough crowd. The auditorium was filled with parents, teachers and administrators, carrying fliers emblazoned with the phrase “Boycott State Tests.” Many had purchased red buttons saying “Less Testing, More Teaching.”

Before value-added testing data was available, Polakow-Suransky claimed, “there were teachers who seemed to be doing a good job but their kids weren’t learning.” Calling struggling schools “dead zones,” Polakow-Suransky said, “the reason to look at quantitative data is because that data can tell an important story.”

Polakow-Suransky also added he felt that the issue has become a polarized debate in the context of teachers union’s negotiations.

The March 19 panel, sparked by the recent publication of public school teachers’ ratings, was organized by Public School 29, an elementary school, and the parent-run Brooklyn New School Political Action Coalition, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. The atmosphere was tense; the speakers were frequently interrupted by applause and shouts of agreement or dissension. When Polakow-Suransky claimed the publication of teacher’s ratings was not politically motivated, a loud hiss emanated from the back of the auditorium.

Sean Feeney, a principal of a Long Island high school, was also on the panel. He authored a petition against high-stakes testing, which was signed by more than a third of school principals across New York State. Feeney contended that the current value-added teacher ratings are based on flawed data.

“They have taken a test and turned it into a tool to evaluate teachers in a very high-stakes way,” said Feeney. “They are being used very inappropriately, in a way that they have never been designed to be used.”

Polakow-Suranksy conceded that the data wasn’t perfect, arguing that test scores are only a small percentage of teacher and school evaluations.

“When we make a decision around how to change a school, it’s never based solely on quantitative data. Never.” he said. “When you see a school that is persistently failing to graduate kids, that sends a red flag. That does show up in the data. But that is not determinative, and no decision should be made on quantitative data alone.”

Feeney said that the new system will provide teachers incentives for focusing only on test scores instead of addressing special education students, English language learners, or even field trips. Elijah Hawkes, another panelist and former Manhattan high school principal, claimed that value-added tests cause teachers to focus on test-taking skills, such as how to interpret the test’s language and format.

“What gets measured gets done,” said Feeney. “When you have a high-stakes test at the end of the year, the dynamic changes.”

In a question and answer session following the panel discussion, several audience members echoed the principals’ concerns.

Dao Tran, a parent from the Bronx, complained that her daughter’s elementary school no longer had the time or money for field trips, instead devoting their resources to achieving high scores.

A teacher at a Brownsville public school, who declined to be named because she is untenured, said that she spends hours each day in test preparation activities. She added that while her students, mostly from poor Hispanic families with low literacy, were miserable and bored, her school received an “A” on its D.O.E. report card.

“Since February 20, the day we came back from the February break, my students sit through two hours of testing every single day,” she said. “They are angry, they get into fights at recess, all to serve this idea of student learning. Yes, they are learning, but they are learning how to test tests.”

As she finished, the audience broke into applause.

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