Guest post: High Stakes Testing Hurts Our Most Vulnerable Students

Written by Bianca Tanis, NY Parent and Educator.

Several children with special education needs sit in a windowless room, preparing to take part one of the three day NYS Math exam. In accordance with their Individualized Education Plans, they are in a separate location and have been granted extended time. Instead of the 90 minutes allowed for the test, they will have 135. Thirty minutes pass. One child’s eyes fill with tears as she says, “I’m frustrated. I don’t know any of this. What do I do on this page?” The teacher proctoring the test offers the mandated, standard response, “Just take your time and do your best.” Another child lays his head on the table and declares, “I’m an idiot. I give up.” They are 9 years old and there are 85 minutes to go.


This scenario is real and it is happening across the state and the nation. I am an educator, and the mother of a 3rd grader with Autism. My husband and I recently attempted to exercise our parental to right to refuse that our son be subjected to high stakes, state exams. These tests are detrimental to all children, and even more so for students with disabilities, struggling learners, and students with test anxiety. Although an Alternative Assessment (AA) exists it New York State, it is only granted to students with significant cognitive deficits. The state only allows schools to grant AA to 1% of their students; few children with disabilities meet these narrow criteria, and are subsequently relegated to a gray area in which they are forced to submit to inappropriate testing.


After informing our own district that we would not allow our son to participate in state assessments, we were informed that if our son walks through the doors of his elementary school during any of the testing or make up days, the exams will be administered against our wishes in accordance with the state mandate. To avoid exposure to these assessments, we would be compelled to keep our son home for the 12 days of testing and makeup exams. This loss of instruction would represent a clear violation of his right to an education.

As parents, we agonize over the decisions we make for our children. We do our best, and hope because we make them after much thought, and with great love, that we are making the right ones. When we are denied the ability to make a critical decision for our child’s education, it is a violation of our parental rights, and it stings. Schools ask for permission to photograph our children, to allow them to participate in sex education (which I would assert is exponentially more valuable than test participation), and to play sports, but they do not ask permission to torture our children with unnecessary and inappropriate testing.

So, when the state testing cycle begins in the spring, there will be anxiety, distress, and frustration for many children: the child who can not sit in a chair for 10 minutes (let alone 60); the child who stays awake all night anticipating being asked questions she can’t answer; the child who didn’t have breakfast and listened to his parents fighting all night; the child who eats erasers and licks her lips with anxiety until they are raw and bleeding; and the fifth grader with Autism who is reading at a second-grade level. They will all sit for an average of 11 hours of testing.

And why? For what purpose? I can tell you that the parents and teachers of each and every one of these students share the sentiment put forth by Arne Duncan’s mandate that “students with disabilities must be college- and career-ready” by the time they leave school. But unlike Arne Duncan, they know that these tests will have the opposite effect because they discourage differentiated and innovative instruction, because they create an environment in which it is impossible to meet the needs of all learners, and because they send the message that unless you are a good test taker, you are simply not up to snuff.

So what do good, compassionate, teachers do in the face of hours and hours of state exams, district wide common assessments, practice exams and MAP testing? They devote valuable instructional time to teaching children how to fill in bubbles, and discuss strategies such as dressing comfortably, eating a good breakfast, and getting a decent night’s sleep, in order to prepare for the test. Rather than engaging in meaningful literacy and math instruction, good teachers will be compelled instead to instruct the most at-risk learners in strategies such as visualization and yoga to cope with test anxiety. The best teachers are thus relegated to little more than harm reduction. And the students will never get those eleven hours of valuable learning time back. Rubbing salt in the wound, New York has now left it to the discretion of each school as to whether or not children are permitted to read a book when they are done testing, the rationale being that the allure of a book may prove to be a distraction and encourage the child to rush through the test in order to get to reading more quickly. Imagine that.

These tests are not designed to assess students, but to assess teachers, schools, and district compliance with federal and state mandates. They are not based on valid science, and they undermine teaching and learning. Using test scores to evaluate teachers will cause talented and dedicated teachers, like the ones who work with my son, to reconsider working with challenged populations since they will be judged on impossible criteria that ignore hard work, innovation, and compassion. You cannot convince me that using NYS test scores to rate the teacher of a self-contained class of students with significant cognitive and behavioral disabilities makes sense. I don’t care what formula you use, it doesn’t add up.

Don’t get me wrong; assessment is a critical part of effective teaching. However, these exams are not developmentally or educationally appropriate for many students. Imagine being required to sit in front of an exam that you cannot read, comprehend, or compute, for 90 minutes or more. If we do so, we are subjecting a child to an assessment that yields little information about his or her growth, or that can be used to inform instruction. The potential ramifications of this experience in terms of a child’s self-esteem, feelings about school, and trust in teachers, are tragic. As educators, we have all witnessed similar scenarios time and time again. As teachers, we subscribe to the edict “do no harm,” and yet here we are, forced to engage in state-sponsored cruelty. President Obama, Mr. Duncan, Commissioner King, Governor Cuomo– I ask you, is this really “best practice?”

As parents, teachers and private citizens, we are in the position to advocate for change and it is incumbent upon us to take action. Every child’s dignity should be protected and should take precedence over “one size fits all,” high-stakes testing. Children have the right to learn and develop at their own pace, and to be assessed using tools that are developmentally appropriate, taking into account their individual needs. We need to reject an education system in which teachers have been stripped of their intellectual autonomy and professional judgment, and in which administrators are forced to adhere to draconian, educationally-unsound testing policies by fear tactics and sanctions imposed by the state. No instrument for assessing teachers or schools should compromise the quality of a student’s education or dignity.


  1. This is clearly an orchestrated attack that comes from a place of total disregard for people perceived as “less than” in the minds of the attackers. To mandate and assess within a tightly controlled, de-humanized environment, where the one (and only, for some) adult who is supportive/collaborative/innovative in ways to support success suddenly is the person watching you sink-refusing to throw you a life-line… it is antithetical to the scaffolding approach needed to bring the most needy, less secure, least privileged to a place of social comfort and self-worth before they can perform foolishly (and I mean these dumb tests, not a play-which would be a more telling and valuable assessment as far as I’m concerned).


  2. This madness has to end. It is impacting kids and they are too afraid to tell their parents because we have successfully brainwashed our children into always doing what authority tells them too. My four-year-old PreK nephew took a pre test and had to listen to the questions since he can’t read. His headset wasn’t functioning but he had been told “This is a test so no talking.” Therefore, being a good little kid, he said nothing and guessed his way through the test. He is not identified or special needs but this is what the identified kids feel like every time they sit down to take a test. They are talking it blind, deaf and dumb. This is a travesty and an absolute crime. Parents must start rising up and realizing what is happening to their kids. They must demand that this end. They have to be the force because if it is just teachers like us, we will continue to be labeled as the “whiners who are afraid to be evaluated because we will lose our jobs”. Teachers are not whiners; we are caring, compassionate people who love our kids and can’t stand to see them suffering for a ridiculous reason. I teach high school English and watched a 17 year old special needs girl cry when she was forced to take the Regents. What have we taught her?


    1. I remember my son coming home and getting sick, feeling stupid, when having to take these tests in NJ. He had a perceptual disability, and could not get what was in his head onto the paper – a result of birth trauma. He was brilliant in math and music, but never did well on these tests. We all got sick, having no place to go and nobody to fight for him.
      He still kept trying. He did not want to be stupid.


    2. I commend you for taking this stand, and being the voice for children who cannot speak. I hope you have an army of parents who will stand behind you when you go to the state capital and protest. No politician wants to lose a vote.


  3. I do hope, Ms. Tannis, that you did keep your child home from school on those 12 days of testing. You, as a taxpaying parent cannot let the school bully you. And besides, as you know when the days will be, and as you also know other parents with kids with serious problems, you are in a wonderful place for getting together with them, keeping all the kids “home” but figuring out ways to provide them with educational experiences while you are about it. Yes, some of the parents may have to stay home from work, or shell out extra money for resources, but in the end you will inspire others to keep their kids home, and we all know these tests are not good for anyone.


  4. As a parent, I am appalled that NYS believes they have the right to mandate these assessments against my wishes. At the very least they need to create a uniform state-wide opt-out policy to insure that the rights of parents are protected first. Of course, what they would quickly realize is that once all parents are truly informed of what is going on, none of them would allow their children to spend this much time taking state assessments.


  5. This is a tremendous heartfelt piece. I can think of the students in my self-contained social studies classroom, some of whom have ED or are on the autism spectrum. The state assessments are a true act of torture for many of these students. We often see smiling politicians and education department bureaucrats come into schools with the media’s cameras showing how they care about students. I would ask any of those policymakers to visit a classroom with young children who have developmental disabilities on testing day to see that their decisions have serious consequences.


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