ALBANY, NY - Thousands of teachers, students and supporters rallied in front of the state Capitol on Saturday, taking aim at a slate of standardized tests that they say have been poorly implemented.
The New York State United Teachers union, which organized the rally said 225 buses from all corners of the state traveled to Albany Saturday morning to join in on the rally, one of the largest seen in Albany this year.
"The time is now to reclaim the promise of public education," NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi told the crowd. "The time is now to speak truth to power. The time is now to define our moment, to seize the day. You are here to bear witness to that message."
The rally filled about half of the center section of Albany's massive Empire State Plaza. At times, it featured a street-festival atmosphere, with food vendors set up along the outer edges, two large video screens broadcasting the action and a folk singer, a rock band and a rapper taking the stage at various points throughout the day.
"I'm so glad that teachers feel strongly enough to gather in this very important place, the Capitol to speak for children," said Katie Ferguson, a teacher at Schenectady City School District. "What we're finding is that some of the testing we're doing right now, the children are not ready for."
The protest served as a catch-all for teacher frustrations, with speakers voicing concern over everything from local budget cuts to the state's teacher evaluation system to the DREAM Act, a bill stalled in the Legislature that would grant state-level financial aid to immigrants living in the country without legal permission.
But over and over again, the rally turned back to the state's implementation of the Common Core standards and the series of standardized tests that kicked in this year and begins in the third grade.
"Common Core learning standards are very complex, we need time and we need resources to implement them they can't be done overnight, they're asking us to do them overnight," said Serena Kotch, a Spanish teacher at Cleveland Hill High in Cheektowaga.
Arron Brown, a fourth-grade teacher at Pembroke Intermediate School in Genesee County, said his students have taken three state-mandated exams this year, along with a series of local assessments.
"The testing is just too much. It wasn't done the right way," Brown said. "It was rushed. Students are overwhelmed, parents are overwhelmed, and I'm just here to lend my voice and tell those with the state that I'm not happy."
Depending on the grade level, here are some of the exams students are already taking: Regents, the SAT or ACT, plus assessments at the beginning and the end of the school year, and interim reviews, which are given periodically. All this on top of the tests students need to take to pass a class.
John King, commissioner of the state Education Department, said his department has provided "extensive resources and support for teachers" as they transition to the Common Core standards, an initiative adopted by dozens of states that lays out specific standards to be met for each grade level.
"At the end of the day, the changes we are making will help all students graduate prepared for success in college and careers," King said in a statement.
King said the state has "gone to great lengths to account for the increased difficulty of this year's assessments in teachers' growth scores." Under state law, 40 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation is based on test scores.
Several teachers said they're spending too much time administering tests and the children are overstressed.
"I spent approximately six weeks this year getting children ready for tests or giving them tests," said Kathleen Taylor, a cosmetology and special education teacher at Ulster BOCES. "The amount of money our schools are spending on these tests at a time when we have a 2 percent (property) tax cap is ridiculous."
Jeff Yonkers, who has been teaching physical education for 30 years at Grimes Elementary School in Mt. Vernon, Westchester County, said the state is "desperately trying to take fun and enthusiasm out of teaching."
"We can't allow them to do it," Yonkers said.
While the rally drew major support from teachers unions at the state, local and national level, it also attracted support staffers and parents who came to lend themselves to the effort.
"I think it's important that parents, workers, teachers, everybody who feels this is an important topic be here to support the teachers," said Wendy Davis, a computer programmer at Broome-Tioga BOCES in Binghamton. "This testing, it's going to scare these kids right off."
According to a report from the Brookings Institute in November of last year, New York state spends the least on state assessments per student at just $7 - compared to $114 per student in the District of Columbia, which the report says spends most per student for the exams.
By Joesph Spector, Gannett Albany
Jeff Preval, 2 On Your Side contributed to this report