Corporate education reformers who seek to reduce teaching and learning to a single score are beginning to realize they are losing the public relations battle. Hundreds of thousands of families across the country are opting out in what has become largest revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.
Because most of their arguments are increasingly discredited because of this uprising, they are desperately attempting to cling to one last defense of the need to subject our students to a multibillion-dollar testing industry.
Charles F. Coleman, Jr. supported this last ditch effort for the “testocracy” when he took up former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s argument that opposition to standardized testing was only from out of touch “white suburban moms.” Coleman has in the past written pieces in support of making black lives matter, but in this careless piece he dismissed the opt out movement as a privileged white effort:
Boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most….White parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance.
Here are six reasons why Coleman’s belief that opting out hurts students of color is fundamentally flawed and why his belief that accountability and academic success require high-stakes standardized testing is just plain old wrong.
1. Extreme over-testing disproportionately harms students of color.
Coleman admits in his essay, “there should be concerns raised over excessive testing and devoting too much classroom instruction to test prep.” But he doesn’t acknowledge how destructive excessive testing has become (especially for children of color) or credit the opt out movement for revealing the outsized role that testing is playing in education. No one—certainly not the media—would even be talking about the excessive testing in schools if it wasn’t for the opt out movement. And the amount of testing in the public schools today isn’t just excessive—it’s extreme. The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation!
But the crux of the issue is that the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Schools that serve more black and brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking. The corporate education reformers behind high stakes testing, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family want their own kids to have the time and support to explore the arts, music, drama, athletics, debate and engage in a rich curriculum of problem solving and critical thinking. Rote memorization for the next standardized tests is good enough for the rest of us.
2. Communities of color are increasingly joining and leading the opt out movement.
While it’s true that currently the students opting out are disproportionately white, to portray opting out as a white people thing is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a black women, is one of the most important leaders in the country against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols at New York City’s Castlebridge Elementary School (comprising 72 percent students of color) led the opt out movement there. They gained national prominence and helped to ignite the opt out movement across the country in 2013 when more than 80 percent of families refused to allow their kids to take a standardized test. The school had to cancel the test altogether.
One of the largest student protests against high-stakes testing in U.S. history occurred last spring when many hundreds of students in New Mexico—at schools that served 90% Latino students—walked out of school and refused to take the new Common Core exams. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones.
In my hometown, the Seattle/King County NAACP hosted a press conference last spring to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”
Or check out the brilliant podcast, “These Tests Will Go,” The Opt-Out Movement in Urban Philadelphia, whichdocuments the uprising of African American parents determined to make their kids more than a test score and fighting for the programs their kids deserve.
3. The federal government hasn’t punished schools for opting out.
Coleman argues that if the number of students taking the required standardized tests drops below 95 percent, the government can cut funding to schools, and that will be most damaging to students of color. However, the federal government has never—not even once—cut funds to a school district for its high opt out numbers. While No Child Left Behind initially had a provision for penalties against large opt out numbers, which carried over to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the “testocracy” seems to be too afraid to use this clause.
Moreover, the opt out movement holds the potential to actually increase the amount of school funding. The many millions of dollars wasted on ranking and sorting our children with standardized tests every year could be spent on tutoring programs, counseling services, art teachers, nurses, librarians, music programs, ethnic studies classes, and many services our children deserve.
4.Test-and-Punish policies are cruel and inequitable.
High-stakes tests are being used around the country to label children and schools as failing, to prevent kids from graduating, to fire teachers, and to close schools. Chicago Board of Education voted in 2013 to close some 49 of the city’s public schools—schools that served approximately 87 percent black students. In 71 percent of the schools had a majority of teachers and staff were African-Americans. The standardized tests the students take register racial and class bias, measure the lack of resources available to schools, and then provide cover for shutting them down.
A review by the National Research Council concluded high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. African American, Latino, American Indian and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test. High stakes tests often inaccurately assess English language learners—measuring their understating of English and the dominant culture rather than the subject they are being tested in. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.
5) Standardized testing was invented by white supremacists and maintains institutional racism today.
Once you know the history of standardized tests in public schools, you can never fall for Coleman’s absurd assertion that, “boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most.” Standardized tests first entered American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “high-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”
One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing—especially in service of ranking the races—came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” noted in 1924 what today we call the “Zip Code Effect”—what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.
6. There are better ways than high stakes testing to improve education for children of color.
Coleman asserts that, “Standardized testing, albeit imperfect, remains one of the best ways to ensure that teachers, schools, and school districts are held accountable for making sure children are succeeding.” A huge body of evidence contradicts this statement, and points to the power of an inquiry based pedagogy, coupled with authentic forms of assessment. Take, for example, the New York Consortium Schools for Performance Based Assessment. These fully public schools have a waiver from state tests and instead use performance-based assessments. Students work with a faculty mentor to develop an idea, conduct research, and then defend a body of work to a panel of experts—including school administration, other teachers, and outside experts and practitioners in the field of study.
If the testocracy is right—if it’s true that high-stakes standardized testing is the key to improving accountability and performance—then these New York consortium schools that don’t give the state standardized test should be the very worst schools in New York City. However, comprehensives studies show Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller gaps in outcomes between students of color and their white peers than the rest of New York’s public schools.
Conclusion: Hold the system accountable
Coleman’s arguments lamenting students of color score worse on the tests than their white peers—without acknowledging the ways in which systematic underfunding of schools, poverty, and institutional racism have disfigured our school system—end up pathologizing communities of color rather than supporting them. The U.S. school system is more segregated today than at any time since 1968. The majority of students attending public school in the U.S. today live in poverty. The school-to-prison-pipeline (including disproportionate suspension rates and the use of high-stakes testing) has contributed to the fact that there are now more black people behindbars, on probation, or on parole than were slaves on plantations in 1850. As education professor Pedro Noguera has said, “We’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.”
Our task must be to build multiracial alliances in the opt out movement that can produce the kind of solidarity it will take to defeat a testing juggernaut that is particularly destructive to communities of color—while causing great damage to all of our schools. And while must begin by standing up to the multibillion dollar testing industry by opting out, we must also create a vision for an uprising that opts in to antiracist curriculum, ethnic studies programs, wrap around services to support the academic and social and emotional development of students, programs to recruit teachers of color, restorative justice programs that eliminate zero tolerance discipline practices, and beyond.
Now, back to writing that opt out letter for my son.
Jesse Hagopian is the Progressive Education Seattle Fellow. Jesse teaches history and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013.
This letter may be a bit heavy on the education speak, but it’s also a clear response to to those who are arguing that we don’t need to opt our kids out of the high stakes this year. --Rachel
Open Letter to all NYS Superintendents and Board of Education Members — Do the Right Thing
December 31, 2015
Dear New York State Superintendents and Boards of Education Members,
I write this letter to you on the eve of a new year. The past year has brought many changes to education — a new Commissioner, a soon-to-be new Chancellor, new regulations on APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review), new Regents, a new testing company for the NY State tests, the Education Transformation Act, the partial moratorium of provisions of this Act, and the re-write of ESEA to ESSA. We are being told by some that everything is fine now, the parents can opt back in to having their children take the tests, the teachers can take a breath, and the children can stop stressing out. Let me assure you that this is not true.
Despite the well wishes of Commissioner Elia in her recent newsletter, it is doubtful that teachers will have a happy holiday. Ms. Elia tries to assuage the teachers’ fears in the opening paragraph with the following: “The emergency regulation removes any consequences for teachers’ and principals’ evaluations related to the grades 3–8 English Language Arts (ELA) and Math State Assessments and the State-provided growth score on Regents exams until the start of the 2019–2020 school year.” Teachers can take a much needed sigh of relief. Or can they?
In the third paragraph of the newsletter, Ms. Elia writes: “The transition scores and subsequent ratings will be determined based on the remaining subcomponents of the APPR that are not based on the grades 3–8 ELA or Math State assessments and/or a State-provided growth score on Regents examinations. During the transition period, only the transition score and rating will be used for purposes of evaluation, and for purposes of employment decisions, including tenure determinations and for teacher and principal improvement plans. State-provided growth scores will continue to be computed for advisory purposes and overall HEDI ratings will continue to be provided to teachers and principals.” What Ms. Elia gives teachers in the first paragraph, she snatches from them in this one.
In the first paragraph one might infer that no matter how poorly students do on the state tests, it won’t count against the teacher. However, she later clarifies that, in fact, the student test scores can and will be used for “advisory purposes.” Does that mean that teachers can still be fired for “ineffective” growth scores based on their earlier growth scores? You bet it does. The moratorium that the Board of Regents recently put in place is for state-provided growth scores moving forward. However, if a teacher or principal already has two “ineffective” state provided growth scores (2013–2014 and 2014–2015), under the new 3012d, if they receive an additional ineffective this year, they must be fired. In addition, the growth scores of the teacher must still be made available to parents.
As you are all probably well aware, the opt out movement has grown exponentially over the past three years, from about 20,000 in 2012–2013, to 65,000 in 2013–2014, to over 240,000 in 2014–2015. Why are parents opting out in such large numbers? What will happen this spring? Parents have been shouting from the rooftops what they want: the end of Common Core, the end of the developmentally inappropriate tests (both the level of “rigor” and the soul-crushing length of the tests), the end of high stakes testing (student testing tied to teacher effectiveness or school ratings), and the unfettered collection of their children’s data to stop. Additionally, Commissioner Elia signed a new contract with Questar without a full vetting or vote by the Board of Regents. Has enough been done to stop the opt out movement? I don’t think so.
- We still have Pearson making this year’s 3–8 tests in ELA and math. As a matter of fact, Pearson will also be playing a role in next year’s tests according to this Newsday article. As reported by John Hildebrand, “State education officials said local teachers and administrators will be given a much bigger role, working with Questar to write new test questions. Those officials acknowledged, however, that questions developed by Pearson must be used in tests administered in April and in the spring of 2017, because of the time needed to review new questions for validity and accuracy.”
- We will likely still have tests that are far too long and far too “rigorous.” Ms. Elia has stated that certain reading passages and some multiple choice questions would be eliminated, but admitted that these changes will not substantially reduce the length of the tests. The tests will still be administered three days for ELA and three days for math for grades 3–8.
- Despite a promise that onerous field tests would be eliminated if NYSED received $8.4 million to print different versions of the exam, they were provided with this funding but are still imposing field tests on the state’s students.
- We still have tests tied to teacher and principal effectiveness ratings. As stated above, teachers and principals can still be fired based on state-provided growth scores in grades 3–8 tests from the last two years — and all other teachers will have their effectiveness ratings based primarily on local assessments or high school Regents exams.
- We still have standards that are developmentally inappropriate and a Commissioner that is determined to make minor adjustments solely at the K-3 level.
- We still have a system in place that collects enormous amounts of data on our children, without protecting the privacy of this sensitive information. According to Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, the Daily Mail reports, “Students’ names, emails, addresses, grades, test scores, disabilities, disciplinary information, health information, economic status, racial status and more,” are being collected by schools, districts and the state; with little or no restrictions on their disclosure.
Last year, the threat of losing any Title I monies for any district not meeting the required 95% participation rate was put to rest by Governor Cuomo, Chancellor Tisch, and then reluctantly, Commissioner Elia. They knew then that if they withheld any money that goes to the neediest students, it would have been political suicide. Yet, despite the fact that the new version of ESEA, called Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, specifically bars the US Department of Education from penalizing states that have high opt out numbers, they are still threatening the loss of federal money from any district not meeting the 95% participation rate.
According to this letter, dated December 22, 2015, from USDOE’s Ann Whelan — the threats/sanctions include:
- Lowering an LEA’s or school’s rating in the State’s accountability system or amending the system to flag an LEA or school with a low participation rate.
- Counting non-participants as non-proficient in accountability determinations.
- Requiring an LEA or school to develop an improvement plan, or take corrective action to ensure that all students participate in the statewide assessments in the future, and providing the SEA’s process to review and monitor such plans.
- Requiring an LEA or school to implement additional interventions aligned with the reason for low student participation, even if the State’s accountability system does not officially designate schools for such interventions.
- Designating an LEA or school as “high risk,” or a comparable status under the State’s laws and regulations, with a clear explanation for the implications of such a designation.
- Withholding or directing use of State aid and/or funding flexibility.
Clearly, these threats are being made to quash the opt out movement. However, I assure you these tactics will have the opposite effect.
There are roughly 700 school districts in New York State. That means there are about 700 Superintendents who were hired by locally-elected Boards of Education. These Superintendents work for their communities and they are evaluated by their Boards of Education. Superintendents know that VAM (value-added model) has been deemed invalid and unreliable in measuring teacher effectiveness. Superintendents know that the state tests are too long and are not developmentally appropriate.
One of the claims of the newly written ESSA was that it would re-establish state’s rights and “local control” with regard to education. Do these threats indicate more local control? Instead, the US Department of Education, now led by John King, our former Commissioner, whose rigid authoritarianism was soundly rejected by our state’s teachers, parents, and students, seems to be intent on ignoring what should have been learned through his experience: that parents will be even angrier and more intent on resisting the more they are exhorted to submit.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In any society, it is every citizen’s responsibility to obey just laws. But at the same time, it is every citizen’s responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” It is long past time for our education leaders to lead the charge. The parents will opt out in unprecedented numbers this spring. However, what if the 700 Superintendents refused to administer the tests? What if their locally-elected boards directed them to do so? What if there was a test, but no one took it?
General Colin Powell once said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems, is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Who will stand up for the children? Who will stand up for the teachers? Who will stand up for the schools and for public education? Who will demand that we deserve better? If not you, who? If not now, when?
New York State Public School Parent
PS — Please share with the Superintendent of schools and Board of Education members where you live.
The Advocacy Committee is sharing some recent testing-related news. (Document adapted from one made for I.C.E. parent advocacy group by Kemala Karmen)
1) FEDERAL: The President signed into law the successor bill to No Child Left Behind, the legislation that mandated annual state testing in grades 3-8. The new law, Every Child Succeeds Act [ESSA], looks like an improvement at first glance, but the annual testing requirement remains, and journalists and bloggers who are actually reading the telephone-book sized bill have started to publish some revelatory stories, some straight-up weird.
2) STATE: Governor Cuomo’s Task Force on the Common Core made its recommendations. For years, many TNS families have refused the state tests, deeming them to be too long, poorly constructed, and inappropriate as the basis of teacher evaluations. Now the governor’s own task force agrees with us. But as with ESSA, we might want to delve a little deeper before doing a victory dance.
3) CITY: In December a Brooklyn superintendent, mincing no words, made clear that educators risk disciplinary action if they freely share their professional take on testing. A 3-minute video of her exchange with parents has started to go viral. We request that you watch it and share with friends everywhere; it’s chilling. That educator gag order is just one of several roadblocks NYC Department of Education puts up to deter test resistance from catching fire in the city. No Threat Left Behind illuminates the strategy the city uses to stifle the opt out movement, which is much larger elsewhere in the state.
All of these developments have led NYSAPE (New York Allies for Public Education), a coalition of 50 grassroots activist organizations, to declare: Parents Will Continue to Opt Out Until Ed Law Repealed & Real Change Seen in the Classrooms.
By Valerie Strauss September 28, 2015
On April 13, a school bus passes a sign encouraging parents to refuse to allow their children to take state school tests in Rotterdam, N.Y. (Mike Groll/AP)
The movement among parents to refuse to allow their children to take Common Core-aligned standardized tests has been growing for several years in states across the country, with some 20 percent of eligible students refusing to take them this past spring in New York and tens of thousands more sitting out the exams in other states as well. Here’s why and how one mother began the opt-out movement in New York.
This was written by Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund. Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.
By Carol Burris
Jeanette Deutermann did not intend to become the leader of the most effective testing opt-out organization in the United States. She was a suburban mom trying to figure out why her son no longer wanted to go to school.
The year that Long Island Opt Out began, Tyler Deutermann was an unhappy fourth-grader with school anxiety that was increasing every day. During February 2012, Jeanette Deutermann began investigating why her son, who once loved school, so much now hated it.
“I saw it emerge a little bit during testing season in third grade,” Deutermann said. “But then the test anxiety became constant in fourth grade. After speaking with teachers and parents, I knew it was the testing.”
The 2011-12 school year was the first year that teachers in New York State were to be evaluated by the test scores of their students. Anxiety across the board was running high. She read a letter signed by over one-third of New York’s principals that explained why evaluating teachers by test scores would have unintended negative consequences on students. Jeanette began to connect the dots, and she realized that high-stakes testing was the reason that her child and his education were falling apart.
“I had to speak out and let other parents know. I felt like a whistleblower — I did not have a choice,” she explained.
Tyler, she decided, would not take the test. In order to organize other like-minded parents, she began a Facebook group — Long Island Opt-Out. It started out small — the first year, 1,000 students on Long Island refused the test. Membership in the group ballooned to over 16,000 in year two. Today, Long Island Opt Out has over 23,000 members.
Opt Out has spread across the state of New York like wildfire. In the spring of 2014, between 55,000 and 65,000 students refused to take the Grades 3-8 Common Core tests, with about half of those numbers coming from Long Island. In 2015, the number was in excess of 200,000 test refusals — which meant that 20 percent of all possible test takers’ parents said, “not my child.”
New York is not alone in test resistance. Opt out in Florida began when teacher Ceresta Smith joined five others from Florida, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania to start a national organization, United Opt Out. By 2013, the Florida opt-out movement began to take off. According to parent activist Sandy Stenoff: “We formed Opt Out Orlando in the spring of 2013 as a way to start with our local community, and in anticipation of Common Core rolling out. The group has grown steadily, but exploded this year, with the implementation of the new CCSS-aligned Florida State Assessment, particularly because of the technical challenges of online implementation.”
Stenoff, via Opt Out Orlando, started to help local districts start their own opt out groups in 2014. They were aided in their effort this year when Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart announced that there would be no opt outs permitted on her watch. Numbers skyrocketed from 800 to 3,000 in one month. Stenoff sees opt out in her state growing steadily. “There are now more than 40 opt-out groups in 34 of Florida’s 67 districts. As of last week, we are now The Opt Out Florida Network.”
Last year about 4,000 Albuquerque, N.M., students refused the PARCC Common Core tests. In response, Albuquerque public schools are publishing an Opt Out kit for parents in order to help opt out go smoother this year.
New Jersey Opt Out began in 2013, started by two sisters, Jean McTavish and Susan Schutt. Fifteen percent of all eleventh-graders in New Jersey refused the state PARCC exam this year. In Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain High School, only 9 percent of the 11th-graders, 16 percent of the 10th-graders and 30 percent of the ninth-graders showed up to take the PARCC Common Core tests this past spring. In Pennsylvania, elementary math state test refusals exceeded 4,000. In Washington State, 62,000 students opted out of the Common Core SBAC tests.
Monty Neil is the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). He saw testing resistance begin in the 1999-2000 school year, but during the last three years it has become “a real phenomenon,” he said. In January of 2013, the teachers of Seattle’s Garfield High announced their unanimous vote to not give the school’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. One month later, the teachers of Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago refused to give the state’s ISAT exam. When students began organizing testing walkouts in Portland, Oregon’s Cleveland High School two months after that, Neil realized that “we were on the edge of a movement.”
Neil attributes the growth of opt out to “testing overkill and its high stakes.” He believes that parents see the new teacher evaluations as administrators using their child’s test results to move against teachers whom they like. Parents see that “my kid is not happy” and they question testing, Neil said. These concrete experiences are turning the tide.
And that tide has turned. The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll shows that the public rejects testing as the driver of policy and sanctions. Sixty-four percent of those polled said that there was far too much emphasis on testing in schools, and a majority does not want teachers evaluated by test scores. Seven out of 10 said that Washington should not have a say in holding schools accountable or determining testing — a clear repudiation of the policies pushed by No Child Left Behind and accelerated by Race to the Top. On the issue of opt out, the public was about evenly split.
Meanwhile, Jeanette and parent activists are gearing up for another season of opt out. They are determined to grow the movement until high-stakes testing is stopped. And they continue to connect the dots, deepening their understanding of how testing threatens the local public schools that they love.
Opt-out parents are now seeing beyond the stress of their children and becoming attuned to the connections between testing and charter schools, the Common Core, teacher evaluations based on test scores, school closings and other politically popular policies designed to undermine public schooling. Opt out has become a movement of civil disobedience and of conscience against corporate school reform.
And what might education look like if testing goes away? Jeanette Deutermann surveyed teachers to find out how instruction would change if they knew in the fall that nearly all of their students were opting out of spring testing. Their responses are well worth the read. You can find them here.
You can read article with live links here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/09/28/her-son-began-hating-school-what-happened-when-she-found-out-why/
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