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‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate’


A growing number of parents are opting their children out of taking high-stakes standardized tests, but do school reformers who have imposed the testing regimes really understand why? Award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York doesn’t think so. Burris, who has for more than a year chronicled on the test-driven reform in her state (here, and here and here and here, for example) 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 tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”  In the 1967 Paul Newman movie classic, that memorable line is used by Captain to justify beating Cool Hand Luke.  Captain of  Road Prison 36 has just told Luke that he is wearing chains for his own good—to which the prisoner cleverly responds,  “Wish you’d stop bein’ so good to me, Cap’n.

Reformers believe that “failure to communicate” is the reason for parent and teacher discontent.   When teachers complain about test scores in their evaluations, they are told that in time they will come to appreciate the system.  When parents object to multiple days of standardized testing, they are told that the tests will make their children college and career ready. The old scores were lies; the new ones are truth. If parents and teachers still do not understand why the tests are in their best interest, the defenders believe communication must improve.

Here is a case in point. Last week, the New York State Senate Education Committee, led by Long Island Senator John Flanagan, began its hearings on the Regents Reform Agenda.  Parents came out to speak out against the pace and direction of reform. Ken Wagner, the state’s associate commissioner of education, became defensive. He did not recognize the problems of excessive testing used for high stakes purposes. Instead, according to news reports, Wagner believed that the state has to better “explain its goals to teachers and parents”.

Wagner was echoing his boss, Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Last month she remarked:

We need to do a great job communicating why these new test scores that we’ve just seen are not an indicator that there’s been no learning or teaching going on.

It is all seen as just a failure to communicate. And therein lies the problem.  The focus on communication, rather than on a response to concerns, demonstrates a lack of faith in the ability of parents and teachers to understand what is occurring. Parents understand the high-stakes testing rationale.  They just don’t buy it.  The interpretation of grassroots parental opposition as a “communication failure” communicates arrogance.  It is the ultimate “nanny state” response—you do not understand what we know, and what we know and do are best for you.

It is clear that at least in New York, the Opt Out movement is growing.  It has become parents’ way of fighting back.  They are shouting, “Can you hear me now?”  No parent takes joy in opting out.  Last spring, I listened to parents grapple with the decision of whether their son or daughter should take Common Core tests. Many were deeply torn between their allegiance to their school and to what they believe is the best interest of their child. The saddest stories were those in which schools put high-stakes consequences on their opt out decision.  Some schools threatened grade retention or barring students from entry into elite programs.  Frankly, the sorting of students into programs by test scores is bad practice, even under the best of circumstances.

In her new book, Reign of Error, author Diane Ravitch expresses the discomfort that so many parents feel.  Ravitch writes:

Today we accord to standardized test scores the same power that was once granted to intelligence tests… Anyone who truly cares about children must be repelled by the insistence to ranking them, rating them and labeling them.  Whatever the tests measure, it is not the sum and substance of any child.


An enmity toward childhood is displayed in the labeling of one nine year old as “below basic” and another “advanced.”  In New York, these labels conspicuously fall along the lines of poor and rich, black and white, those learning English and those with English mastered. It is as though the desire to turn the public against their schools is so overpowering, there is no thought given to the collateral damage produced by the tests and the labels they generate.

Last year, I wondered what I would do if our daughters were still in school.  I wonder no more.  I would support our daughters if they refused the test.  I am hardly alone. An increasing number of educators are coming to the same conclusion.  We see first hand what is happening to our students and schools and we know it must stop.

Reformers who believe that better communication is the solution are wrong. Saying that testing and the generation of sorting labels will lead to school improvement cannot be better packaged. And when we are told that all of this is in our best interest, like Luke we think, “Wish you’d stop bein’ so good to me, Cap’n”.  There is no failure to communicate. The message is heard loud and clear.

Correction: Adding Wagner’s first name


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · September 23, 2013

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