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‘We refuse’

Liz Rosenberg and Takiema Bunche Smith, educators who have worked in New York City’s public and private schools for nearly twenty years, are also public school parents. Kemala Karmen formerly taught at the City University of New York. All three have children who attend PS 146 (Brooklyn New School), where a year-long, parent-led awareness campaign around high-stakes testing resulted in nearly 80 percent of families with students in testing grades refusing the New York State Common Core Assessments. In this piece they explain what sparked the campaign and why it continues.

  By Liz Rosenberg, Takiema Bunche Smith and Kemala Karmen

The Brooklyn New School has a long history of offering its students an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum. For decades, our school has lived and breathed many of the directives and priorities we now see enshrined in the Common Core Learning Standards:  Teach multiple strategies for solving math problems? Check. Emphasize nonfiction texts? Yes. Back up ideas with evidence? Of course!  We clearly do not object to standards per se.

Rather, families at BNS who refused New York’s Common Core assessments are standing up to the tests because we reject educational policies that have no basis in logic. That might seem hyperbolic, but how besides “illogical” would you describe a policy that mandates evaluating kindergarten teachers based on the test scores of third to fifth graders? What kind of logic could explain the sudden and drastic downshift in English proficiency, from 46 percent in 2012 to 26 percent in 2013, that the state claims to have taken place among its third- to eighth-grade students? Are we really to believe that students who were “proficient” last year are not this year, regardless of what they produced in the classroom from September to June?

Some will say, “Your school, one that serves middle class families, can afford to reject the tests. But schools that serve large numbers of children who live in poverty need these tests to make sure their teachers are holding students to high standards.” Leave aside, for the moment, the notion that poverty in New York City public schools is so pervasive that our school, in which nearly 1 out of 4 children qualifies for free or reduced lunch, reads as “affluent.” Consider instead what it means to use a test as the vehicle for holding a school and its students to high standards: the school will try to ensure that students do well on the test. How? To begin, it will have children practice some aspect of the test, every day, for weeks or even months. It will direct teachers to assemble huge test-prep packets and assign hours of mind-numbing homework that often confuses parent and child alike. The result? Children become experts in the test, while simultaneously losing interest in school entirely. The equation they memorize: learning=testing.

These same students could be spending their time engaged in a rich curriculum that prioritized experiential learning. They could be becoming experts in any number of subjects. Our children at BNS study China in third grade. They learn calligraphy; they make clay pots and watch, in fascinated awe, as their creations are fired in a big oil drum in the schoolyard; they study the life cycle of silk worms and the historical impact of the silk trade. The great majority of them love to come to school.

At report card time, a Brooklyn New School student receives no grades, but an entire single-spaced page of facts specific to that child, written by her teacher, and detailing her areas of strength and also the places where she has room for growth. This progress report covers not just academics, but also the child’s social and emotional development. We all know that students in private schools receive even more “personalized” instruction and feedbacksimply because the average class size at schools like the ones attended by Sasha and Malia Obama or New York State Education Commissioner John King’s children is 16. That is half the size of a Brooklyn New School class this year.

Standards and tests are not the great equalizers that they are cracked up to be. In fact, implementing high-stakes tests without adequate and appropriate funding and structural supports for schools will surely contribute to widening the gap between middle- and lower-income communities. Many “high performing” schools in middle-class neighborhoods do plenty of test prep to insure that they stay high performing. Their counterparts in poorer neighborhoods will increase hours and dollars spent on test prep so that they too can measure up. But schools in middle class neighborhoods have an additional, not-so-secret weapon: the middle class families who can afford to furnish their kids with out-of-school test prep and the kinds of extracurricular activities that confer the additional experiences and knowledge that can help students do well on tests. Knowing that their students are provided for in this way allows these schools to spend less time running on the test-prep wheel; they are better able to keep true, deep learning on the roster.

Conversely, and despite how much we hear from people in power that “test prep is not the answer,” at schools serving poorer, high-needs populations it is far more difficult to balance test prep with deep learning. Principals and teachers at these schools come to see copious test prep as the only clear way to keeping their school doors open and their jobs secure—an inescapable conclusion when test-score growth factors heavily into their own evaluations and that of their schools. As long-time educators, we know that just getting students to pass the test, if you can even accomplish that, does not result in long-term learning. All highly trained educators know that learning happens for young children through repeated hands-on, meaningful experiences. They learn when they have the chance to construct their knowledge through the use of multiple modalities such as talking, writing, and creating products.

This year many parents, teachers, and administrators in our school came together to change the conversation around testing. Our Parent Action Coalition and School Leadership Team sought out and shared the facts about testing; multiple meetings encouraged dialogue within the school community. At our school, we no longer default to taking the tests. From here on, parents will have to make a choice. They will have to grapple with hard questions as they decide to opt in or out: Do we want to participate in a larger system that is not really about kids learningnot our kids, or any kids? Do we risk our children’s options for screened middle schools? How do we balance what is best for our particular children with what is right for our teachers or school or city?

We are fortunate to have an administration and faculty that supports us in doing what we think is right. For 80 percent of third- to fifth-grade parents at Brooklyn New School, “right” means rejecting the tests, and all that they represent, for our kids and the kids in our brother and sister schools around the city. We are taking a stand that follows naturally from this sentiment, pulled from “The Love Letter,” a parent-written document addressed to our teachers and endorsed by hundreds of parents at the beginning of the school year:

 As parents in a school whose curriculum places child development at its center—with an emphasis on inquiry and project based-learning, and respect for multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles—we understand that taking time in the school day for explicit preparation for state tests is not what our school community believes in. We know that there are many other—more authentic and more meaningful—ways that you measure what our children know and can do. 
 Despite the pressure that you will be under this year, we write to tell you that we want you to continue to teach our children in all the ways that you do so well. We want them to take trips and explore the city and world they live in, not take endless practice exams; we want them to pursue meaningful and engaging questions, not learn to fill in bubbles for multiple- choice questions; we want to have their social and emotional development nurtured, and have them learn to be members of a community, not see school as only about repeating fed knowledge onto a test sheet. We want you to nurture their creativity, individuality, and love of learning, and not see them as a number or a score—one that labels them, or you, either a success or failure.
 We know that this will be a difficult year, but we write to say that we support and encourage you to continue your thoughtful, engaged, passionate practices, and that we stand behind you in that work.

We want ALL students in this country to have access to the type of learning environment our children are fortunate enough to experience. Our refusal of the tests this year is an act of civil disobedience; our teachers’ bodies and our children’s futures are on the tracks and we are offering a hand to pull them off. It is our right as parents and our responsibility as citizens to stop this testing train wreck: We REFUSE!