Last year the parents of about 60,000 New York state students decided to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized testing, putting the state at the forefront of an “opt-out” movement that is growing nationally. That movement will be put to its own test as new Common Core testing are scheduled to begin shortly in states around the country. In this post, award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York explains why she is now calling for parents to choose to keep their children from taking high-stakes standardized tests even though it breaks the rules.
Burris, who has written frequently for this blog, 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, and in 2010, was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Burris has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York for years on this blog, and it is worth reading. Some of her earlier posts are listed at the bottom.
By Carol Burris
It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing. The bizarre notion that subjecting 9-year-olds to hours of high-stakes tests is a “civil right,” is embedded in the thinking of both parties. Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder.
And then there are the Common Core State Standards. Legislators talk a good game to appease parents, but for all their bluff and bluster, they are quite content to use code names, like the West Virginia Next Generation Content Standards, to trick their constituents into believing their state standards are unique, even though most are word for word from the Common Core.
The only remedy left to parents is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in. As professor of Language and Composition, Ira Shor, bluntly stated:
Because our kids cannot defend themselves, we have to defend them. We parents must step in to stop it. We should put our foot down and say, “Do it to your own kids first before you experiment on ours!”
Last year Shor’s son, who attends school in New Jersey, joined the estimated 60,000 New York students whose parents decided that they had enough. That number will grow this year as billboards urging parents to Refuse the Test pop up across the state. The proposed reforms of Governor Cuomo, who once declared, “I am the government,” will push Opt Out numbers higher still.
Opt Out is also growing in New Jersey as parents and teachers rebel against the nearly 10-hour PARCC tests. The New Jersey Education Association has publicly supported a parent’s right to refuse PARCC, recently calling on districts to provide an alternate setting for students who refuse during the tests. The NJEA has also launched an education campaign against unnecessary standardized testing.
On the West Coast, California is asking for another year’s exemption from the Common Core Smarter Balance assessment, and Washington State was willing to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver — given by the Obama administration to exempt states from the onerous NCLB mandates in exchange for promises to enact specific reforms — rather than further elevate the status of testing by using student test scores to evaluate teachers.
There is a role for standardized tests, if they are limited, developmentally appropriate and provide useful instructional feedback. High-stakes tests, however, that are given for school accountability purposes, are being rejected by parents because they have failed to meet those standards. A growing grassroots pushback against these tests will manifest itself in acts of protest and civil disobedience. Here are four reasons why that pushback will continue to grow:
Backlash against the Common Core
The Common Core tests—PARCC, Smarter Balance and the other Pearson-developed tests for states like New York and Kentucky—are far longer than previous tests. They are also unreasonably difficult—especially for young children. Literacy expert, Russ Walsh, analyzed the sample PARCC test for readability. Walsh showed that the majority of the passages on the sample PARCC test are about two years beyond the expected reading level for the grade. He concludes that the PARCC test will provide very limited information for parents and will result in frustration for students.
As inappropriate as these tests may be, they are driving instruction and no matter what a state may name its standards, as these tests come online, classroom instruction will reflect the Common Core.
Pain but no gain
Two recent position papers, one by Kevin Welner and Bill Mathis of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), and a second by Neal McClusky, the associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, demonstrate that there is no conclusive evidence that NCLB high-stakes testing has accomplished its goal of improving the academic performance of economically disadvantaged students while decreasing the racial achievement gap.
At the same time, as noted in the NEPC memo endorsed by over 1600 scholars, there have been demonstrated negative effects from annual high-stakes testing, which include less creative and engaging schooling; the de-professionalization of teachers and teaching; the reduction of teaching of the arts, music, social studies, and science; and the marginalizing of student skill development in areas such as problem solving, cooperation, and reasoning.
Annual high-stakes testing has not resulted in equity gains
The alleged benefit of annual high stakes testing was to unveil the achievement gaps, and by doing so, close them. All that has been closed are children’s neighborhood schools. In a powerful piece in the Huffington Post, Fairfield University Professor Yohuru Williams argues that annual high-stakes testing feeds racial determinism and closes doors of opportunity for black and brown children.
Last year, Alan Aja and I presented evidence on how the Common Core and its tests are hurting, not helping, disadvantaged students.
The cat is out of the bag
Both the policies and rhetoric around high-stakes testing has made the real agenda very clear—the purpose of Common Core high-stakes testing is to replace our locally controlled public school systems with charters, on-line schools and private schools funded by vouchers, while creating a constant churn of teachers whose work is reduced to test preparation.
As Russ Walsh wryly puts it:
The results of the PARCC will no doubt feed into the education reform movement narrative that our kids, schools and teachers are failing. A cynic might think that is was deliberate. That this was a way to continue to discredit public school teachers, children and schools. If I wanted to advance this narrative, I would devise a test that arbitrarily raised the standards, provide some pseudo-science to make it appear reasonable, make sure students and teachers had limited time to adjust to the new testing standards and then broadcast the predictable results widely.
If you doubt Walsh’s speculation, read Andrew Cuomo’s juxtaposition of Common Core test results with the proportion of teachers rated effective in in order to justify increasing the role of test scores in teacher evaluations. In that same speech, other proposed reforms include replacing cities’ locally elected school boards with mayoral control, the expansion of charter schools, and the establishment of a mentoring commission to be led by his mother.
Cuomo’s constant berating of public schools and their teachers is right out of the privatization playbook. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute observed back in 2012, the purpose of setting cut scores on Common Core tests so high is to convince suburban parents that their schools and its teachers are failing. The collateral damage done to students by that agenda apparently is secondary to Common Core testing enthusiasts.
I am a rule follower by nature. I have never gotten a speeding ticket. I patiently wait my turn in lines. I am the product of 12 years of Catholic schools–raised in a blue-collar home where authority was not to be questioned. I was the little girl who always colored in the lines.
But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to Opt Out is now.
Clarification: Ira Shor’s son opted out of tests last year in New Jersey. The original version suggested it was in New York.
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