New York has been at the center of a national “opt-out” movement in which thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core standards or to similar standards in states that had originally adopted the Core but dropped them and designed their own. New York officials had signed on several years ago to a multi-state consortium known as PARCC, which developed new tests aligned to the Common Core, which public schools in the state have been implementing. But New York decided not to administer PARCC for various reasons and contracted with Pearson to design its own set of tests, which students have taken for a few years and will take again this month. The state now wants to design yet another new test and is seeking proposals from test companies.
Last year some 60,000 students declined to take the tests in New York, and this year many more are expected. In this post, one mother explains in a letter to her daughter’s teacher why she is opting her child out of New York tests being given this month. The author is Britt Hamre, a lecturer in the Elementary Inclusive Program and co-odirector of the Inclusive Classrooms Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. She wrote the following letter to her daughter’s teacher about why she will not her child to take the state of New York’s Common Core tests this month. Here it is, with her permission.
Here’s the letter from Britt Hamre to her daughter’s teacher:
It is with the highest level of respect for you that I’m writing to inform you that Haven will not participate in the state mandated standardized tests this April. Using student test scores to rate and rank students and teachers is an ethically unsound practice and is degrading to the profession of teaching.
This year I have been in awe of your incredible skills as Haven’s teacher, and I know that no standardized test can come even close to capturing what she has learned in your classroom. Furthermore, your bravery and resolve in the face of the top down pressures from the State of New York may weigh on you, but you do not let that determine your curricular decisions. Instead you teach with your heart and soul, and your excitement has ignited Haven’s passion for social studies, reading, writing, and mathematics. No standardized test can measure the spirited dinner conversations Haven has initiated this year about immigration, thanks to your elaborately designed integrated social studies curriculum. I listen carefully as Haven describes class field trips in New York City, her excitement about historical fiction, and her deep analysis of primary sources and questions regarding privilege, prejudice and access. I cannot count the number of times Haven has greeted me at the door with, “Mom, did you know…?!” No test could possibly be designed to measure the multitude of ways in which she extends the investigations you start in class, or document the initiation she has taken to write her own books at home about the immigrants living in her mind. Her learning is demonstrated in her written work, performance of role-plays, various conversations, not to mention your regular curriculum newsletters, extensive and detailed narrative reports, and personal emails. Watching Haven learn this year has deepened my own commitment to preparing teachers to design integrated curriculum that examines enduring questions and takes up multiple perspectives. Haven’s learning is travelling far beyond the walls of your single classroom. I do not need a test score to validate her learning this year.
Haven is what most people would describe as a “good student.” She completes her work, she follows the rules, and she gets along well with her peers. Simply put, Haven is good at school. But this year, in your class, Haven cannot just slide by with simple compliance. Instead, you encourage her to take risks, be responsible for her own learning, and communicate clearly when she is struggling with a concept or skill. You see her. You really see her for who she is as a person, a learner, friend, and then you personalize your approach to best facilitate her development. Grace, I know that your personalized approach to teaching is not something special for just our daughter; throughout your eighteen years of teaching, you’ve honed your ability to promote high expectations for all children and uniquely support and challenge each child in your class. Your teaching practices are grounded in the understanding that learning happens when authentic relationships are built, trust is cultivated, and meaningful experiences are shared. When students feel that they belong and are seen for their unique contributions, they are more willing to engage and be open to taking risks. The value you have added to Haven’s development as a person and our lives is immeasurable. No test can measure that.
Mostly though, a test can’t measure Haven’s notions of justice or civic engagement and it is that aspect of who she is becoming that weighs heavily on my mind. It is scary to go against the grain, and stand up for one’s ideals, especially when the easier path is to be compliant, not rock the boat, not cause waves. However, I cannot stand by and watch Haven grow up making decisions out of fear: fear of being different, fear of consequences. We are raising Haven to be an upstander, not a bystander. We know that you too could bow under the pressure of mandated curriculum designed by outside corporations and published on the New York State Department of Education website. You could abandon your integrated curriculum and devote hours preparing children for the tests, but you courageously refuse to take that path. For this act of upstanding, we thank you. You have not bowed to pressure to “raise achievement test scores” but instead, are committed to creating, maintaining, and sustaining a true learning environment. And then you carefully document and assess that learning. Unlike the politicians and business leaders who are determining state and federal educational policy, you are not confused about the difference between learning and achievement test scores.
It is well known that using student test scores to calculate a teacher’s value added (VAM) score is unreliable as a measure of teacher effectiveness. A recent study found little to no correlation between high-quality instructional practices and VAM scores. This misalignment is painfully apparent to practitioners in the field; in their letter to the Board of Regents, principals Carol Burris and Sean Feeney explain several problems with the Value Add Model and with New York State’s APPR model for evaluating teachers.
Instead, there are numerous educational studies demonstrating that students’ test performance scores highly correlate with family income and mother’s education level, rather than with learning growth from year to year. We will not participate in a policy that is inequitable, exclusionary and destructive to children, teachers, and public schools. It is also important to openly acknowledge the privileged status I have in a historically and systemically racist society. As a white, middle class, woman with a doctorate in education from Teachers College, I have benefited my whole life from a segregated educational system, as does my daughter. It is this same privilege that allows me to feel confident in my right to opt her out, with confidence that she is less likely to be negatively affected by this action.
Every family has mantras and values they want their children to understand, espouse, and live by. For us, these values include equity, inclusion, critical thinking, and activism. Using test scores to rank teachers and schools is not only unscientific – as the evidence conclusively demonstrates that achievement tests are not reliable or valid measures of teachers’ effectiveness – but it has fostered an environment of divisiveness, extreme competition, and exclusion. As an educator, I can see that high-stakes testing has had many detrimental effects as schools struggle to raise test scores, at the expense of providing children a rich and deep curriculum.
Haven’s middle name is Walker. We named her that so as to have a daily reminder of Alice Walker and the lifelong work she has done for equality, social justice, and anti-racism. Recently at a rally at City Hall, a parent ended her speech with a quote by Alice Walker and Haven’s eyes shone with pride when hearing the words of her namesake. I want to close with that quote; Alice Walker stated, “The most common way people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Opting Haven out of the state-mandated tests is our family’s act of civil disobedience.
We may be one family, with one child required to take a state test, but change can start with one person, and we will not give up our right and responsibility to be the voice of dissent.