CHRIS HAYES: Eight former Atlanta public school teachers were sentenced to prison today, some ordered to serve up to seven years for their convictions in the cheating scandal that rocked the city and the nation two years ago. Investigators found that Atlanta teachers, under intense pressure to meet targets, had changed or erased student’s answers on standardized tests. And that scandal, one of the worst cheating scandals in the country’s history, provides one small window into the possible impact that high stakes testing can have on some school districts.
In the past 13 years of No Child Left Behind, many teachers across the country have openly revolted against testing regimes that they say put too much focus on data and force them to teach to the test.
Now parents are getting involved and organized and they’re turning the push to opt out of standardized tests into a full-fledged movement. Today, in New York State, tens of thousands of students in grades three through eight sat down to take the English language arts examine as part of a state assessment designed around New York’s Common Core standards. The math test is next Tuesday.
But many of their classmates were sitting out the test today amid outcry from parents concerned about the pressure it puts on their kids. In the Lower Hudson Valley, many districts reported that more than 25 percent of their students opted out, while in some districts, more than half didn’t take the test.
In the West Seneca School District near Buffalo in upstate New York, a whopping 70 percent of eligible students refused to participate. This is a third year of Common Core aligned testing. And so far, this year’s opt out numbers appear to be up, way up, from the 60,000 students statewide who opted out last year.
Some districts in the central part of the state near Syracuse, saw the number of students refusing to take the exam increase more than 600 percent.
Now, the opt out movement cuts across the usual ideological battle lines, because the tests are designed around Common Core standards, they draw fire from conservatives like Fox News personality Michelle Malkin, who object to government intrusion in education.
The tests are also opposed by many teachers unions, ordinarily no ally of the conservative movement. Those unions oppose linking students test results to teacher evaluation scores.
In New York, the state teachers unions ran robo calls to its members reminding them their children could opt out.
But for the most part, the opt out movement seems to have emerged from a kind of digital grassroots with parents spreading the word on Facebook and other social media platforms.
The Facebook group, for example, Long Island Opt Out, one of the biggest, has almost 22,000 members. They’re even keeping a spreadsheet
tracking the number of students who refuse the test in each individual school district on Long Island.
Up next, I will talk with the person behind New York State’s assessment and one of the most prominent critics of high stakes testing.
HAYES: All right, joining me now as promised, Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, author of the “Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” and Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regent, the top education official in the state of New York overseeing those tests today.
Let me start with you, Miss Tisch. When you see the reports of the opting out, the numbers from West Seneca, which are pretty striking, I got to say, is your reaction people are crazy? Or is your reaction we’re doing something wrong?
MERRYL TISCH: My reaction is obviously not that people are crazy. I think people should act in what they perceive to be the best interests of their children. And perhaps from our perspective we have not been clear enough in describing the intent of the test.
The intent of the test is to give a snapshot of performance and allow parents to know where their children are at any given point in their educational career as compared to their peers. If you talk about income inequality in this country, income inequality is directly tied to the achievement gap for our poor students. Those students, if they are not given access and opportunity to high quality education, they simply cannot move along at a continuum.
HAYES: OK. But there’s a whole — let’s sort of bracket the sociology of poverty for a moment… there’s lot of things I could contest about in what direct the causation of that link flows, right? But here’s the question to you, Miss Ravitch…I had someone who works in education who I respect compare testing opt out to people opting out of immunization, because basically it was like, look, yeah, your kid is probably not going to get measles and, like, if you think there’s some downside you can opt out, but then you’re just a free rider because the policy as a whole is a necessary means of figuring out where people are, assessing, right? You need this data.
If you start allowing people to opt out, you’ve just destroyed the entire dataset. Like, what are they going to do in West Seneca to judge anything year over year when one year they have data and the next they don’t have any data?
DIANE RAVITCH: It’s totally inappropriate to compare opting out of testing to opting out of immunization. One has a scientific basis, the other has none. The tests that kids take today have nothing to do with the tests that we took when we were kids. When we were kids, we took an hour test to see how we did in reading, an hour test to so how we did in math. Children today in third grade are taking eight hours of testing. They’re spending more time taking tests than people taking the bar exam.
Now, when we talk about the results of the test, they come back four to six months later. The kids already have a different teacher. And all they get is a score and a ranking. The teachers can’t see the item analysis. They can’t see what the kids got wrong. They can’t — they’re getting no instructional gain, no possibility of improvement for the kids, because there’s no value to the test. They have no diagnostic value.
If you go to a doctor and you say, ‘I have a pain,’ and the doctor says, ‘I’ll get back to you in six months,’ and he gets back to you and tells you how you compare to everyone else in the state, but he doesn’t have any medicine for you.
HAYES: Respond to that.
TISCH: Well, I would say that the tests are really a diagnostic tool that is used to inform instruction and curriculum development throughout the state. New York State spends $54 billion a year on educating 3.2 million schoolchildren. For $54 billion a year I think New Yorkers deserve a snapshot of how our kids are doing, how our schools are doing, how our systems are doing. There is a really important data point…
HAYES: Wait. … I just want to point out something. That was interestingly nonresponsive to what she said, right? She’s saying this does not work as diagnostic tool for the child or for the teacher, you’re saying this is a diagnostic tool for the taxpayer who is funding the system to see if the system is working, right? Those are distinct.
TISCH: No, let me finish because we’re talking about what happens when parents opt out and what the system can then report back to parents and to the state. The point of the matter is, you know, two weeks ago I was with my grandson at a pediatric visit. There was a new mother sitting next to me and she was comparing growth charts for her 4-month-old son. She wanted to know how he was doing on a continuum.
It is natural for parents to want to know how their kids are doing. And as for the diagnostic nature of these tests and the amount of
information that is gleaned from them, school districts report to us all the time that they design curriculum around the results of these tests.
I agree with Diane. There is no such thing as a perfect test, absolutely not. But the ability to glean information from these tests and
use them in very direct ways to inform instruction and curriculum in classrooms is actually really important.
HAYES: OK, so let me ask you this, is the problem here one of conception or execution? Which is to say, is it that the entire model of essentially what we have here … which is aligning the curriculum with the standards, testing to see if the children can meet these standards, and then using as a sort of accountability device… Is that model flawed or the actual implementation and the testing itself is flawed?
RAVITCH: The model is flawed. You will not find any prep school, any private school in the state of New York or in any state that uses this model. They trust teachers to judge…
HAYES: But they have such a different student body. I mean, isn’t that apples and oranges?
RAVITCH: No, no. It doesn’t matter. You’re not helping poor kids when you put so much emphasis on the test. Then they lose arts, they lose physical education, they lose recess and they lose almost everything except test prep and they spend months doing test prep.
HAYES: So this is an important point, though. I’m just — this is not about what is in the test, this is about emphasis on the test.
RAVITCH: The model is wrong. We are the most over-tested nation in the world. If you look at the top 10 high-performing nations in the world they do not test every child every year. They test them at the end of sixth grade. Canada tests kids in the third grade and the six grade. Nobody tests kids every year.
HAYES: Let me ask you [Tisch] this: You have an opportunity to speak to parents who might be watching this. What do you want to tell them about testing?
TISCH: I would like to say that tomorrow was the second day of testing. And I would hope that parents would understand that if we had not linked through policy the evaluation of teachers to the testing I think more kids would be showing up for testing. Actually, I would say to our parents that our kids have got caught in the labor dispute between the governor and the teacher’s union.
HAYES: I think that…
TISCH: …and I think kids are paying the price.
HAYES: That may be true here, but there’s a lot of places where that isn’t true. Diane Ravitch and Merryl Tisch, thank you both for being here tonight. Appreciate it.