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N.Y. schools commissioner: It’s ‘unethical’ for educators to support testing opt-out movement

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia  (Mike Groll/AP)

In New York state this past spring, some 20 percent of students refused to take the 2015 state-mandated Common Core standardized tests in math and English language arts, highlighting the growth of a high-stakes testing “opt out” movement around the country. That amounts to more than 200,000 students from grades 3 through 8, with some districts reporting more opt-outs than students sitting for the test.

Last April, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch warned that school districts could lose funding — either by the federal government or the state — if enough students did not take the tests, and last week, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia left open the possibility of sanctions. But the New York Times reported Thursday that Tisch said there would be no penalties for students opting out.

Still, the high percentage of opt-outs has apparently upset Elia, who was appointed this past May after being fired without cause as the award-winning superintendent of the Hillsborough County public school district in Florida. On Thursday, she made some controversial comments about the movement, and here’s a post about what she said by Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund.

Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.

By Carol Burris

I have been called many things during my 62 years on this planet — some nice, some not so nice. Some of the not-so-nice descriptors, such as “nerd” and more recently, “rebel,” I admit I have secretly liked. But I do not at all like the label that new Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia gave me on Thursday – unethical.

I suppose Ms. Elia felt safe to speak her mind before Educators4Excellence, an astroturf group funded in great part by the Gates Foundation. E4E has made it clear that it thinks accountability testing is just swell.  Or perhaps she believed that it is brave to come into a new state, without having the experience of giving or reviewing even one cycle of testing, and denounce Opt Out and those who support it in front of the press.

As reported by Chalkbeat New York, Elia said:

“I think opt-out is something that is not reasonable. I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs, I think it’s unethical.”

Well, Ms. Elia, be shocked. I am turning myself in to your ethics squad. I absolutely encouraged the opt-out movement last year. In fact, I did so right here on the Answer Sheet. I don’t think I could have been clearer when I wrote this:

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.

I will admit that I was quite nervous when I hit the send button on that blog. I had no idea whether or not my superintendent would discipline me, or if I would receive a threatening letter (or worse) from the State Education Department. But to not hit that send button—that would have felt unethical to me.

It would have been unethical to not speak out after watching New York’s achievement gaps grow, indicating that the tests and the standards on which they are based are not advancing the learning of the state’s most vulnerable kids.

It would have been unethical to ignore watching the frustration of my teachers whose young children were coming home from school discouraged and sick from the stress of test prep designed to prepare them for impossible tests.

It would have been unethical to not respond to the heartbreaking stories that I heard from friends who are elementary principals—stories of children crying, becoming sick to their stomach, and pulling out hair during the Pearson-created Common Core tests.

And it would have been unethical to not push back against a system of teacher evaluation based on Grade 3-8 test scores that is not only demeaning and indefensible, but also incentivizes all the wrong values.

So if there is a place called Regents Jail, I guess that is where I will have to go. I will not be alone. Elia will also need to lock up her boss, Ms. Tisch, on ethics charges, too. The chancellor recently said that if she had a child with special needs she would “think twice” before having her child take the test. During the same interview, she suggested the tests are not mandated at all when she used the term, “opt in.” If that is not a dog-whistle that opt out is fine, I don’t know what is.

Thursday’s statement was a revealing and disturbing peek into the thinking and leadership of the new commissioner. Ms. Elia was fired in Hillsborough County, Florida, after a majority of the school board became disillusioned with her leadership. With Thursday’s statement, she not only painted a lot of very principled educators with a rather harsh brush, she alienated the parents of over 225,000 children by characterizing their parental decision as “unreasonable.”

We were told that Elia was coming to New York to help unite us because divisions were merely failures to communicate well. Thursday’s communication by Elia was pretty clear. Hillsborough has come to New York.