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Where I Respond To Comments From My Last Post on the “Opt-Out Movement”

My post last week urging New York parents to say “yes” to the state standardized tests generated many comments, mostly from angry suburban parents. I thank all of you  — after all, the primary purpose of New York School Talk is to elevate authentic voices in this ongoing conversation about how to improve the quality and equity of  public schools. Your voices meet that mark and I’ll use this space to reply to you.

Let’s begin with something  I think we can all agree on: New York State made a strategic and political error when it launched new state tests aligned with college/career ready standards at the same time as it started to link student outcomes to teacher evaluations. What Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now” (President Obama echoed this phrase to great effect) infuses many attempts at school reform. After all, the kid in that lousy school only gets to go to third grade once; he has no time to burn. But our representatives in Albany should have had a hunch that rolling out  new tests and new evaluation systems simultaneously was foolhardy. This error in judgement was the impetus for anti-testing fervor which, while ebbing elsewhere, is still alive and well on Long Island and several other clusters in the state.

In this sense, the opt-out movement was a success:  New York is in no danger of linking student outcomes on state tests to teacher evaluations any time soon,  especially with the current Board of Regents and a newly-submissive governor.

Next, let me cop to an error. In my previous post I used Seaford as an example of an affluent all-white Long Island school district with high opt-out rates  but, as a reader pointed out, the town is “as middle class, blue collar as it gets.” He’s right. I mentally flipped Seaford with Sea Cliff (part of the North Shore School District) and should have used a different example of an elite, segregated district with high opt-out rates and acknowledged that some middle class towns have high opt-out rates too

Now to the comments. I’ve divided them into five buckets: the tests are too hard, the tests are too stressful;  teachers get the data too late to use in differentiating instruction; the computer-based tests endanger student privacy;  the test results promote a narrative of failure and opt-outers skew towards suburban white districts because they are altruistically motivated to protect inner-city kids. Let’s look at each bucket.

Are the tests too hard?

Not according to NYS teachers. After Gov. Cuomo appointed a task force to revise the Common Core State Standards,  with which the tests align, two committees of 130 teachers and parents reviewed all the standards, eventually recommending that the state revise 60 percent of the English language arts standards and 55 percent of the math standards. In fact, each test question was reviewed by twenty-two teachers. Click here for the standards and the changes, which include increasing the use of fiction in ELA, encouraging interactive lessons, and pushing some math standards to the following grade.

Are expectations higher than when we parents were in school? I think so. But the bar for success is higher too. For decades we’ve known that American public schools under-prepare students for college and careers and, this, after all, is why we raised standards.

Are the tests too stressful?

Tests are stressful. That’s a fact. But life is full of tests, right? The first Regents exams were given in 1865 as high school entrance tests and other tests went into effect in 1966. Your children will  most likely take PSAT’s, SAT’s, maybe the ACT.  If  you live in NYC, your seventh and eighth-graders may take SHSAT’s in order to qualify for magnet schools. (One reader wrote that NYC parents don’t opt-out because their kids need the tests to get into better city schools but outcomes on the state standardized tests are not part of the admissions process.)

In other words, we’ve  tested students for decades. Tests are based on content. Content has changed because the world has changed. Colleges and careers now place more emphasis on critical thinking skills, adaptability, collaboration, and problem-solving. Therefore, tests are different than they were when we were kids. And — let’s be honest — much of the blowback is about NYS’s short-lived attempt to quantify teacher effectiveness by tying 50% of teacher evaluations to student outcomes, a move that incited the ire of the teacher union. Too much too fast.

Listen to Bryon McIntyre, a parent in the Buffalo Public School District, who said, “I’m a parent with a child sitting in the penitentiary because the education system failed him. I say, ‘yes to the test,’ because you’re going to be tested all your life. You’re going to be stressed all your life, especially if you don’t have the education.”

Do teachers get the scores too late?

Probably. But, then again, they always have. Here’s an article from 2006 — well before Common Core-aligned tests were a twinkle in anyone’s eye — that makes the same allegations of older tests and no one opted out. Now that tests are computerized, teachers, districts, and parents should get results far earlier than in the past.

Does the new digital format endanger student privacy and lend itself to “data-mining”?

It’s a brave new world where Facebook ads on your child’s (and your)  page are based on demographics and previous searches. We all worry about this. That’s why the Student Privacy Pledge has been endorsed by the National PTA, the National School Boards Association,  the Council of Chief State Officers, and three hundred other signatories, who include ed-tech companies. For more information, see this Parents’ Guide to Student Data Privacy.

The Tests Promote a “Narrative of Failure” and Opt-Outers Are Doing Poor Families a Service By Undermining Collection of Student Outcomes:

Test results do portray an education system that continues to fail historically underserved kids. That’s because this narrative is true.  Without standardized testing we wouldn’t know that vast inequities pervade our public school system.  A commenter writes, “Our kids are fine. Our schools are fine. Our teachers are fine.” But not for Bryan McIntyre. Not for historically underserved kids who are  low-income, Black, Latino, or have disabilities. Not for many families who can’t afford to move to better districts. Latasha Gandy writes,

Year after year, standardized test results have exposed glaring racial biases in our education system. Teachers and schools are no longer able to hide behind school averages in performance, and are now having to answer for the low academic performance of students of color and low-income students. Many parents are being told to boycott these tests when really we should be looking more closely at the results.

Standardized test scores are now broken down by student race and income. This allows everyone—including teachers, parents and policymakers—to see how inequitable our schools are. If you’ve heard of what’s commonly called the “achievement gap”—the shocking difference in educational outcomes between white students and students of color—you probably have standardized tests to thank. With test results, we can no longer hide the underlying racial inequity in our schools, and we cannot and should not go back and pretend it doesn’t exist.

That’s why NYC parents don’t opt out of tests. They need clear information on school quality in a city where all the schools are not fine. When I lived in NYC I was zoned to go to Martin Van Buren High School, already a lousy school, but my parents, who both worked in NYC public schools, were able to move us to Long Island. Forty years later the school is worse but, thanks to standardized tests, there’s no hiding behind aggregated averages.  In my day the school was overcrowded but now it’s down to 500 kids because parents have the information they need to make different choices, even if they can’t afford to move, as my family did, to a better district.

Can tests improve? Can we do more to protect student privacy? Can we get the results more quickly? Can we do more to reduce student stress? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But without standardized tests we will once again be dupes of  a system that values obscurity over transparency and renders underserved students invisible.  I can’t believe that any of you want that.

What do you think?

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