Are you old enough to remember Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine the telephone operator in the old show “Laugh-In”? This was the era when AT&T was a monopoly — no Sprint or Verizon on the horizon — and Ernestine’s tagline when she answered a call was “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”
I thought of Ernestine when I read a piece from “Long Island Teachers,” an arm of the state teacher union, that urged parents to opt their kids out of state tests for two reasons. One is “the high stakes consequences associated with them.” The other is that “mandated testing program creates unfortunate consequences for students, teachers, and school districts.” These “concerned Education professionals” concede that “it would inappropriate to advise parents to refuse the tests.” Then they link to a handy opt-out form suitable for all students.
Hate to penetrate the hubris with data, but here are two facts from a mother of four and a Long Island high school graduate. The tests are no-stakes because of a moratorium on tying test scores to teacher evaluations. And those “unfortunate consequences” are visited upon families who can’t afford entree into the many L.I. gated enclaves where it’s Whole Foods, not bodegas; Nordstrom, Not K-Mart; enthusiasm for private SAT prep, but disdain for those “other” standardized tests.
Coincidentally, student results of a highly-regarded test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) just came out. A random sampling of students in each state takes the tests in a variety of subjects every two years to inform decisions about how to improve the education system in America. NAEP is also called “The Nation’s Report Card” and is beloved by even the most ardent refuseniks. How’d N.Y. do?
Scores were pretty flat across all grades and subjects, a point up here, a point down there. In fact, NYS proficiency rates align closely with the rest of the country (despite having the highest spending per pupil at $21,206, 86% above the national average).
But achievement gaps between students of color and white/Asian students and between low-income students and their wealthier peers (like our Long Islanders) are stark.
According to NAEP, in New York State fourth-grade Black and Hispanic students scored 25 points below White students in reading tests. Low-income students scored 23 points below students who aren’t eligible for free and reduced lunch, the government’s proxy for poverty.
This is why former NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña opposes opting out of state tests. During a press conference last year she said, “I want to be very clear that I feel [opting out] is something parents should think very carefully.” These tests, she explained, “help the Department of Education track student progress and make adjustments according to patterns in students’ performance.”
That is why new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told NY1 last week that the decision to refuse to take the tests is an “extreme reaction,” adding, “you don’t know, unless you’re able to assess, where students are in the mastery of information.”
But, hey, that’s New York City where the highest opt-out rate has been 2 percent, not Long Island where on the first day of testing this year refusals were in the 30 percent range (a bit lower than in past years). It’s that Ernestine-arrogance that drives well-meaning parents to render disadvantaged kids invisible. After all, if we’re not counting all students’ progress, we can’t draw accurate conclusions from the data.
Am I being too hard on my old home? I don’t think so. Teachers College of Columbia University did a study that found the typical opt out activist — the target of the Long Island teachers group — is “a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average.”
They don’t care. They don’t have to.
Parents who have long suffered ineffective schools do care.. That’s why the nation’s top civil rights groups signed a letter insisting that federal law mandate that each state administer annual standardized tests. That’s why Robert Pondiscio concludes that the opting out is “a thing” primarily among “affluent, white, progressive families” that puts them “on a collision course with the low-income families of color who have been the primary beneficiaries of testing and accountability.” That’s why Luis Torres, director of policy for the League of United Latin American Citizens, calls opting-out an “unwelcome diversion” because “we already have so much work to do to try to close the achievement gap.” Torres continues, “It’s not Latino parents, it’s not African-American parents. We don’t have the time to be wasting trying to opt out. We need to know exactly how our kids are doing.”
So, Long Island teachers, can you retire Ernestine and dial your accountability animosity down? Non-Long Islanders are on the line.