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Infuriated by 'Valueless' Testing, NYC Parents Vow to Fight Back

Parents from Williamsburg to Riverdale say the state’s high-stakes standardized testing regimen is out of control and a serious threat to their children’s education.
 
 
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Why have so many parents across New York City decided that this year’s state standardized tests are not merely distracting, educationally valueless and overly determinative, but also damaging, twisted and intolerable? How have they become this year’s radicalizing experience for thousands of new parent-activists determined to change the direction that education policy is taking in New York?  

Last year, the threatened teacher lay-offs and across the board budget cuts galvanized organized opposition, and sparked the realization among tens of thousands of NYC public school parents that the governor and the mayor’s office do not hold the interests of “students first.” This year new parents are joining a growing and increasingly organized activist group that is opposed to high-stakes standardized testing. The parents and guardians of whom I write, from Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Park Slope in Brooklyn, East Tremont and Riverdale in the Bronx, Washington Heights/Inwood and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and all over Queens, have independently concluded that high-stakes standardized testing is this year’s assault on quality public education. And we have had enough. So, what is it exactly about this year’s tests that have pushed us to the breaking point?   

To start, one must recall that these tests come on the heels of the failure of the state to truly deliver on the settlement associated with a 17-year Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) battle on behalf of New York City public school children to receive equitable education funding. On top of this, we have witnessed at least four years of budget cuts that have directly hit our children’s classrooms.  
 
As an example, my son’s school in Washington Heights has lost nearly a million dollars over four years with little drop in enrollment. Because of this, the school lost the elementary school art and science teachers, a middle-school assistant principal and class sizes in the first and second grades swelled to 28 students. Other schools in our district, District 6, the birthplace of the CFE, have classes with 32 students sitting in them.  
 
In this context of growing class sizes and dwindling budgets, we’ve seen little evidence that the supports the city Department of Education offers our schools counterbalance the negative effects of the budget cuts. School Support Organizations that may be trying to work with teachers to differentiate instruction are rendered impotent in the context of large classes. Other losses are also illustrative. Again my son’s K to 8 is an excellent example; in the spring of 2010 our school was set to receive the second installment of a GE Fund grant to improve science and math instruction in the middle school.  
 
Instead we awoke one morning to learn that the grant, intended originally for upper Manhattan schools, had been rescinded by the Fund for Public Schools, and redirected toward training teachers in 80 city-wide schools how to teach to the “new and improved” science tests under development. Thus the parents at our school learned that funds that could have actually helped our children’s teachers teach science and math more effectively were spent instead on standardized test prep training.    
 
Yet the discontent of many parents was softened in recent years as we watched our schools lauded for state test score increases; it seemed our children were achieving unprecedented gains in performance. When the state admitted that these gains were fictional, that there had been rampant score inflation, and re-set the proficiency cut-points, we learned how subjective, at best, and political, at worst, these tests scores were. Trust in the state’s ability to administer reliable tests began to crumble, as well as in the policies that had been imposed by DOE in the name of improving education.  
 
This year, despite the lack of credibility in the state’s competence to reliably design and score tests, the stakes were ratcheted up for children, especially English Language Learners, who now must perform at proficiency level (in a non-native language) within a year of entrance into the system. Parents new to the system knew that the stakes associated with test performance were high for their children; failing to be at least proficient triggered a portfolio review, or even being held back. Knowing that portfolio review was required probably allayed some concern for parents of children who were truly struggling to master the material; the review would clearly identify areas of weakness and would result in a corrective plan – they are educationally useful. For children in certain grades the scores determined a shot at admission to selective middle schools or a chance for a seat in a citywide gifted and talented school.  
 
This year, the state also raised the stakes for teachers and schools dramatically, moving towards a system in which a teacher’s rating would be determined in large part on their students’ change in test scores from one year to the next, resulting in potential job loss. This occurred in the context of an acceleration of the DOE’s efforts to close scores of struggling schools. A test run of the value-added statistics, which teachers had been promised would not be publicly released, were publicly released. Major news outlets, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post and the Daily News published the teacher data ratings, based on unstable value-added models. Normally parents might be pleased at the possibility that an objective measure of teacher quality had been identified, as many of us have had direct experiences with principals who use their power inappropriately. But these models are so unstable and narrowly construed that all they did was add a new and warped dimension to the teacher-child relationship.  
 
Thus, this year, if a child did poorly or failed to improve her score enough, her teachers would be labeled as ineffective and would be in danger of losing their jobs. This was layered on top of the existing threat schools already face of being labeled “in need of improvement." The pressure was on and children knew it. It was all over the news; parents were talking about it; teachers were talking about; children were talking about it.   
 
What were the results? Well, first it is again important to put this year’s tests in context. This year -- all year -- our children were being subjected to various “formative,” “predictive” and “performance” tests, such as the Scantron Performance Series (at least three times a year), the Acuity (at least once), the school-created state practice tests (at least once). Rarely were results used to guide teaching and learning, rather to inform further test prep activity in anticipation of the state exams. Then, in the period between the end of February break and the tests themselves, students experienced a tractor beam-like focus on English Language Arts (ELA) and math (because results in these subjects alone help determine the DOE’s school report card grade).
 
The visual, performing and musical arts were pushed to the side, as were programs that focused on areas outside of the mainstream, like architecture, environmental studies and video design. Schools that have special focus, like music, dual language or interdisciplinary or social studies-based education, found there was insufficient time to successfully execute their programs.   
 
Next, the test preparation began, with worksheets and practice sessions on how to fill in a bubble test answer form. Up until the February break, my fourth grader had spent his time in ELA doing interdisciplinary writing projects, such as writing a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder about the effectiveness of incarceration for non-violent offenders as a criminal justice policy, and a research project where he wrote a nine-page report on Thomas Jefferson and acted the part in a wonderful “wax museum” event at the school. Now, he became much less enthusiastic about school as the test prep began to dominate his days. During test season, the project-based, authentic learning stopped, so that watered-down, multiple-choice word problems could be tackled and “tricky” questions could be identified and avoided. At least his ELA teacher had them reading Alice in Wonderland so they’d be prepared for trippy passages like the now infamous “ pineapple and the hare,” or, in his case, a talking yam
 
Then came the tests themselves. They were long, 90 minutes each day, for children as young as eight years old, over three days in two subjects per grade. Double time was allotted for children in need of accommodations, and children with such problems as attention difficulties were asked to sit still for 180 minutes to take these exams. 
 
And it was not just the test time -- which in isolation does not seem that bad until you realize it exceeds the time allotted to the SAT that many of us took in high school -- it is that the entire school building revolved around the tests, for weeks on end. In co-located schools, as one school tests, the other does not, such that no children enjoy recess or other school-wide, noise-producing activities during the test weeks. Then there is the stress it placed on the children. They knew how intense the pressure was both on them and their teachers and schools; one student who produces her own newsletter at our school wrote a piece on how stressful the tests had become, despite being easy, and how she wishes everyone good luck so they don’t have to go to summer school.   
 
Finally, the test content was revealed to be problematic, with at least 30 errors identified so far, including nonsensical, recycled passages with questions that had no correct answers, or those with multiple correct answers, as well as multiple translation problems (blamed by Pearson, the testing company on the " women and minority-owned” translation company). Beyond the problems that have plagued this year’s tests, parents find it off-putting that they have taken on significance so disproportionate to their educational value and are kept completely secret. We know that these tests cannot possibly be helpful to our children, especially as we parents never see which problems they missed and their teachers are not allowed to use the tests clinically. From this, parents have concluded that their only use seems to be to evaluate and control teachers, and close schools.  
 
To add insult to injury, many of our children’s classroom teachers disappear for two entire weeks after the ELA and math test period is complete to grade the tests. The teachers that are apparently so ineffective that these tests are needed to evaluate them are the same teachers doing the grading. Further, they are doing so with confusing rubrics and vague or overly rigid instructions according to the latest accounts. My son’s fourth-grade teacher just returned to his classroom last week after 10 days of grading tests. And for my son, the testing is not over: science tests are fast approaching. But don’t worry; they know exactly what is going to be tested because all they have been doing since February is preparing for the test! Good grief.  
 
All of this testing and pressure has been too much for some children. According to various accounts, many children suffered emotional ill effects during the tests. Some cried; some got sick; some gave up. (Apparently there is even guidance on how to handle a vomited-upon test form.) It was saddening and upsetting to know that our children were subjected to all this pressure. Yet op-ed writers for the tabloids argue that we parents oppose the damaging high-stakes test regime because we are actually teacher union drones, incapable of determining what is best for our children.  
 
But we are not. We are parents who have the nerve to ask: to what end do we conduct all of this high-stakes standardized testing? Is there any empirical evidence that these tests improve student learning? There is little. Because teachers, students and parents never see the results, other than a numerical score, they are clinically and educationally valueless.  
 
To assess the performance of the city’s school system as a whole, we have NAEPS, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test administered across the United States, allowing comparisons among states, urban areas, districts, etc. and tracking population-based trends in test performance. These tests can help evaluate our system as a whole, and show little progress in NYC schools under this administration. Most parents don’t even know if their children are taking them or not; students also attach little meaning to them, thus there is no teaching to the test, gaming the system or problems with reliability associated with the state tests. 
 
Most parents are not opposed to their children taking tests that are clinically relevant, such as the ones they take frequently in class. Nor are many of us opposed to limited exposure to high-stakes standardized tests so long as they are voluntary (such as the SATs) and occur at ages when children are better able to handle the pressures. But many of us have concluded that the state’s testing regimen is out of control and seriously threatens our children’s education, even as there is talk of testing more often, starting in pre-K and kindergarten, and in more subjects, both locally and nationally. If all of this standardized testing is so wonderful, why don’t the private schools like those the mayor enrolled his own daughters in -- Dalton and Spence, Collegiate and Trinity -- assign all these exams?    
 
Public school parents want to get off this merry-go-round of testing and test prep before it is too late.  The Community Education Council of District 6 recently asked Chancellor Walcott for a policy that would allow parents to opt their children out of these state tests in a non-punitive way. He replied that he would not support such a policy; in contrast, his deputy Shael Suransky has offered guidance, noting that portfolio reviews will occur for children who opt out, but pointing out that parents of fourth graders who opt out may suffer because their applications to middle school would have “less information” than others.  
 
But parents need more than this to protect our children from the damage of these tests. We need a state policy that acknowledges our legal right to opt out children, like the one that exists in California. And we need a DOE that ceases to use test scores as punishments for teachers and schools, and gatekeepers for children.
 
What can we do? The testing is not yet over for this year. Even more time is to be taken away from authentic teaching and learning with stand-alone “field” tests to be administered in the first two weeks of June. These will be conducted so the testing company can test new items for future tests, despite the fact that Pearson already embedded “field” items on the actual tests, accounting for the extended time. The field tests also ignore the fact that children are aware that these tests do not count, and so do not take these exams as seriously, leading to an additional level of unreliability in the state’s ability to assess how difficult the items on the exam actually are.  
 
But the field tests also offer a golden opportunity. Parents from all over the city are realizing that we can engage in organized resistance to the testing juggernaut by boycotting these field tests. This action will not negatively affect our children’s chances of admission to middle school or require the brave act of opting out of the actual state tests. (To learn how to join the boycott or organize your school, contact Change the Stakes or Parent Voices of New York.)
 
Critics claim that parents who oppose the high-stakes testing offer no alternative to the problem of struggling schools or low student achievement. But many of us realize that these tests are not the way to improve our schools. If the goal is to evaluate teachers, then let’s use the peer-review system that has worked so well in Montgomery County, MD. If the goal is to monitor achievement, then let’s expand NAEPS, or give another no-stakes exam to a statistical sample of students. If our goal is to ensure that all children experience a high-quality education and emerge as critical thinkers, then we should start by ensuring that they arrive at school ready to learn: by eliminating child poverty, through income and housing supports; offering free, flexible, full-time baby and child care; providing full-day pre-K and kindergarten with wrap-around care; and creating other programs.
 
And although both city and suburban children are suffering from the high-stakes associated with the standardized tests, NYC public school children experience it in the midst of large class sizes, inadequate resources and a narrow vision of what children need to flourish academically, artistically, physically, emotionally and socially. It is long past time that our children receive what many suburban and private school students receive as a matter of right: small classes and a well-rounded curriculum. 
 

Tory Frye is the parent of a fourth grader attending a public school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. She sits on the Community Education Council for District Six, which encompasses the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods of upper Manhattan.

 
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