By Brooke Parker
This year, the parents of public school 3rd to 5th graders received a letter from Chancellor Dennis Walcott offering suggestions on how to ease test anxiety in their 8- to 10-year-olds. Walcott’s talking points included, “Let your child know that these tests are meant to be really hard. That’s because they are designed to measure whether students are on track for college and a good job when they finish high school.” Leaving aside the absurdity of explaining what “on track for college” looks like to children who say “Justin Bieber” when asked what they want to be when they grow up, Walcott would have gotten his message across more succinctly by simply sending a barf bag to parents.
What makes this year’s tests so different that they require a preparatory letter from the Chancellor? For starters, no one is prepared for them. The tests will be based on the new Common Core Standards that New York State implemented this year. The new curriculum was released only a little over a month before the test is to be administered. Principals and teachers are panicking, but not to worry, they got a Walcott letter, too, acknowledging that “these tests will be more difficult to pass,” but assuring educators that, somehow, these tests were in the best interest of their students.
For those of you who may not know what’s involved, kids will sit for 540 minutes (90 minutes a day, for 6 days) taking tests in English and Math. This is more test-taking time than is required to finish the SATs and the LSATs combined. Parents are talking about the enormous stress their kids are under, stress we parents never had because the state tests, back in our day, were short and diagnostic, with no high stakes attached. It’s clear to all involved that the students’ scores will suffer, and that will be taken into consideration, but a lot still rides on those test results, including the possibility of summer school, promotion to the next grade, and which middle schools they’ll be eligible to attend. For teachers, their jobs are on the line, since a significant portion of teacher evaluations is based on how students’ test scores improve from year to year. For schools, poor test scores will put them at risk of closure.
Walcott tells us that these new tests, aligned with the new Common Core Standards, will set a “baseline for measuring our students’ growth” (read: so that we can judge teachers with the scores) and that the results will help both teachers and parents support our children’s learning. Yet, under the current contract with Pearson (one of the largest for-profit test publishing companies in the world), the tests will be kept secret. Since teachers and parents will never see which questions students got right or wrong, the tests are utterly useless as a tool to support student learning. We’ll also never be able to judge if these compulsory tests, paid for by our tax dollars, are fair or reasonable. Leaks from last year’s test revealed a nonsensical series of questions based on a ridiculous text describing a race between a hare and a talking pineapple. Pineapplegate would have been laughable if the stakes were not so dead serious.
The switch from using tests to diagnose an educational problem to using tests to punish students, teachers, and schools reveals how big business would like us to think about public education and poverty. If the problem with public education is poverty, then we’ll need to spend more money to address how poverty impacts the classroom. On the other hand, if we decide that people remain poor because there’s a problem with public education, then schools, not poverty, are the crisis, and reforming education becomes very lucrative. We can now test students, transform the curriculum, and test students some more, offer professional development aligned with tests, and when the test scores don’t improve, redesign the curriculum, which will require new tests. Sound familiar? The one constant in this spending cycle is the unquestioned use of standardized tests to measure learning. I’ve come to cringe any time I hear the ka-ching that accompanies the terms “rigor,” “high standards,” and “accountability,” when applied to education.
There’s big money in testing to ensure high standards for our children, a regular flow of public dollars into private hands, even as repeated budget cuts force our children into increasingly crowded classrooms. Pearson aggressively lobbied to get their $32 million dollar contract to administer tests in New York, not to mention the lucrative sales of the packaged curriculum they developed for their tests. Tracing the money trail through profitable relationships is like a family tree in education reform, from Race to the Top to Teach for America to charter schools to online colleges. Pearson is right there, pushing their tests and profiting along the way.
The good news for parents is that the “opt out” movement is growing across NYC, the state, and the country, as increasing numbers of parents are learning about this issue and refusing to allow their children to be tested. Still, it’s scary and impossible for some parents to have their children opt out. In NYC, opting out is a slight misnomer as, unlike a do-not-call list or unwanted mail, there is no legal provision to opt out of state standardized tests. Instead, parents refuse or boycott the tests for their children, keeping them home from school on testing weeks or pulling them out of school when testing begins. Having a legal and standardized opting out mechanism would allow kids to have the 540 minutes as class time, rather than test time.
As it turns out, just as secret as the tests themselves is the information that parents who can refuse the tests (3rd, 5th, and 8th graders) will not be at risk for having their children held back. There is, in fact, a portfolio assessment that allows students to demonstrate their strengths and learning, and which accurately and holistically addresses how they’ve done over the school year. Go figure. Testing isn’t the only way to measure students. Lots of parents might have liked to know that in their Walcott letter.
For more information about standardized tests in New York, why there is a growing movement against them, and what we can do to return to learning in the classroom, check out Fairtest.org, changethestakes.org, and nystoptesting.com