By Valerie Strauss, May 3, 2015
The movement among parents to refuse to allow their children to take Common Core-aligned standardized tests has been growing in a number of states, as recent Answer Sheet posts have chronicled (here and here, for example). As opt-out numbers have grown, so too has reaction from officials who argue that frequent testing is valuable and that school districts could lose federal funds if too many students refuse to take the test (a threat that appears to be based on shaky ground.) Though testing supporters have attempted to minimize the importance and impact of the opt-out movement, it is having a big impact, as explained in the following post by award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris.
Burris, of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She has written several books, numerous articles and many posts on this blog about the seriously botched implementation of school reform in her state — including the Common Core standards and the implementation of high-stakes Core-aligned exams — and about the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. She recently announced that she had decided to retire early and to advocate for public education in new ways.
By Carol Burris
New York opt-out is reverberating around the nation. The pushback against the Common Core exams caught fans of high-stakes testing off guard, with estimates of New York test refusals now exceeding 200,000.
It was evident that the state would be far below the 95 percent federal participation rate as soon as the 3-8 English Language Arts tests began. When math testing started, the numbers climbed higher still. In the Brentwood School District, a 49 percent opt-out rate for ELA rose to 57 percent during math tests. These rates defy the stereotype that the movement is a rebellion of petulant “white suburban moms.” Ninety-one percent of Brentwood students are black or Latino, and 81 percent are economically disadvantaged. Brentwood is not unique–Amityville (90 percent black or Latino, 77 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate of 36.4 percent; Greenport (49 percent black or Latino, 56 percent economically disadvantaged) had an opt-out rate that exceeded 61 percent; and South Country opt outs (50 percent black or Latino and 51 percent economically disadvantaged) exceeded 64 percent. New York’s rejection of the Common Core tests crosses geographical, socio-economic and racial lines.
There are also reports that student opt-outs were suppressed by administrators in some districts, who called in non-English speaking parents and pressured them to rescind their opt-out letters. Parent activist Jeanette Deutermann states that she “was contacted by dozens of NYC teachers who were horrified by the scare tactics being used on parents in their schools, to coerce them into participating in this year’s assessments. Language barriers and the absence of a social media presence resulted in a lack of knowledge about their rights to refuse the test. Teachers reported that administrators exploited this language and information barrier, telling parents that their children would not be promoted if they refused, or that they simply had no right to refuse. This is blatant discrimination at best.”
Despite attempts to suppress opt out, refusal rates were over three times last year’s 60,000, and activist parents are already planning to increase numbers next year. The opt-out movement is spreading across the nation. PARCC opt out is taking off in Colorado, New Jersey and California, especially among high-school students.
As the Refuse the Common Core Test movement grows, the three people who are the most responsible for causing New York’s rebellion—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Chancellor Merryl Tisch—are commenting on opting out, each with their own unique spin.
During a discussion with Motoko Rich of The New York Times, Arne Duncan threatened federal government intervention if states did not meet the 95 percent participation rate. Assuming that Duncan is not planning to call in the National Guard to haul off opt-outing 8 year olds, the only possible “sanction” would be withholding funds. That would surely lead to court challenges forcing the Education Department to justify penalizing schools when parents exercise their legitimate right to refuse the test.–an impossible position to defend.
During the same interview, Duncan said that his own children, who attend school in the non-Common Core state of Virginia, do not see the test as “a traumatic event.” He insinuated that “adults” are causing “the trauma,” thus furthering the stereotype of “the hysterical mom” that those who oppose opt-out often evoke. Before jumping to the conclusion that New York parents are the problem, Mr. Duncan might want to compare the Virginia tests his children take, to the New York Common Core test.
Here is a sample from the Grade 6 Reading test that was given in Virginia last year to measure the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL):
“Julia raced down the hallway, sliding the last few feet to her next class. The bell had already rung, so she slipped through the door and quickly sat down, hoping the teacher would not notice.
Mr. Malone turned from the piano and said, “Julia, I’m happy you could join us.” He continued teaching, explaining the new music they were preparing to learn. Julia relaxed, thinking Mr. Malone would let another tardy slide by. Unfortunately, she realized at the end of class that she was incorrect.”
That is certainly a reasonable passage to expect sixth-graders to read. You can find the complete passage and other released items from the Virginia tests here.
Contrast the above with a paragraph from a passage on the sixth-grade New York Common Core test given this spring.
The artist focuses on the ephemerality of his subject. “It’s there for a brief moment and the clouds fall apart,” he says. Since clouds are something that people tend to have strong connections to, there are a lot of preconceived notions and emotions tied to them. For him though, his work presents “a transitory moment of presence in a distinct location.”
I will let readers draw their own conclusions.
Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reaction brought to mind Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, whose slogan was, “What? Me worry?” Cuomo just didn’t see the big deal in opt out. After characterizing the scores as “meaningless” the governor continued by saying, “So they can opt out if they want to, but on the other hand, if the child takes the test as practice, then the score doesn’t count anyway.” Is Andrew Cuomo saying that New Yorkers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on testing and wasting nearly two weeks of instructional time for “practice”? Practice, exactly, for what?
And finally Chancellor Merryl Tisch expressed dismay and confusion. Tisch, who once confessed that “the opting out kind of breaks my heart,” reminded students that it’s a hard-knock life by threatening “a national test.” When the numbers continued to rise, she said that “we” have the right to use discretion and withhold funds to districts. When that didn’t stem opt outs, she decided that threats do not work and funding should not be withheld.
In an obvious attempt to duck accountability for test refusals, she threw the Governor and NYSUT under the bus by attributing opt out to parents and kids having “ got caught in the labor dispute between the governor and the teacher’s union.”
Her unwillingness to see her own role in the testing mess immediately caused a stir. The editorial board of the Lower Hudson Journal News accused Tisch of portraying opt-out parents as “confused patsies of a labor action.” Board members observed that “the stunning success of the test-refusal movement in New York is a vote of no confidence in our state educational leadership,” and they called for Tisch to step down.
The Journal News editorial board said what Duncan, Cuomo, Tisch and other so-called reformers don’t want to hear. Opt out is far bigger than a test refusal event. It is the repudiation of a host of corporate reforms that include the Common Core, high-stakes testing, school closings and the evaluation of teachers by test scores. These reforms are being soundly rejected by parents and teachers.
I don’t often agree with Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, but he gets that opt out is a big deal. During his podcast discussion of opt out, he concluded (at 6.43):
“If this [opt-out] thing goes national, the whole education reform movement is in serious trouble.”
I agree with Mike with one slight revision—I would take out the word “if”.