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You Can Choose to Refuse State Tests and Receivership
The Tyranny of Standardized Testing What Would Frederick Douglass Do?

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You Can Choose To Refuse State Tests and Receivership

Teachers, students, staff and parents are stepping up their efforts to refuse state tests and receivership. In doing so they are contending with efforts by the state and local officials to confuse and frighten those acting to defend the rights of their children.

State officials are promoting that there is a moratorium on “consequences” from the state Common Core tests, which even the Governor now admits are invalid and seriously flawed. However, there is not a moratorium on the hours of tests themselves. Why not? Why force students to take hours of tests that are not valid and in the eyes of many students and parents harmful and developmentally inappropriate? Yet parents are being told they cannot refuse and to do so could mean their schools lose funding and could be put in receivership. This is untrue. No school has lost funding as a result of parents and students refusing the tests — which more than 200,000 did last year. Indeed the more students who refuse, the more invalid the test results become, even according to the state. If 5 percent or more refuse, according to government officials, the results are considered statistically invalid. So choose to refuse!

The state education Commissioner can put schools in receivership whether or not students refuse the tests. It is her decision alone, it is an arbitrary one and she is not accountable to the public for such decisions. So the threat about receivership is just one more means to force parents and students to submit to what they know to be unfair and invalid tests. We are not drones following the dictate of a single appointed individual. We are thinking human beings who can choose to refuse!

What the Commissioner should do, and the Buffalo School Board should demand, is a moratorium on all state testing and receivership. That is the only way to implement their own recommendation that there be no consequences for students, parents, teachers and schools.

No Evidence Receivership Raises Quality

A main concern of students, parents, staff and teachers is to raise the quality of education and affirm the equal right to education for all. Receivership cannot do either one. In fact it worsens quality and inequality.

It worsens quality directly by further narrowing curriculum to teach to the test. Concretely this has meant more blocks of time devoted to English and math, which are tested. Far less teaching time is devoted to social studies and science, while music, art, and physical education are cut or eliminated, as are broader issues like African American and Puerto Rican studies. It also worsens quality because it narrows assessments of students, teachers and schools to test scores, the main way in which both “failure” and “improvement” are to be decided. The best features of schools, such as sports, student performances and projects of various kinds in art, music, the sciences, their creativity and cooperation, their collective efforts and those of their teachers, all are eliminated in favor of test scores. Receivership, and the testing regime it relies on, also worsens quality because of its attack on thinking. All are supposed to accept state tests as valid and useful, when they have proven to be harmful and anti-education. All are supposed to accept elimination of basic requirements for learning, like smaller classes, music and fully staffed and stocked libraries, in favor of tests that for years have not improved learning or teaching. Because they are not meant to. They are meant to block learning and thinking and instead produce drones that obey and submit. You can choose to refuse!

We parents, students, teachers and staff are the experts, the ones who can find solutions and govern far better than an appointed state Commissioner. We are the ones actually fighting for the equal right to education for all. Receivership increases inequality by imposing worse working and learning conditions on schools that are majority African American and poor. It discriminates against teachers in receivership, and thus parents and students in these schools, by allowing for involuntary transfers at any time, and for wholesale firing of the entire staff. And because state tests and “improvement” on them is the top priority in these schools, students get far less learning time and teachers less teaching time as everything is devoted to testing time — pre-tests, post-tests, prep-tests, and all the associated time to prepare. Teachers and students are forced into a grind that is anti-educational and certainly not contributing to creativity and thinking.

There is no evidence, data or research to show state takeover and state testing improves quality and lessens inequality. On the contrary, whether in Buffalo, Detroit, Newark, New Orleans, Memphis or Philadelphia, state takeover has lowered the quality of education and teaching and learning conditions.

Buffalo has shown the way forward, with significant experience not only in refusing receivership and testing but in advancing an alternative: Our Schools, Our Rights, We Decide! We have stood up for public control of public schools, with a public authority that unites and empowers teachers, parents, students and staff to decide. Our experience is a positive example for all statewide. And let us take it further by strengthening and broadening the fight so that all can choose to refuse testing and receivership.


The Tyranny of Standardized Testing

Public school high stakes standardized testing is a form of modern day slavery, and is designed to continue the proliferation of inequality in our society.

I have known standardized testing my entire career. From the very beginning, how well students performed on standardized tests determined our worth as teachers and the worth of our school. A level 3 on the test was proficient. Level 4 was advanced. Level 2 was “almost” proficient and gut wrenching for a teacher. And level 1 was hopeless for the parent, teacher and student.

I have been a New York City educator for fifteen years, and I absolutely love what I do! I have had the pleasure of teaching students from kindergarten through twelfth grade in mostly “low income” schools. I am now entering my 7th year as the founding principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA) Middle School in the Bronx, and unfortunately, standardized testing continues to dominate the narrative. I say unfortunately because I believe standardized testing... to be a major part of an oppressive form of education. And if we do not reverse course soon, the health and innovative spirit of our country will continue to suffer, while our economic and opportunity gaps fortify to the point of being irreversible. [...]

As a classroom teacher, [I was assigned fourth grade]. The state test jargon became part of the lexicon. We were told to focus more on “non fiction” reading passages because that was on the state test. “Be sure to practice multiple choice questions, so students get used to them,” administrators would often say. Practice exams occurred at least once a week beginning about two months prior to the real thing. These practice tests took at least two hours to administer and another two hours to grade. All of this time could have been used developing and implementing truly rich and authentic curriculum. Because of this obsession with testing, our kids did not have art, music, theater, or any truly aesthetic course to enlighten their varied intelligences. They also did not have nearly enough science, as math and language arts were the only subjects tested. [...]

Every year our test scores would creep up annually. Our school never saw exponential gains, but we saw improvement. We were totally a test prep school, focused more on the test than meetingthe holistic needs of children and preparing them for a 21st century economy. The test controlled us.

The incremental improvements were not enough; especially not during the No Child Left Behind era (NCLB). Under NCLB, which was enacted in 2001, all students were supposed to be “proficient” by 2015. Under this sort of pressure, four years after I left the school, it was closed down. The school was restructured into two new schools with smart and ambitious new leadership ready to take the children to the Promised Land — “passing” the state exam.

Role of Charter Schools

What also increased the pressure was the recent influx of charter schools. Some charter schools were crushing the state exams. They were “out performing” traditional public schools and even out performing public schools in white upper middle class communities. These select charters were better at analyzing the exams then we were. They administered interim assessments and used data driven instruction where we did not. They worked longer hours and longer school years. Bottom line, they “got it done!” The country rejoiced at the results. There was proof that poor black and brown children could learn! It was time to celebrate and pour billions of dollars into charter schools all over the country. For many, charter schools were the answer they were looking for, and the future of public education.

But as time went on, and the data continued to roll in, new narratives about testing, charters, standards, and American society began to present itself. [...]

The “American Dream” was being replaced with the American reality. A reality that annual testing and charter schools have not closed the achievement gap between blacks and whites, nor has it closed the gap between America and the rest of the developed world.

Therefore, the charter school regime cannot be the future of public education. They are privately funded, anti union, test prep factories with draconian behavioral policies. They have mostly white staff with mostly black and brown students who are not allowed to speak during breakfast, lunch, or hallway transitions. A student from a New Orleans charter school stated, “I hate going to school. It feels like prison.” Charters argue that their “learning” environment contributes to their good test results. Well of course it does. That is the point. Oppressive assessments, lead to oppressive schools, and oppressed students.

I believe the future of public education should be rooted in the principles of democracy, and the needs of the people….

Instead of oppressing families with a barrage of standardized exams, our government should collaborate with educators, health care professionals and community based organizations to provide a holistic education that uplifts and nurtures healthy and happy communities. [...]

Let’s reflect briefly on the fact that public schools were designed for a different age and a different time. Public schools were designed for the purpose of indoctrination and for the maintenance of empire; particularly, the sustenance of western empire...Public education has always been designed to create an “assembly line” mental model, and the way we currently do testing sustains that model.

But the 21st century requires different skills and thus a different approach. Imagine we allowed education research to impact our policy, live in our classrooms, and address what is really ailing our communities. [...]

Instead of sitting an 8-year old down for nine hours of testing every year, and at least 13 hours of testing if the student has special needs, let’s implement a curriculum that’s open and exploratory; one that allows students choice and peer support. And one that creates the next wave of engineers, architects, artists, and design thinkers. As we address the psycho-social-emotional needs of our communities mentioned above, we can begin to implement an invigorating 21st century curriculum.

So what can we do? Consider the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

The reality is, we were never “created” equal in America. When these words were written the black man was a slave, not a man. When the constitution was completed we were only “promoted” to 3/5 of a man. The descendants of these enslaved people, 236 years after the Declaration of Independence, continue to perform 30-40 percentage points behind their master. Either our educational leaders are incredibly ignorant to these connections, or this is all by deliberate design.

Congress just recently voted to continue annual testing with the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA). This act will lead our country toward investing billions of public dollars into private companies to administer oppressive standardized testing tactics, instead of investing billions in what the research says is needed for our communities.

Whenever government becomes destructive of its people, it is time for the people to alter or abolish the government. When parents choose to opt out of the state tests, they are using civil disobedience to alter the government for its destructive high stakes standardized testing practices. Parents are opting out because the current implementation of standardized testing perpetuates a mental model of oppression for parents, teachers, and students.

Parents are opting out because they love their children and they love America. Parents want to create a future rooted in America’s ideals that is brighter for their children and grandchildren. A future, not rooted in the poverty, war, pain and suffering of today. But a future rooted in love and happiness.

Teachers are forced to align their curriculum and instruction to the state exams. Despite the very questionable validity and reliability of the exams, teachers are still punished if their students do not perform well. Student intellectual abilities are then compromised because of the narrowing of the thinking and learning experiences that occur in standardized testing classrooms. Our fast paced unpredictable economy needs adaptive citizens who live aligned to their brilliance. Test prep schools are the last thing we need. Especially when considering the tests are created by private industry focused more on profit and dependence than transforming the lives of children.

America was born of horror for black people and that horror continues today for brown and poor people as well. Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, crack cocaine, and now standardized testing were all sanctioned by the American government. All designed to destroy the mind, body and souls of black and brown people; all within our so-called democracy.

Throughout history, when the American people united, these injustices were destroyed. I am incredibly inspired to see parents of all races and backgrounds unite to destroy the oppression of standardized testing. The Opt Out Movement, along with the Black Lives Matter Movement, give me tremendous hope and love for this country. I stand for justice, I stand for humanity, and I encourage parents to stand in solidarity with each other. Parents must remember that they are the essential voice in education that will transform the system and by extension, transform the world.


What Would Frederick Douglass Do?

It has been almost six weeks since I initially wrote New York Education Department (NYSED) Commissioner Elia, the Board of Regents, the Governor and members of the New York Legislature about significant questions arising from the Common Core Task Force’s Report and Recommendations. On January 24 I wrote a second letter, which included the names of 115 supporters requesting that: “The Board of Regents authorize the State Education Department to conduct a detailed, open and transparent review and analysis of the use of the ELA/Math standardized tests results as determinants to assess school qualification for receivership; to invite parent, educator, student and other stakeholder input and feedback in the process; to clarify the recommendations of the Common Core Task Force as they apply to the state assessments and use of assessment data, and to develop future recommendations for appropriate determinants for school receivership.” True to form, as of February 7, I have not heard a single word from any of these educational and political leaders (except for Senator Kennedy).

As an individual, who researches and writes about African American history, I do not confine my recognition of the importance of Black Americans’ contributions to American History to one month. But I would admit that the advent of African American History Month 2016 influenced my reflections on the continued lack of respect and simple courtesy of state officials’ ongoing failure to respond to the concerns of nearly 700 education stakeholders. There are many African Americans, men and women, whose lives provide instructive, inspirational and timeless examples for current day activists, but Frederick Douglass quickly came to mind. An ex-slave, freedman, abolitionist, author, journalist, statesman, orator, businessman, etc. Douglass was a towering example of self-advocacy.

In a letter written in 1849, he said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

So what would Frederick Douglass do if he was in our shoes? Continue the struggle! And the demand for answers to the questions we have about the use of standardized tests (high stakes tests) to label our children as failures, defame our teachers; disenfranchise our communities by vesting control in Receivership and ultimately undermine public education.

The online petition posted on January 24 has garnered over 525 signatures and comments. The following are a few of the comments on that petition. I have omitted the names, but the petition is on-going and I am still encouraging public education advocates to sign this petition and join us. We are not voiceless even though the Commissioner and the Regents have chosen to ignore our call for accountability.

“Not only is it ridiculous to use these tests — found to be unreliable and unfair to students across the board — as a measure of student or teacher success, to use them to rank schools to the extent of determining which should be classified receivership schools while admitting it is unhelpful in several other areas is both nonsensical and inappropriate.”

“Closing a school does not help anyone but those who are looking for excuses to fire people. Schools reflect their communities, so if a school is struggling, so is the community. The state should recognize this relationship and throw every resource it has at uplifting and supporting the families, the infrastructure, and the employees already working in the school and community.”

“The Common Core Aligned Standardized Tests have been manipulated for political use and do not meet psychometric standards. As an educational psychologist, I urge that they no longer be used to identify receivership schools or for any other high stakes decisions.” [...]

“As a former Buffalo Public School teacher I feel for my former colleagues. The number of challenges the inner city teachers face daily, (some minute to minute) are insane. No test nor standards are going to magically make these challenges disappear. Instead these Standards and Tests are just adding to student, teacher, administration, and parent frustration and setting the children even farther behind in life.”

“There have been many tears shed over the prep work to get the kids prepared for these tests. My children are losing their zest for learning. It is very sad that as a parent I am unable to help my children due to the rigorous teaching of extra steps and analyzing sentences in chapters. Reading should be fun and educational. Math should be challenging and useful, and age appropriate.”

“Our high school is proud to have over 45 (over 59) languages spoken by its students. I am happy to be part of such a diverse community. Stop the testing, and stop expecting everyone to be the same. Diversity is strength.”

“In the three years that Common Core standards have been around students, teachers, and schools have only gotten worse. The standards and the tests are terrible. My children who used to love learning and school now dread it. They are over tested and stressed out. They are not learning in a way a child learns naturally. I live and teach in a community that is in the lowest poverty range with a large population of refugees and immigrants. They are left behind with these standards. Shame on the politicians, governors, and big businesses that have stripped the education in this country of all that was good. The damage is irreparable. Stop this now!” [...]

Finally, the message to Albany is: you can be silent; you can ignore us, but we are going to stay in the struggle; we are going to demand a response and we will be heard. After all March is Women’s History Month!



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