Refuse the Tests

Parents. Grandparents. Anyone raising school-aged children in the state of New York, and anyone who has their ear: We need to talk about these upcoming high-stakes tests.

Governor Cuomo recently announced a list of failing schools. The consequence of failing is to be privatized. He wants to use high-stakes standardized testing to continue to identify schools as failing and privatize them.

Defining failing schools without taking into account percent of their students living in poverty—which has time and again been shown to be the major predictor for test score outcomes—is tantamount to defining schools struggling to do right by their high-poverty populations as failing out of the gate and punishing them. Poor students are not inherently less capable of learning, but as long as there are huge obstacles in front of them, all the way from hunger and neighborhood violence to playing catch up because they haven’t had home environments full of reading, they will be behind, and upending their schools will not change that inequality.

Cuomo claims that these schools have plenty of money, but by the state’s own calculations of what they need at a minimum to serve their populations, that’s just not true. In Albany, social workers are stretched thin between schools. Support staff is so minimal there’s often not enough coverage to ensure recess happens or allow the lunch lines move fast enough to give kids time to eat.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with Cuomo’s definition of “failing” schools: he also automatically included any school in the bottom 5 percent of standardized test scores. Singling out schools for takeover based on a curve is basically admitting that your goal is to dismantle and privatize public education.

Privatization does not work for children’s education. Children are not interchangeable. You cannot reliably educate children successfully under a for-profit model. This does not mean that existing school systems are all perfect and don’t need help, but allowing billionaire hedge funds to attempt to make a profit off of them is not the way to do it, and the increasing findings that most charter schools are not producing better results is evidence of this.

So are the warnings coming out from the cities that embraced privatization wholesale, and now regret it. Take the former superintendent of schools of Philadelphia, who now says he deeply regrets approving so many charters for the city, which have not improved conditions, but have all but destroyed the public education system. It may be appealing to have an apparent “solution” that doesn’t call for more public money, but it’s snake oil.

Standardized testing is not an appropriate way to measure the success of a school, or of a teacher. The American Statistical Association recently came out cautioning against putting too much weight on high-stakes “value-added measurements” for teachers, right when Gov. Cuomo wants to increase their use to a full 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

High-stakes testing is not only not a good measure of teaching and learning, it is actively damaging. It is turning children’s education into test prep. It is destroying developmentally-appropriate play-based early learning. It is flattening out the differences in learning styles. It is casting a pall over what should be a joyous and exploratory time in children’s lives.

It is not decreasing inequality. In fact, it will increase it. More well-off families will independently get their kids access to music, art, nature, science, all the things that are being lost in the rush to teach to the test. Those families that are already struggling relied on the schools to provide those things.

We cannot let this happen. We need to refuse to participate. All of us—if your children attend “failing” or struggling schools, refuse to let them be labeled and categorized by the tests. If your children attend successful public schools in wealthy areas, refuse to be complicit in the fallacy that says that your schools are better because their scores are higher. No matter where your children go to school, refuse to put them through this charade that is stealing their actual education.

Refusing the high-stakes testing does not mean we are afraid of asking our kids to do something hard. It does not mean we accept low expectations of what they can do. It does not mean we don’t want our teachers and schools held accountable. But these corporate-profit-driven, un-nuanced, high-stakes tests are not serving our children. They are harming them. It is time to say no.

There is a mass refusal brewing. Parents, teachers, and administrators across the state are standing up. Join us and refuse the tests for your child.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on March 9, 2015.)

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