Morally, and Now Statistically, Invalid

It has been an exciting couple weeks in education policy here in New York state. As I’ve been writing about for the past couple of weeks, a massive civil disobedience of sorts has taken hold of the state (not exactly because no one is doing anything illegal, but the goal is definitely to force existing policies to change by refusing to comply).

With only 72 percent of school districts reporting, more than 184,000 children had refused to participate in the new, corporate, high-stakes testing that began last week with an English language arts test. Best predictions are that the number will reach over 250,000 when all reports come in. That would be almost a 14 percent refusal rate for the state as a whole, even before the math tests this week, which often have a higher rate after parents and kids experience the first round of tests and see others refusing. And it’s a huge jump from last year’s under 5 percent rate.

As always happens when a set of policies that some people in power are very invested in get threatened, those people push back. A few individual districts actually forced children whose parents refused to have them take the test to “sit and stare” for the duration of the test or threatened to call CPS for “educational neglect.” These, though, were rare, unfounded, and desperate. Most school leaders have the line of respecting parents’ and kids’ rights to refuse and protecting a good environment for those taking the tests at the same time somewhat better.

The state has claimed the tests will still be statistically valid (seems like a stretch), that districts will lose funding (This is a common refrain, but so far has not come to pass. And there should be safety in numbers at this point, especially with many of the highest opt out numbers in wealthy, powerful districts). They are also claiming that somehow a parent-led movement that has been building for years is being directed by a union that got on board at the very last minute.

Quick note on that: As a very smart friend pointed out, it’s important not to react against this tactic to discredit the movement by distancing ourselves from the teachers’ union. The screwed up way these inappropriate tests are being used to evaluate and punish teachers and constrain how and what they teach is a huge part of why there is a revolt going on, and that’s a totally reasonable thing for a teachers union to speak up about. When “this is just a labor issue” is used as an insult by those on the non-union side, it’s supposed to be code for “thing with no moral right and wrong, just people fighting for their personal self-interest.” But that’s absolutely not true, in this case, and many others. One of the wonderful things about this test refusal movement is how for many people it has turned the tone of public discussion about teachers in a much more positive direction.

On a personal note, I was thrilled to learn that my daughter’s teacher is giving the class extra recess every testing day, and to hear about the books she’s reading during testing time. I watched her eyes brighten as she talked about discussing test refusal movement with her peers and saw gratitude in them as she heard about the effort adults were making across the state to remove the shadow these tests were casting on her and her classmates’ education.

So I want to congratulate everyone who participated, or considered, who had conversations with their friends and classmates’ parents, who spoke up to their school boards and superintendents, who swallowed their fear and spoke to the media to stick up for a sound public education policy that serves all children. We don’t know where this is going to end yet, but these numbers cannot be ignored. At the federal level, in fact Congress is rewriting the No Child Left Behind act, and amazingly, one thing that seems to have agreement across the aisle is reducing the stakes on these tests and giving states more latitude in how they apply them. (That still leaves the state to convince of course.)

I hope that once the high-stakes corporate testing monster is beaten back that many of the newly minted public school-supporting activists from low-poverty districts will also vocally stick up for things like fair distribution of resources across the state; strong anti-poverty programs; supports for skilled teachers and principals that will allow them to make stable, sane careers in the schools that need them most; strong arts programs, and other provisions that will actually achieve the goals of equity and achievement that the state claims this testing regime was about.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on April 23, 2015.)

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