Sunday, April 15, 2012

NYC Teacher supports parents opting their children out of standardized testing and wishes she could as well!

As we have spoken out against high-stakes testing this year, after our family was first directly affected by it through our third-grade son, we have had the wonderful experience of connecting with like-minded parents in New York and across the country who are also determined to put education back into the hands of educators.
We have also heard from many teachers who, unlike parents, are often under the direct threat of being fired for speaking out against run-away testing in our schools. We would like to put forward, with her permission, the thoughts of one such teacher working in Brooklyn. What follows are her words, taken from our recent correspondence with her, with comments from us interspersed in italics.
We wish this teacher’s experiences were unusual. But increasingly this is the norm in our public schools. Professional educators across the country are being prevented from exercising their best professional judgment and are actually punished for responding to children as individuals --all in the name of “standards” and “accountability.”
Our position is simple: we want our children to be educated by teachers like this one, who care about children and learning, who recognize and protest counterproductive teaching methods that are forced on them by the state. We will not rest until parents and teachers are once again in charge of education policy, and teachers are free to use their knowledge and expertise to make learning the joyous experience it should be for all our children.
If you are interested in this issue, please attend the forum Tuesday night, April 17, at 5:30 pm, on the new teacher evaluation system and high-stakes testing at Murry Bergtraum HS; more info at the Changes the Stakes website. – Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols
Dear Mr. Nichols and Ms. Stone,
I would like to thank you for speaking out against standardized testing and making the courageous choice to opt-out of the tests. In my eight years as a NYC Public School teacher, I have seen that the tests are patently unfair and detrimental to real learning. I have half-jokingly said many times that the ELA tests are a part of a conspiracy to make kids hate reading. Make eight-year-olds sit at a desk for an hour and a half without talking or getting up, reading "passages" that may or may not be relevant or interesting to them, and answering questions they are told have only one correct answer - even when those questions are subjective ("which detail is the most important?") or debatable ("why did the author include dialogue in the fourth paragraph?"). Ever since my school made me attend the most recent "Test Prep Workshop" at Teachers College, I have fantasized about all of my students committing an act of civil disobedience and handing in blank tests. I doodle print/web ad campaigns targeted at kids across the city to discourage them from taking the tests ("STATE TESTS CAUSE COOTIES! PENCILS DOWN, KIDS!").
I am still weighing the potential for change against the probable loss of my job and teaching license, but if there is anything that I can do to help your cause, or any suggestions that you can offer me to help mobilize parents in my school, please let me know.
After this initial contact, she shared with us a letter she sent out to friends of hers, referring to her having joined our parent group:
Never content to "leave things be," I've become involved with a group of parents in NYC who feel that the over-reliance on standardized testing is both dumbing down education and perpetuating socioeconomic inequality. These parents have chosen to protest the tests by keeping their children home on test days or by asking their children to hand in blank tests. They feel that since punitive measures for noncomplying or underperforming teachers and schools are built into the premise of high-stakes testing, the responsibility to change the system lies first and foremost with the parents. When I asked them how I can help, they suggested that I share my story with any non-educator friends who will listen, and hope that they will speak out since - unlike me - they have nothing to lose. So, here goes nothing: 
At my own school, the Extended Day enrichment programs in Art, Music, and Social Studies were recently put on hiatus for eight weeks so that students and teachers could conduct mandatory "test prep" during that time. This decision was made by the administration without consulting teachers, students, or parents. The groupings for these test prep periods were created and assigned based on the results of ONE predictive assessment. So, for example, a 3rd grader who reads above grade level but has oppositional defiance disorder and filled in all the wrong bubbles on purpose, was placed in the same group as another 3rd grader with multiple cognitive delays who reads at a Kindergarten level.
Even more egregiously, the "learning objectives" during these test prep periods were mandated by the administration based on this same data, with no input from teachers or consideration of how the question was asked. For example, I was told that based on the data I MUST teach my group of students how to identify details in a text that support a main idea, because "they all got question 10 wrong" - never mind that question 10 asked students to write a full essay based on a nonfiction article, something that has never been taught in 3rd grade and is not part of the state standards OR the Common Core Learning standards for that grade level. (Our staff developer from Teachers College said that it was most likely included as a "pilot" question for future years' tests). It's unlikely that none of these kids know how to identify supporting details and far more likely that these kids had no idea what to do when they were confronted with two full blank lined pages. 
This year's New York State English Language Arts test asks students as young as seven years old to sit for 90 minutes straight reading passages and answering multiple-choice questions. Students are allowed one five-minute break, during which they may not talk or look at each other, and are to be strongly discouraged from using the restroom (this information was shared by a staff developer who had spoken to people on the state level). Even more absurd, the state strongly recommends that students with disabilities who receive extended time as a testing accommodation take the full time completing the test, and proctors should not end the testing period early even if students claim to be finished - which means that students with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, cognitive delays, and/or emotional disturbance are being subjected to a three-hour block of testing, three days in a row, for two successive weeks.
This last observation speaks to a major issue parents and teachers are raising: the testing “accommodations” for special-education students have the perverse result that children with attention problems are compelled to concentrate for twice as long as their neurotypical peers. But for “typical” kids the testing experience can also be overwhelming. In a subsequent letter, this teacher shared with us an anecdote that says it all:
The topic of the test came up during a reading lesson a few weeks ago, before "test prep" officially began. One boy in my class put his head down and started crying. I took him out of the room to talk to him after the lesson. He said that he doesn't like talking about the test because he's worried he might fail. This boy is highly intelligent, reads above grade level, and qualified for a g/t program. I told him that there was no reason he had to worry - that the test is just a reading test and he's an excellent reader. Unfortunately the principal was in the vicinity and she chewed me out the next day for the way I responded to the boy. She told me that I needed to tell him that it's up to him whether he passes or fails - whether he takes the test seriously or chooses to fool around!


Anonymous said...

The Sun Came Out: A Vignette from A Day of State Testing

Guess what happened the first day of state testing last spring? The sun came out! We had the 5th coldest and wettest spring on record in the Pacific Northwest. Why should I mention that the sun’s rare appearance? Because the weather is another variable that is beyond my control. A small mix of special and general education students are hard at work except one. He’s done 2 questions on the 5th grade science test in over 40 minutes. Mercury was a troubled general education student in my inclusion science group. Despite years of SIT meetings over Mercury’s academics and behavior, and multiple efforts for intervention, Mercury’s father refused consent for special education evaluation. Mercury liked science, and was a kind and caring partner to the inclusion students. He shared exploration work without taking over, which is a rare attribute for general education students partnering with special education ones. He had the academic skills to pass the science test, but I doubt he did. He had the typical kind of problems that stem from an abusive, neglectful, and unstable home. He and his little brother live with their elderly father in a church basement, which was one step above being homeless. Drug addiction has taken over their mother’s life. Mercury spent the week before spring break in my classroom while most 5th graders were away at camp. Mercury was too volatile be with the substitute who taught the rest of the non-campers. (My room was his usual buddy room whenever there were substitutes or he was having a hard day.) Before that he had been suspended for throwing a chair and breaking a computer, and saying revolting things to his pregnant teacher. Besides being suspended, (it was one of many suspensions of the year), he was switched to another 5th grade classroom, because the teacher refused to have him back in her class. All of this and more were factors on that first sunny day in months, as Mercury sat ignoring my prompts to do his test. I reminded him that if he did not finish his test that he would have to eat his lunch in Mrs. S’s room instead of in the lunchroom, and miss recess until he was done, but if he got to work right away he’d have plenty of time to finish. From his horrified and surprised reaction at the prospect of missing the lunchroom and recess to finish the test, one would think it was news to him. It was not, but the sunshine and the anticipation of playing basketball with the friends he had not seen in weeks given the suspensions, spring break, and camp were more than this volatile student could handle. Ten minutes later, he handed in the test. It was just enough time for fill in the bubbles, but none of the lines for the written responses had any writing on them.

Perhaps, I should not have reminded him about being sequestered away from peers at lunch and recess for not completing the state tests? I assured him that he could join my students when we went outside later in the afternoon whether they missed recess or not, but Mercury knew that my students gave him no challenge on the basketball court. The test makers rest assured that Mercury and kids like him would spend not one solitary moment discussing the tests at lunch or at recess. They know that sunshine and basketball are far more important.


Anonymous said...

I have just retired after forty-two years as a teacher in the NYC public school system and has seen many changes over my many years in the classroom. The crime being committed against the children with this high stakes testing is outrageous. No longer are our children able to use their imagination,thinking skills or read for enjoyment. Everything is based on the ridiculous test scores and schools,teachers,children,neighborhoods and probably even the corner deli is judged by these tests. Even kindergarten has changed where children not ready for it are forced into an emphasis on the basics without any chance for play time,socialization, and adjusting to school. The real shame of the matter is we do not really prepare many of our children for the future,but nobody cares as long as we get high meaningless test scores.I can not tell you how many times I heard my principal in a lower class neighborhood talk only about the importance of test scores over everything else and how we must prepare all our children for college an impossible task based on the composition of our 1400 student elementary school.

Anonymous said...

Principal said to tell student "it's up to him whether he passes or fails - whether he takes the test seriously or chooses to fool around!" NO, it is up to you, principal to stand up for the principles you know are right! Stop psychologically abusing the students and families you serve!

Jan Hunt said...

Please see "The Right to Control One's Learning" by John Holt: .

Here is the conclusion: "It is in school that most people learn to expect and accept that some expert can always place them in some sort of rank or hierarchy. It is in school that we meet, become used to, and learn to believe in the totally controlled society. The school is the closest we have yet been able to come to Huxley's Brave New World, with its alphas and betas, deltas and epsilons - and now it even has its soma. Everyone, including children, should have the right to say 'No!' to it."

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. Director
The Natural Child Project