Friday, March 31, 2017

Warning to Parents: College Board’s Evasions about Collecting and Selling Your Child’s Personal Data

Warning to parents: PSAT/SAT day is Wednesday, April 5 in NYC and in many other schools around the state and the country.  Yesterday's Washington Post Answer Sheet had a piece by Cheri Kiesecker, describing the practice of the College Board of collecting personal student data via the administration of these exams, and selling it without parental consent.  The College Board sent in a response that is included at the end of her article.

Interestingly,  they did not deny that they sell students’ personal data – or in their words, “license” the data for a fee to institutions, for-profit corporations, and the military.  You can see how they admit this on their website — at the cost of 42 cents per name.  Selling this data is a violation of law in many states including NY and Colorado, and also a violation of the Student Privacy Pledge, which the College Board has signed.
And despite their claims to the Washington Post that “When students take the SAT and PSAT, the proctor instructions make clear that some items on the questionnaire are optional, and they may skip if they prefer not to answer,” nothing could be further from the truth.
First, there is nothing on the PSAT student answer sheet to let students know which questions they do not have to answer.
And if you read the script for proctors, as specified in the 2017 PSAT supervisors manual  on pp. 10-12, you can see how evasive, confusing and ambiguous are the instructions that are supposed to be read aloud to students.
After asking students to fill out  their (obligatory) names and addresses, this is what the proctor is then supposed to say:
There is nothing in this script indicating that providing information about high school course work is purely voluntary and may be shared with third parties for a fee.Then come some really dicey questions, prefaced this way:
Though this part of the script does indicate that participating in the School Search program is voluntary, it does not mention which personal information aside from test scores or telephone numbers will NOT be shared with third parties and no indication that this data will be sold to various institutions and corporations and even the military at 42 cents per name.
Then, as a separate question come the doozies— with nothing in the script to suggest that answering these questions are voluntary.  Worse yet, students have already been asked to check off the box as to whether they want to participate in the Student Search, without having yet seen the information that may be shared.
There is one mention above that students “may leave”  questions blank related to their racial and ethnic backgrounds – but this is not part of the script that proctors are asked to read aloud.
Now are other even more personal questions, with no hint at all either in the read-aloud script or otherwise that answering these questions are optional:
Above are questions about the students’ religion, potential major and grade point average, the education level of their parents or guardians, and if their parents have a military background.   The latter information is probably very valuable to the Department of Defense, which according to the NYCLU, purchases this information from the College Board for military recruiting purposes.
Not only is nothing mentioned about the voluntary nature of these questions, but the instructions tell the proctor to encourage students to fill in the question asking their potential college major, and help them identify the “code” for their religion if they have trouble seeing it.
To make things even more confusing, the College Board then mixes in questions asking the student’s birth date and gender — which are required to be filled out, with no indication of any change in the nature of these questions.
Then they ask for the student ID number or social security number, even though the latter is considered very sensitive.
So you can see that this script for proctors is written in the most ambiguous way possible, with voluntary questions mixed in with required ones, and no clear indication which is which or that much of this personal data will be shared with third parties for a fee.
I have yet to see the script or the answer sheet for the SAT — as opposed to the PSAT.  If anyone has a copy please send it to
I have heard that the questions include the now politically sensitive question about their citizenship, which may be the reason that in NYC,  principals have been told not to include the Student Data Questionnaires as part of their administration of the SAT or PSAT exams — and to skip #11 on the answer sheet, which relates to religion, but not any of the other questions.  Indeed, the online Student Search questionnaire has questions about citizenship and more.  But there may be other personal questions on the answer sheet and in the proctor’s instructions so beware.
If your child has already filled out these questions, either online or in a previous administration of the exams, you can still opt out of further disclosures.  According to the College Board,
“If at any time you change your mind and want to stop participating, please contact us via email or at (866) 825-8051. Please note that any eligible participating organizations that have already received your name and other data may continue to send you information, but your information will not be included going forward from the time you elect to opt out.”  There is also an opt-out form here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What was the test like today? Please leave your comments below!

Today is the first day of the NY State ELA exams for grades 3-8. 

As in previous years, we are asking teachers, parents and students to comment on how these exams went in their schools and if there were errors, ambiguous questions, product placements, or reading passages too difficult or inappropriate for the grade level of the students tested, as has occurred each year since the exams were redesigned to "align" with the Common Core. 

Remember, it was on this blog in 2012 that we first reported on the Pineapple question on the 8th grade exam, which quickly gained national renown and still lives on as a symbol of ridiculous, poorly written standardized exams and the lack of accountability of the testing companies.  Last year, the ELA exam was chock full of overly long, dense and grade-inappropriate reading passages with numerous typos, abstruse vocabulary and confusing questions.  Was the test better this year?  Please tell us below.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

It's not too late to opt out & more reasons to do so-- including to protect your child's privacy and deny them the data!

On Tuesday begin three days of NY state ELA exams for grades 3-8.  Last year, about 265,000 NY students in these grades opted out --22% of students statewide.  It's not too late to opt your child out now!

See the video below with ten good reasons to opt out, from NYC Opt Out.  Check out their website for sample opt out letters you can email to hand to your child's principal and teacher.

Top Ten Reasons To Opt Out from Shoot4Education on Vimeo.

If you're not convinced yet, here are eight more reasons, from teacher/blogger extraordinaire, Peter Greene.  Here are even more reasons from NYC teacher and parent Katie Lapham.

Still not convinced? NYSAPE has some excellent fact sheets and refutations of NYSED's talking points, showing how the tests are still overly long, developmentally inappropriate, and essentially flawed, designed to show the majority of the state's students as failing.

As mentioned by several of the links above, denying the data-miners and privacy violators is a top reason to opt out.  After nearly three years, New York State Education Department has still not enforced the student data privacy law passed in 2014 after the collapse of inBloom.  The outsourcing of students' personal data continues essentially unregulated, with few if any security protections.  The Parent Bill of Student Privacy Rights is still flawed and incomplete - as we have repeatedly pointed out to state officials, and has not been expanded as a result of public input, as the law requires.

Even though NY state law proclaims  that these unreliable test scores are not supposed to go into your children's permanent record, they go straight into the state longitudinal database -- which is the definition of a permanent record. And despite promises made by the state to the federal government in 2009, NYSED has failed to establish a stakeholder data advisory board, so that citizens can oversee the collection, storage and disclosure of the massive personal data that the state collects.

Here is the letter NYSAPE and Class Size Matters sent State Education officials Beth Berlin, Alison Bianchi and Temitope Akinyami after meeting with them March 1. Below are just some of the glaring problems with the Parent Bill of Rights and the state's refusal to enforce the state privacy law, that we shared with them following our meeting.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Letter from the Public Advocate: Why the Renewal schools should not be closed - & how the closure of JHS 145 is illegal

JHS 145 parents protesting against school's closure at the February PEP meeting  credit: NYC Lens

Tonight the Community Education Council in District 9 in the Bronx voted 7-1 against the closure of the zoned renewal school JHS 145.  If the Panel for Educational Policy votes tomorrow to close the school anyway it will be illegal, for the reasons stated below in the letter from the Public Advocate Tish James, Class Size Matters and Marilyn Espada, President of CEC9.. 

In any case, the members should vote against the closures of these six Renewal schools.  The DOE has refused to follow through in its promises to the state to reduce class size in the Renewal schools and to provide their students with sufficient bilingual teachers and classes.  It is the DOE which has failed and should be held accountable --  not these schools.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How Trump's budget cuts will affect class size- here in NYC and nationwide

Trump’s proposed budget would slash overall education funding for the Department of Education by $9 billion, and roll back education funding (excluding Pell Grants) to pre-2002 levels, despite 8.6 million more students in our classrooms according to the NEA.

The Trump budget has a huge number of damaging cuts, but the biggest one in K12 education is the total elimination of Title IIA funds at about $2.4 billion. 

This funding goes to states for teacher training -- or to pay for teachers to reduce class size.  More commonly these days, the funding is being used to avoid sharp class size increases. All states and districts receive these funds currently, though districts with more disadvantaged kids get a larger share.

These cuts would be especially devastating considering class sizes are already very high in NYC and elsewhere around the country, as school budgets have still not recovered from the huge cuts made during the great recession.  

Nationwide, while the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff fell by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students increased by 1,120,000.  In NY state, the total number of teachers in New York state public schools fell by about 26,000 between 2008-2015, according to NYSED statistics. 

In NYC, where we already had the largest classes in the state, we have lost about 10,000 K12 general education teaching positions since the recession.   The result is that general ed and inclusion class sizes are even larger than before – in K-3, bigger than in 1999; in 4-8th grades,  than in 2004.

The Title IIA program has existed at least since Eisenhower administration, and until the year 2000 was used mostly for teacher training.  Then President Clinton created a separate funding stream to help districts lower class size, that was folded into Title IIA teacher training funds by George W. Bush when he became President. In 2014, about 30% of Title IIA funds were being used to hire teachers or keep them on staff.

You can see how much your state currently receives in Title IIA funds here; or if you live in NY state, how much your district was allocated , for a total of $178 million. 
In NYC, contrary to several news reports, the entire Title IIA amount of $101 million was distributed to schools this year for the specific purpose of avoiding further class size increases, according to this DOE allocation memo.
In addition, Trump wants to cut spending on afterschool programs by $1.2 billion as well as many worthwhile higher ed programs.  He also wants to increase funding to private schools and charter schools by $1.4 billion: $1 billion for Title I portability – so poor kids can take their funding directly to charter schools; $250 million for a new private school voucher program; and a direct increase of $168 million for charter schools.  

Of course, the ultimate goal of Trump and Betsy DeVos is by increasing class size, they will manage to drive more children into charter and private schools.  Already parents cite smaller classes as one of their top reasons for choosing charters. Soon I will post an Action Alert regarding how to fight these egregious cuts.

Meanwhile, check out the below for the proven benefits of small classes – which not only increase achievement, and improve non-cognitive skills, parental involvement and school climate but also to significantly reduce disciplinary problems and teacher attrition rates.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Why dumping the ESSA regs is not a big deal; and what is

There has been an unnecessary amount of angst and ink spilled on the blogs and elsewhere over the fact that Congress has voted on eliminating the ESSA regulations on accountability.  It bears repeating that the law itself -- the Every Student Succeeds Act -- still exists in force and is quite prescriptive, for good or for ill only now just a little bit less so.  Every state must still give standardized exams annually to students in every in grades 3-8 and once in high school; must evaluate and rate schools mainly on the results of those exams plus graduation rates; and must intercede in schools rated in the lowest 5 percent.  The fact that the regulations were ditched by Congress changes very little.  What this instead has done is give states a little more flexibility in deciding what to do with schools with high opt out rates, which is a good thing in my view.  

The Obama administration wanted schools to take the testing participation requirement in the law seriously, so that states, districts, and educators could have data on how English-learners and students in special education were doing relative to their peers. So it used the now-dead-in-the-water regulations to call for states to take pretty dramatic actions for schools that didn't meet the 95 percent threshold. The choices laid out in the regs included lowering the school's overall rating or putting it on a list of schools deemed in need of improvement. The Obama regulations also allowed states to use their judgement, putting in harsher penalties for a school that had a really high opt-out rate vs. one that didn't quite hit the 95 percent participation threshold. Some Republicans, including Alexander, thought this went beyond the bounds of the law. 

Now that the regs are being killed? We go back to ESSA, as it was written originally. Schools still must test 95 of their kids. But their state gets to decide what happens if they don't meet that target.

What this piece doesn’t mention is that the law still requires that in every state’s accountability system, at least 95% of the students in each testing grade must be included in the denominator of the academic indicator for each school, whether they took the test or not.  Unfortunately, this language was incorporated into the law, even though it appeared to contradict other sections of ESSA, including that the Secretary of Education is prohibited from telling a state how school participation rates will be factored into its accountability system and cannot punish states that allow kids to opt out of exams.  

What this seemingly technical but very damaging requirement would seem to do is to force states to label schools with high opt out rates as failing – which would be a travesty especially in New York, where many otherwise high-performing schools had opt-out rates of 50% or more. s  Yet as NYSAPE and Class Size Matters pointed out in our memo to the Regents,  while the denominator may be specified in the law, there is nothing that specifies the numerator.  Thus, we propose that instead of counting opt-out students as having failed the state exams for the purpose of rating schools, the average test scores for the school’s overall student population or the subgroup they belong to should be substituted as their scores in the numerator. 

Now many of the Inside-the-Beltway education advocacy groups protested hugely against Congress’ elimination of the ESSA regs, arguing that this somehow would lessen the need for states to try to improve struggling schools and help low-scoring kids.  If they really cared about addressing low-performance rather than merely punishing schools with opt out rates, they should have supported this additional flexibility – to ensure that those schools that really need extra help are provided with the extra support they need.

Of course, the biggest problem with ESSA is that we have no idea whether the support offered struggling schools will work to improve them.  Ever since NCLB, the federal government under Bush and then Obama hasn’t encouraged or required positive, effective reforms for struggling schools but instead pushed districts to fire teachers, close schools, and/or turn them into charter schools.   These same disruptive models were subsequently incorporated into the $7 billion School Improvement Grant program by Arne Duncan that proved to be a bust. The federal model for failing schools itself failed, and now ESSA will leave the decisions of how to intercede up to states, which probably won’t do much better but likely won't do worse.

Instead of helping schools improve, the experience of being identified as a failing school in NYC and elsewhere has been harshly negative, leading to a downward spiral of declining enrollment, losing  programs, and teachers fleeing or being fired -- as in NYC's faltering Renewal program.

If schools with low test scores were merely offered more money to reduce class size, along with hiring more counselors and offering more arts and other programs, I doubt if these initiatives would be experienced as so damaging.  That is why NYSAPE and Class Size Matters have proposed that as part of the state’s accountability system, an Opportunity to Learn index be included along with the mandated academic factors, to give all schools the incentive to provide kids with the right conditions to succeed. 

All schools should have to report and make efforts to improve their class sizes, to provide arts education, recess, and phys ed, and proper numbers of counselors and librarians, as well as the other programs that we identified as part of our OTL index; as these are the features that parents want to see in their children’s schools and evidence shows contributes to their success.

Moreover, smaller classes and these other supports are especially critical in schools with large numbers of high-needs children, whether they be students with disabilities, from low-income families, or English language learners – and research shows these are the children who benefit most from these programs. Rather than schools be judged exclusively or primarily on test scores, as Kemala Karmen points out, a better solution would be to require that these supports be provided especially in schools with the most intense concentration of high-needs students.   

Test scores are not only an unreliable way to assess the quality of schools, but by placing so much pressure on tests much of what is involved a well-rounded education is squeezed out of the curriculum, and in the race to boost test scores, too much of the joy of learning is extinguished.  Finally, it makes no sense to provide these opportunities when schools have low test scores only to take them away from students when the school begins to improve, making it likely that this will cause them to struggle once again.

I only wish that the accountability hawks within the DC corporate reform groups and civil rights organizations would pay as much attention to the conditions of learning as they do on testing.  By now, they should  recognize that access to high-stakes tests has never been a necessary precondition to improving schools, nor has it been helpful.  In fact, research shows that there was more narrowing of the racial achievement gap in the 1970’s and 1980’s before NCLB and annual testing than since. More recently, the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families has actually widened, and is “roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.”

In any case, these are the debates we should be having – how the quality of schools can be more reliably measured, how should they can be incentivized to provide students with a better chance to learn, and how states should intercede when schools need more support in a manner that is helpful rather than hurtful.  Not whether Congress dumping the ESSA accountability regulations is somehow a big deal, when it is not.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The very real threat of privatization to our public schools, at the state and national levels

Gov. Cuomo   photo: AP
Several people have asked for a copy of the privatization presentation I gave at the meeting of the Westchester- East Putnam PTA meeting on Saturday.   It is below.

While Trump and DeVos represent a huge threat to our public schools, so do Gov. Cuomo and the NY State Senate.  Cuomo has proposed expanding funding to charter schools this year, eliminating the charter cap in NYC,  and entirely erasing the foundation formula in future years -- a formula developed to send more state aid to high needs districts after the state's highest court concluded that our school funding system was unconstitutional.

Betsy Devos  photo:Jim Watson / AFP - Getty
Meanwhile, the NY State Senate is likely to support all of these proposals and also to approve a voucher-like bill called the Education Tuition Tax Credit bill, which would siphon off millions of dollars of state funds to private and parochial schools and give huge tax breaks to billionaires at the same time.  More on this below.

The hedge fund community and other members of the pro-privatization and charter school lobby made up the largest donors to the GOP members of the NY State Senate in the November 2016 elections -- and have also been some of the largest contributors to Cuomo's campaigns in past years.  As he gears up to run for President, he may be counting on their support once again.

How you can advocate for an Opportunity to Learn index to be included in the new NY accountability system!

In December of 2016 President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced NCLB and requires states to develop a new accountability system for their schools.  ESSA mandates that schools be rated mostly on academic factors, including test scores and graduation rates. But it also allows the inclusion of a non-academic factor that would assess school quality in a more holistic way. 
The New York State Education Department (NYSED) is currently circulating a survey soliciting feedback from the public on what “school quality indicator” should be included in our state’s ESSA accountability system.  Class Size Matters and NYS Allies for Public Education have proposed that an Opportunity to Learn (OTL) Index (here and below) should be included in the new accountability system.  
Our Opportunity to Learn Index incorporates evidence-based factors proven to work to improve student outcomes, and that most parents want to see in their children’s schools, such as smaller class sizes,  arts education, and low teacher attrition and student suspension rates. The NYSED survey  mentions an Opportunity to Learn option, but includes only a few of its potential components. Instead, many of the options on the survey involve mostly academic, test-based factors. Not only are these factors redundant (they are already included in the other indicators), they do little to address the conditions that must be offered our students for true and meaningful education to occur. 
Please complete the state’s survey by March 20th, and also consider attending a regional NYSED ESSA meeting to have your voice heard.  The times and places for the NYC meetings are below, as well as the web address to RSVP. 
Here are some of the factors  that we include in our OTL index and we urge you to mark “Support” in the survey:
       #2. Chronic Absenteeism
       #7. Student Attendance
       #15. Student Suspension Rate
       #17. Teacher Attendance 
       #19. Teacher Turnover
       #23. Parent and Community Engagement
       #34. Student access to arts education
       #35. Student access to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math
       #36. Student access to early learning programs
       #37. Student access to a full educational program that includes Science, Arts, Music, and Physical Education.
In addition, we urge you to mark “Strongly support” # 22. Opportunity to Learn Indicators (e.g., class sizes; guidance counselors; many other possibilities) even though the factors mentioned here  are only a few of those we have included in our proposal.
The other options offered in the survey we do NOT support because:
       They are academic and/or test-based, especially since the rest of the accountability system will be based on these factors, or
        They are too hard to objectively measure or
       They would tend to violate student privacy (as in tracking students’ post-secondary outcomes).
What Can YOU Do?
1. Please take the NYSED ESSA survey NOW. Survey closes March 20th.
2. Please also share our Opportunity to Learn index with other parents and community members and discuss what you want for your schools.
3. Attend a regional NYSED ESSA meeting to have your voice heard. You can bring a copy of our OTL index with you to share.
Thank you!