There’s nothing like a megadose of civic action to boost my serotonin—especially in these dark times. Several days ago, Parent Voices NY posted to their website an eloquent, diplomatic request of New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, for a “free and open dialogue about high-stakes testing in city schools.”
You should note that while the letter was drafted by parents, they are deeply concerned about teachers, “conscientious professionals,” whom they describe as working in a “climate of suppression.” Earlier this fall, Fariña indicated that opting out was not her cup of tea, falling in line with New York State’s new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia. In 2015, New York City had reported the lowest opt-out rate on the state math and English tests in grades 3 through 8. The city’s schools chancellor stated that boycotting standardized tests sent the wrong message to students.
Just as Fariña was making her preferences known on WNYC radio, de Blasio was talking to a national audience on “Morning Joe” about bringing rigor and the Common Core down to four-year-olds.
I’ve included a lightly edited version of the letter, without footnotes, below. I hope all constituents who call NYC home will read the original, and sign it.
Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña,
We write to you as your constituents and as the parents and guardians of public school children. We hail from all over this city and many of us campaigned for you and voted for you, eager, so eager, for a new era. We were thrilled when you, Mr. Mayor, a public school parent yourself, appointed a veteran educator as your Chancellor and even happier when she announced that parent engagement would be one of her foundational “pillars.” It is in this spirit that we write.
If parent engagement is more than a feel-good phrase, meet with us and together, let us look at some of the released questions from the NY State tests: at their construction, at scored responses, at the specific standards which they purport to test. Then, in light of this shared study, let us openly discuss the city’s use of test scores and its rhetoric on testing—both of which are inconsistent with accepted research on teaching and learning, and with the views of many of the educators we know and trust.
And with those educators in mind, let’s talk, too, about the climate of suppression that exists for conscientious professionals, many parents themselves, who would share with families their thoughts on the impacts of high-stakes testing and test refusal.
If you’re wondering why such a meeting is necessary and why more and more parents are resisting the tests and growing impatient with the city’s seeming intransigence on opt out, consider the following.
We are told test scores are no big deal, that they are just one of multiple measures, YET:
- Test scores are the primary performance measure in middle and high school directories and, unlike elsewhere in the state, middle and high school admission rubrics often include test scores. As test scores correlate with race and class, this contributes significantly to the shameful and unconscionable segregation of our schools.
- In some schools, testing dates are emphasized with students and parents as early as September and test prep can last for weeks or months. This is disproportionately so, and particularly onerous for, schools with high percentages of poor, ELL, and IEP students; the very real threat of low-performing, test-score-based school closure or receivership looms over students, teachers, and administrators in these schools. While these children are robbed of a rich curriculum and recess to accommodate test prep, their parents are told that if they refuse the tests they will only add to that risk.
- Many schools operate, and strongly encourage students to attend, weekend test prep “academies.” Or they use scores to assign students to before- or after-school remediation–even in the face of contradicting classroom grades.
- The Chancellor has opined that growth in test scores should weigh 30% or more in teacher evaluations. Indeed, in some ways the city even exceeds the state in its zeal to tie scores to evaluation: the state sets a threshold of 16 scores before it assigns a teacher rating; in the city a mere 6 scores is considered a sufficient sample for both the state and local “measures.” (And, of course, many K-2, physical education, art, and music teachers receive ratings based on the scores of their students in subjects they do not teach, or based on the scores of students they do not teach at all!) This is not only statistically absurd and indefensible, it is alarming to us as parents, as we fear losing our best teachers to a formula that has been condemned as invalid and unreliable.
- Rules imposed by the state prohibit educators from talking about (and even reading!) what’s on the tests; we believe that our Mayor and Chancellor should challenge these stifling directives to advocate for increased transparency on behalf of our school communities. But we can’t blame just the state—recent remarks made by the Chancellor point to a chilling atmosphere locally for teachers and administrators who question the claims made by the testing program and who engage with parents about opt out. This is disheartening and unacceptable.
- We value the opinions and expertise of our teachers and administrators. We seek their counsel on all matters pertaining to education. If a parent asks a teacher a question about her child and testing, is that teacher not allowed to take what she knows about the child, the tests, and the uses of the tests to answer that parent truthfully? Limiting teachers’ ability to speak openly about testing and opt out disenfranchises families, and is counterproductive to building the very relationships your parent engagement initiatives seek to improve.
We believe New York City should be leading the fight for better educational policy, not waiting for change to come to us. The Obama administration just issued a statement calling on Congress to “reduce over-testing.” In Seattle, teachers and parents joined forces in a powerful fight, and now test scores will no longer be used in teacher evaluation. The Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools cut the number of district-created end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 and eliminated them entirely for elementary schools.
Here in New York, seven Regents signed a position paper opposing much of the state’s evaluation law; Governor Cuomo, who clearly does not have kids trying to get into a screened NYC secondary school or currently enrolled in a Renewal school, said test scores were “meaningless” for students; and State Ed Chancellor Merryl Tisch announced on public radio that educators should share with parents their thoughts about the impacts of testing.
This last point brings up an issue on which we seek clarity from your administration: Are there NYCDOE policies that restrain teachers, principals, and superintendents from speaking openly, perhaps even critically, about testing, or that restrict educators from engaging in dialogue about test refusal? If so, what is the rationale and what are the repercussions for violating these policies?
We ask you to be on the right side of history; examine more deeply what you are doing.
Are you creating a culture of fear that drives wedges between parents, teachers, and administrators? Are you asking educators to divorce their consciences from teaching? Are you saying yes to the perpetuation of class and race divides in our schools? To the de facto narrowing of curriculum? We want to believe that the answer to all of these questions is “NO!” but it seems that you do not see what we see when we look at these tests and the fallout from these tests.
When we hear you, Chancellor, dismiss our concerns with simple adages like “our children are up for the challenge,” it seems that you do not understand that our resistance is not about coddling, but about justice and doing right by our children, by all our city’s children.
So, let’s come together to talk in early December. We’ll assemble a small, but broadly representative, group of concerned parents (to be drawn from the signers of this letter) for the meeting–good, passionate, smart people who really want our schools to improve. That’s what you want too, right?
We look forward to your response.