News

No Threat Left Behind: New York City Stifles Opt Out

Posted on by shoot4edu in News, Video Release | Leave a comment

Co-Writer Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co Founder NYC Public

With more than 200,000 students — or nearly 1 in 5 of all eligible test takers–refusing to sit for annual standardized tests, New York State made headlines last spring for leading the nation in sheer number of opt outs. The parent-led opt out movement worked hard to get those numbers, getting an unexpected boost from voters disgusted by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s hubristic overreach in pushing the Education Transformation Act of 2015. (The legislation proposed that as much as fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation would hinge on test score “growth.”)  However, if you take even the tiniest of peeks at the distribution of those opt out numbers, one thing will immediately become apparent: New York City, with a test refusal rate of only 1.4%, is not keeping up with the pack. Why? What’s going on?

As parents of New York City public school children, we can tell you. And it’s not pretty. Whether you are a parent in a “high performing” school with plenty of middle and upper class children or a parent with a child in a “low performing” school with a population weighed down by the stresses of poverty, there is a powerful deterrent custom-made for you when it comes to making the decision of whether or not to allow a child to take the tests.

The most dire of threats, school closure, falls heavily on the city’s 94 Renewal Schools.  These schools, which serve predominantly low-income, minority, and immigrant communities, receive the “Renewal” designation largely due to their poor showing on state tests. (Graduation rates come into play for high schools.) When the de Blasio/Fariña administration introduced the Renewal Program, which is supposed to pump resources into struggling schools, it was positioned as an alternative to the unpopular school closure policy favored by Bloomberg/Klein. But a school can only be removed from the program through an improvement in test scores–on the same disastrous state tests that have been roundly criticized by parents, teachers, administrators, and now, even Governor Cuomo’s own Common Core Task Force.  Parents are scared of losing their schools completely, whether to charterization or state receivership, and the test-based exit criteria pressures them into seeing testing as essential for school survival. In an effort to raise those scores come hell or high water, children who need so much more than drill-and-test are fed the narrowest test-prep workbook curriculum.

The gravest impediment to opt out that the NYC Department of Education hangs over the heads of parents and children in other communities is the middle school and high school admissions process. Unlike elsewhere in the state, New York City has a complicated, and medical-school-competitive, admissions model. (The comparison to medical school is no exaggeration; New York hired the same team who designed the system that matches medical school students to residencies to design the system that matches teenage students to high schools.) Although state law now precludes test scores from being the sole or primary factor in a school’s admission formula, the city still sends student scores to the receiving institutions. This makes parents distrust even those schools who say they don’t consider test scores at all. After all, if the score is right there in front of the admissions team, what’s to stop them from looking and using it to make shorthand determinations about the student? Moreover, admissions rules seem to be constantly changing and no one knows what the future will bring. Currently, in all but a few instances, only 4th grade and 7th grade scores are used, respectively, for middle school and high school admissions, but will the rules change? Every principal will tell you there’s no way to know. Getting into the school that is a good match for your child is on the minds of parents from the moment their children hit the 3rd grade, so the fear around this issue is enough to make any parent pause–and to make many of them think, well, even if only 4th grade counts, to be safe, I probably should have my 8 year old take the third grade test as practice. Ditto, the 5th and 6th grade tests, because 7th grade is the admissions ticket. As for 8th grade, that’s practice for the new, more stringent, high school Regents exams. There are no avenues for discussion here. In many districts, there is no neighborhood middle school that you can fall back on, and few zoned high schools remain. It’s school roulette, and the NYCDOE holds all the cards.

In much of the state, parents were motivated to opt out because they wanted to protect their beloved teachers. They reasoned that refusing the tests would mean there would be no spurious data for test-based teacher evaluations. (Note: No parent we know is saying, “Don’t evaluate our teachers”–just don’t evaluate them via this discredited test-based model.) But here in the city, Chancellor Fariña has stated that growth in test scores should weigh 30% or more in teacher evaluations. Indeed, in some ways the city has outdone the state in tying 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.” Six scores is three students taking both the English and Math exams. Imagine: a teacher may have a classroom of 32 kids (the contractual limit for elementary school), but have the lion’s share of their evaluation based on how three children perform. This understandably makes teachers nervous about who those three children might be and families may feel that burden as they weigh test refusal.

Finally, a gag order threat hangs over teachers and principals.  They are not allowed to speak to parents about opt out.  They can offer no insight into the tests themselves, they cannot advise you if the tests are inappropriate for your child, they can only ask you what you want to do.  In many instances teachers and administrators don’t have accurate information themselves on the viability of opt out, so they repeat the lines given them by the NYCDOE: Take the tests!  There is a crackdown going on right now to try and strangle the New York City opt out community entirely.  Teachers and principals are threatened with being labeled insubordinate if they speak the truth about testing.  If they make any attempt to protect children from the abuses of these tests, their careers hang in the balance.  This goes for principals as well as teachers.  Watch as Anita Skop, Superintendent of Schools in Brooklyn’s District 15, clearly following Chancellor’s orders, explains to parents that under no circumstances should teachers or principals speak with parents about their concerns regarding the tests.

There are no protections here, no local school board or activist union to shield teachers and parents from the wrath of city government.  Cross the line and there can be consequences, albeit vague and opaque in nature.  And all of this is coming from the allegedly progressive, education-savvy Mayor Bill de Blasio and his handpicked Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Parents are being denied their rights, educators are being silenced, and it’s the kids who suffer.

You Can’t Measure This

Posted on by shoot4edu in News | Leave a comment

Co-authored by Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic.org

Sanise Lebron – CASA MIddle School, Bronx NY from Shoot4Education on Vimeo.

In the sturm und drang leading up to last week’s New York State budget vote, countless letters were written, phone calls made, and backroom deals negotiated regarding the new education policies Governor Andrew Cuomo had tied to approval of his financial plans. Much of that talk revolved around a new teacher evaluation law and the role high-stakes standardized testing should play in assessing teacher accountability. Should a full 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, as the governor proposed, be based on the test-score “growth” of his or her students? Would, as critics countered, such an emphasis lead to a diminution of social studies, science, foreign language, and arts instruction since those subjects are not regularly covered by the tests the state administers?

These questions are certainly worthy of debate; after all, there is no consensus as to the validity of the “value-added measurement” theory that underlies the governor’s proposals — and notable detractors include the American Statistical Association and the National Science Foundation. However, I have to wonder if, by virtue of this narrow focus, Albany has somehow lost track of what really matters for the children who attend our schools.

Certainly, schools must be places where the transmission of academic knowledge occurs, but a good school offers so much more than that; it becomes a home away from home, it is a place where students thrive because they feel safe and seen and valued, and are given opportunities to grow. Likewise, the best teachers do more than simply inform students of the facts and theories of their disciplines. The acquisition of those facts and theories might, imperfectly, be measured by tests. But that is so tiny in the scheme of things. What matters is that the best teachers care. They inspire. They forge relationships that acknowledge that children are complex beings; they see and address students’ needs and possibilities.

Recently, I had a tangible and powerful reminder of these truths. I was watching Jamaal Bowman conduct the weekly “community circle” at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx. I’d “met” Jamaal, C.A.S.A.’s principal, in a very modern way; knowing that I was looking to film public school experiences, he’d tweeted, “Come tell our story” at me and included a link to a wonderful YouTube video called 7 Habits. It wasn’t long after, that I grabbed my camera and headed to the Bronx. In the community circle, students gave all kinds of testimony: shout-outs to teachers who helped them or pushed them that week, apologies for mistakes or lack of effort, and affirmations for the joyfulness of the school. Jamaal conducted the meeting with the inspiration of a revival and the musical skill of a hip-hop DJ.

As I stared into the faces of these 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children, I saw immense joy. It was clear to me that these students learn and share in an atmosphere of understanding. It is an environment where their voices count, and their adversities are shared, validated, and communicated. What was truly remarkable was how the students worked with each other. As each child rose to give thanks or share regret, there was great respect and restraint shown. When the situation called for it, they were buoyant, enthusiastic, and boisterous. At other times, they grew quiet and focused intently on every word. These were middle school kids, but they were not posturing or sizing each other up or feigning boredom! They were in the moment, and as inspired as I was by the potential that existed in this world of school.

I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.

Sanise’s favorite class is Humanities and she hopes to be a lawyer when she grows up, to help transform her community. She is a winning member on the debate team, a huge contributor to the basketball team, and plays softball outside of school. Her best friends are Makala, Angelina, China, and Rebecca, whom Sanise describes as smart, fun, and always there for each other. Although her father isn’t around, she has an amazing mother, uncle, and grandmother who provide her with outstanding love and support. She identifies Ms. De Los Santos, Mrs. Doria, and Ms. Walton as her favorite teachers because they continue to push her and nurture her academically and emotionally.

So, Legislators of New York State, can a standardized test put a value on this?
Source: Michael Elliot