What exactly are the “stakes” behind high stakes testingin city schools that has caused such anuproar? In the Bloomberg era, the stakes werequite high,where tests could determine if a student repeats a grade, a teacher is fired, or a school closed.The Parent Action Committee (PAC) at PS 3 in the West Village, long known for its parent activism, hosted a Forum on Testing on January 8th where parents from PS 3 and other schools, educators, and concerned community members gathered on a frigid night to learn from a panel of experts. Deftly facilitated by Richard Rivera, former middle school teacher and now Director at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College, the evening was a fruitful opportunity tobecome more informed and discuss new approaches to the testing quagmire. Mayor de Blasio and his new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, would be well-servedto listen to the playback of this well-run forum.
Serious flaws in the reliability of State tests, particularly the new Common Core test launched last spring, were highlighted by Fred Smith, a panelist and former staff analyst with the Board of Education pre-Bloomberg. By holding up poster boards to show the audience graphs of historical scores for various tests, Smith made a compelling case that State test results have been on a “wild roller coaster ride year-to-year” and should not be used for student promotion decisions. “New York City adds to the problem with a teacher evaluation policy and closing schools based on data from the State.”
Even PS 3, a PK-5 school highly regarded for its stimulating curriculum, has seen its progress report letter gradegyrate from a “C” in 2010 and 2011 to an “A” in 2012 due to swings in yearly State test scores. Savvy parents have seen through the DOE’s mercurial grading system, though, and demand for PS 3 remains high. Anecdotes abound of cityschools gaming the system by avoiding test prep so that large gains can be posted in subsequent years, which factors heavily into the grading formula.
Teachers expressed their anxiety during the forum’s break-out sessions about the “enormous” amount of class time required to prepare for a battery of tests. One teacher reportedthat tests for her 1st graders in the fall and spring were “to evaluate me, not the kids.” Another teacher felt it was “dishonest to kids to give a test that teachers do not believe in.”
Opting Out – Is It Safe?
Panelists encouraged parentsto opt out and teachers to speak up. Julie Zuckerman, a former PS 3 teacher and now principal of Castle Bridge School, a K-2 school in Washington Heights where 10% of the students have an incarcerated parent, challenged teachers in the room. “All DOE employees should speak up when policies are detrimental to kids.”Zuckerman recounted a story of the DOE requestingher school to give a multiple choice “bubble”test when “some of these kidscould not hold a pencil yet.”“There was not one person at Tweed who could justify the test,” according to Zuckerman. When over 80% of the school’s parents opted out,a near-unanimous boycott, there were no repercussions.A parentfrom another school in District 6, however, reported at the forum that her child received a non-promotion notice after opting out of State tests.
Uncertainty around DOE punitive measures was assuaged by testimonies from panelistJeff Nichols. Nichols founded Change The Stakes, an activist organization opposed to high stakes testing,and he has opted out for his twin sons for the last few years. “The mandate is to the schools to give the test, but parents have the right and responsibility to do what they do for their children,” advised Jeff. “The State cannot interfere with that right; it is an absolute right.” To further dissipate aclimate of fear, Zuckerman invoked a Wizard of Oz analogy. “It’s like looking behind the curtain. When you say no, nothing happens.”
Unequal Access to Quality Education
One of the morecomplex and emotion-filled topics raised at the forum was the lack of equitable access to high quality education for children of poverty, English language learners, and children with special needs. The DOE representative on the panel, Joshua Thomases, Deputy Chief Academic Officer for Instruction, was a former teacher and principal at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, a school withone of the highest graduation rates of underserved students in the city. Thomases shared the story of one of his most engaged and hard-working high school studentwho graduated in thetop quartile and passed herRegents exams (the school was eligible to require only twoof the five Regents subject exams for graduation). She was soon devastated, however, when as a new Brooklyn College student she could not enroll in any 101 college courses for credit until she completed extensive remedial classes.“We did not do right by her as hard as we tried,” lamented Thomases. “How do you figure out a barometer? If we are going to take on the high stakes testing challenge, we also need to take on the equity challenge.”
Panelist Shino Tanikawa, PS 3 alumni parent and Chair of the Community Education Council for District 2, concurred, but madea distinction between the two issues. “I do worry about students who don’t have access to high quality education, but I just don’t think high stakes testing is a way to get there. Let’s separate the discussion from high stakes testing.”Nichols added perspective by pointing out the fallacy that all U.S. students are academically behind students of other nations. A comparison of students by income levels show that U.S. students are “competing just fine,”contended Nichols, “so there is not a problem of student achievement, but a problem of massive student poverty.”His conclusion that high stakes tests were therefore “not a solution to an actual problem that exists” was met with applause by fellow panelists and audience members.
Several ideas for policies and actions emerged from panelists’ remarks and discussion groups at the forum. The list is worthy of consideration by the city’s new administration:
- Tests should be used for diagnostic purposes to help teachers improve instruction, not for high stakes decisionsaffecting students, teachers, and schools.
- Test prep should be vastly reduced to simply “bring a #2 pencil.”
- A “polling approach” to testing should be usedto produce more valid results, as shown by the NAEP test (National Assessment of Educational Progress) where random sample groups of students are tested, resulting inmore reliable scores and trend lines compared to State tests.
- For student promotion decisions, teachers and principals should be trusted more and given more autonomy.
- Middle school principals should band together and agree to eliminate the State ELA and math test scores in their admissions decisions.
- Test scores should be only one part of a “holistic portfolio of assessments” that includes other student work such as writing samples and math sheets.
Action Plan Ahead
The forum did an excellent job educating the community about a myriad of issues around high stakes testing, and the PS 3 PAC is wasting no time mobilizing the community for next steps. A March meeting is being planned as “part 2” where the community will decide on what action to take. PS 3 Principal Lisa Siegman offered some keyadvice in her opening remarks at the forum.“The different layers of government involvement, from Federal, to State, to local, can be a confusing mix,” counseled Siegman, so it is critical to“follow the money and identify points of leverage.”Activists will also need to coalescearound priority issues, as PS 3 PTA co-president Dana Abraham urged parents, “We need to advocate together, not just for our child.” “You have the clout,” Zuckerman encouraged the crowd. There is much at stake in the battle against high stakes testing, so all community members, not just parents,should get educated and get involved. Go to www.ps3nyc.org/pac to learn more and join the effort.