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Test Mutiny: Tens of Thousands of New York Parents Revolt Against Standardized Exams

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In an act of mass civil disobedience, tens of thousands of parents in New York state had their children boycott the annual English Language Arts exam this week. At some Long Island and upstate school districts, abstention levels reached 80 percent. Protest organizers say at least 155,000 pupils opted out — and that is with only half of school districts tallied so far. The action is seen as a significant challenge to the education agenda of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and to standardized testing nationwide. More than a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, educators, parents and students nationwide are protesting the preponderant reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, saying it gives undue importance to ambiguous data and compromises learning in favor of test prep. We speak to Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks Public Schools in Long Island, and parent Toni Smith-Thompson, who led the boycott against standardized testing at Central Park East 1 Elementary School in East Harlem.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In an act of mass civil disobedience, tens of thousands of parents in New York state had their children boycott the annual English Language Arts exam this week. At some Long Island and upstate school districts, abstention levels reached 80 percent. Protest organizers say at least 155,000 pupils opted out, and that’s with only half of school districts tallied so far. The action is seen as a significant challenge to the education agenda of Governor Andrew Cuomo and to standardized testing nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: More than a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, educators, parents and students nationwide are protesting the preponderant reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, saying it gives undue importance to ambiguous data and compromises learning in favor of test prep. Teachers’ unions have also raised concerns about linking students’ test results to teacher evaluation scores. In January, special education teacher Jia Lee from the Earth School in New York City testified before the Senate about why half of the parents at her school are opting out of high-stakes testing.

JIA LEE: Last year, over 50 percent of our parents at our school refused to allow their children to take the New York state Common Core Assessments, what we now have known nationally as “opting out.” In New York state, at least, these tests have changed from year to year. The cut scores have changed from year to year, which makes them flawed and invalid. When parents and educators have voiced concerns, they’ve been accused of coddling. I want to challenge that assumption. The great crime is that the focus on testing has taken valuable resources and time away from programming, social studies, arts and physical education, special education services and ELL programs. At my school, we no longer have a librarian, and our Parent Association works full-time to fund the needed arts and music programs that are not covered by our budget any longer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Earlier this month, New York approved a New York state budget containing many controversial educational changes backed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. These include revisions to teacher evaluations, new rules for the dismissal of teachers deemed ineffective, and changes to the process by which the state can shutter schools it deems failures.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined now by two guests. Jack Bierwirth is the superintendent of Herricks Public Schools. Toni Smith-Thompson led the boycott against standardized testing at Central Park East 1 Elementary School, where she’s co-president of the Parents Association. She recently wrote a piece for People’s World called “Gutting teacher tenure hurts the children.”

So, I want to welcome Dr. Jack Bierwirth and Toni Smith-Thompson. Dr. Bierwirth, you’re the superintendent of an entire school system.

JACK BIERWIRTH: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You supported the opt-out?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Legally, I can’t. But I absolutely understand what the parents and teachers are concerned about. I am involved on a lot of things statewide, and we’ve expressed deep concerns about the tests that New York state has put together and also about the evaluation system of teachers and administrators. Teachers ought to be evaluated. Principals ought to be evaluated. Kids ought to be assessed. But there are much better ways of doing both.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What are some of your main concerns? Because clearly standardized testing has become a major battleground across the state and across the nation. What are your concerns as an educator and administrator about the quality and the importance of these tests?

JACK BIERWIRTH: And a parent. I’ve always—I mean, people said, “Isn’t it terrible to teach to the test?” Well, it isn’t, if what’s being measured on the test is what parents and teachers want the kids to know, because if you’re teaching to something that really assesses fairly and accurately the things that we want our kids, whether they’re our students or our own kids—if it’s measuring that, then there’s no problem with teaching to the test. The problem is that the current assessments are unbelievably long, and there are real questions about how valid they are. And given the time that they’re given and when we get the results, they’re almost useless.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about that, the gap in time? Can you explain that, for those who don’t know?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Well, in New Jersey, the tests, the PARCC tests, were given in the end of February, the beginning of March. In New York, they’re being given in April, three months before the end of the school year. Parents and teachers don’t get the results until the end of August. I mean, when I was a kid and when I first started teaching, you tested at the end of the year to see how well the kids were doing over the course of the year, and that was part of what you sat down with a teacher and discussed. How did the year go? How did your kids do on biology? How did your kids compare with the other kids who were taking biology? But if you’re testing in April, and teachers are going to get scores based—even assuming that they were accurate, they’re being measured on six months’ worth of their work and three months’ worth of the teacher of the prior year’s work.

AMY GOODMAN: Who writes these tests? And what about the actual quality of the tests? What about those who say the kids got to know this stuff?

JACK BIERWIRTH: I think you can do a whole lot better. I think that it’s been demonstrated that you can create a whole lot better assessments. I think where education ought to be headed is online adaptive tests where it adjusts for the students’ competence. And you can do that in 45 minutes or an hour and have results as the kids are walking out, and have results that teachers can use, parents can use. I’m not going to name the name of the tests, but there are plenty of tests out there. And there are plenty of other countries that have come up with much better assessment systems that teachers value and that parents value.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Toni Smith-Thompson, I wanted to ask you about—your school is in East Harlem.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As I said in my column in the Daily News on Wednesday and again today, is that this is an extraordinary act by so many parents, because every individual parent has to send a letter into the school—

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —saying, “I want my child exempted, or not taking this test.” So, everyone has to take an affirmative action.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk about what happened in your school.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: So, we’ve had a number of students at the school opt out for the past few years, a small number, so parents were already concerned about these tests—again, the length of the tests, the quality of the tests, that they were not age-appropriate. But this year, with the addition of these high stakes attached to the teacher evaluations, really just took it over the top. Kids started talking about, “If I fail, my teacher will get fired.” And kids should not be put in that position. And so, really, some of the conversations were started by the kids having conversations in class about what it means to have knowledge and education and power. And they started conversations about whether or not these tests would be valuable for them. And the parents and the teachers echoed those conversations. And we took the initiative to organize a series of informational meetings, to connect with GLE, and to really get the information out to parents. And for most parents, once we had the information about what was in the tests, the length of the tests, like eight hours—plus, you know, for most schools, months of test prep—it was a no-brainer.

AMY GOODMAN: Toni Smith—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were were the results at your school?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Almost 80 percent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Eighty percent did not—

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Opt-out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Opted out.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are your kids?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: I have two school-age kids, fourth grade and kindergarten.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain their response. Presumably, the kindergartners don’t have these tests.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you never know these days.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Right, you never know.

AMY GOODMAN: You sort of seat-belt them in.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: You know, it’s interesting. At the beginning of the year, when testing was first—first came up, my fourth grader asked if she would be taking the test and said she didn’t want to. So I left the decision to her, as many parents did. And then, as more information began to unfold about these tests, which is very hard because they’re so secretive, when it got to that point, I decided, “I’m just going to make the decision for you; this is not a decision that I feel like you are going to have to make on your own, to weigh all of these pros and cons. You’re just not going to take this test.” And she was totally fine with that. And we were really proactive in the school to have conversations with the kids, so that the kids were clear that it didn’t mean anything for them and their peers that some of them were taking the tests and some of them weren’t, so it didn’t become this—

AMY GOODMAN: Do they just not go to school that day?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: No, they all went to school, and there were just alternative activities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you about the secrecy issue here of these tests. I got a copy of the instructions that New York City teachers received on giving this test. And in my column today, I quote that teachers were warned not to, quote, “read, review, or duplicate the contents of secure test material before, during, or after [test] administration.” Now, I’ve never heard of a teacher being told that she can’t read the very test she’s administering. And what about this issue of Pearson, the company, insisting on complete secrecy of the test, and also not even releasing publicly some of the data that independent researchers could be able to assess the quality of the tests?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Let me answer that, but I want to go back for half a second, if I could. There are a lot of parents who are having their kids take the test. That doesn’t mean that they’re supporting the test. And so, I hope that as this unfolds, that people, that the powers that be understand that there’s widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of what’s going on in New York state, whether people are having their kids take the tests or not.

And now to your question, based on my roles, as far as I can see it, the basic problem is that New York state is—and other states are not investing the amount of money that they need to in the tests to develop large banks of questions. And because they’re not paying for very many questions, then they can’t release very many, because if they did, then they couldn’t have other versions of the test. There’s another assessment that we use, for example, that has a huge databank of questions. And one of the people who was one of the leaders of that organization told me that he could publicly release every single question and every single answer, and that it would make no difference, because with hundreds of thousands of questions, no kids—there’s no point in memorizing the test. Part of our problem is that we’re doing this on the cheap. And with a limited number of questions, then you have to be secret about what you’ve got, because you’re going to have to use those tests—you’re going to have to use those questions again.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, appeared on the MSNBC show, All In with Chris Hayes. She defended high-stakes testing.

MERRYL TISCH: The intent of the test is to give a snapshot of performance and allow parents to know where their children are at any given point in their educational career as compared to their peers. If you talk about income inequality in this country, income inequality is directly tied to the achievement gap for our poor students. Those students, if they are not given access and opportunity to high-quality education, they simply cannot move along at a continuum.

AMY GOODMAN: Merryl Tisch went on to suggest school testing informs teachers how much students are progressing, the same way doctors’ visits tell parents how much their child is growing. Toni Smith-Thompson?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: I don’t think that’s an accurate comparison. I mean, when you go for a checkup at the doctor, number one, doctors are not graded and fired based on how healthy patients are. And, you know, I don’t know. I just—I’m not sure. I just—I don’t think it’s an accurate comparison at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we go to news of what has taken place in Atlanta, Georgia? Former educators in Atlanta have been given prison sentences of up to seven years for their roles in a massive cheating scandal at public schools. Prosecutors say teachers were forced to modify incorrect answers. Students were even allowed to fix their responses during exams. Twenty-one other defendants avoided trial with plea deals, but the nine sentenced to jail rejected sentencing agreements so they can appeal. It’s said to be one of the largest school cheating scandals in U.S. history. Donald Bullock, an educator who reached a plea deal, apologized for his role.

DONALD BULLOCK: I, Donald Bullock, do hereby sincerely apologize to the students, my fellow staff members, parents and the Atlanta Public School System, as well as the greater metropolitan Atlanta community, for my involvement in the 2009 CRC Administration, resulting in cheating or other dysfunctional acts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Jack Bierwirth, you’re the superintendent of schools. Can you talk about what’s happened there? Do you know the superintendent there?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Yeah, actually, I did. Her mother and my mother went to the same church, although we didn’t know that for a long time, and followed our careers. And, yes, I knew her fairly well. It’s really sad. As a country, we need to figure out how to make our schools better and how to improve instruction. And as a number of really smart people have said, we’re not going to fire our way to excellence. And we’re not going to really—beating up on kids, beating up on parents isn’t going to improve the schools. What improves schools around the world is now much clearer than when I started my profession; it’s now much clearer than it was 20 years ago. And you don’t get it by rating teachers as a 78 or a 79; you do it by hiring really good people and putting a massive amount of effort into professional development.

And there are high stakes, but the high stakes should be fair ones, that measure kids accurately, that reflect what parents and teachers want kids to know and be able to do. Regents Exams are much higher stakes than three-through-eight tests. But it’s a system that people understood, that people value. It’s a test that is given at the end of the year. It’s not a student’s whole grade. It’s 20 percent or 25 percent of a student’s grade. It’s what they did in papers. But the test is important. It’s very high-stakes. But interestingly, you can get the results of that test usually within two or three days, not four months, not five months.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the interesting things that has surprised me is the extent to this which the revolt against standardized testing has occurred even more in the suburbs—in Long Island, in the suburbs of Rochester, in the suburbs of Buffalo, in school districts that formerly were not considered to have problems. And in reality, what’s happened is, in 2009, state tests in New York showed over 70 percent of all schools, the kids were at proficient levels. Suddenly, the test was changed the following year, and the numbers dropped statewide to 57 percent. Then they introduced a new curriculum a few years later, and now the proficiency has dropped to 30 percent. So, in a few years, just by changing the test and the curriculum, you’re suddenly told the majority of the schools in New York state, that they’re failing. And I think that’s had an impact on these parents who are paying high taxes in the suburbs, isn’t it? In term—for their schools.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yeah.

JACK BIERWIRTH: Although I’ll tell you that my rural—my colleagues in rural, small rural school districts, who didn’t experience it at the beginning, are now experiencing it to a higher degree, many of them, than we are in the suburbs. Even if everything that the state is doing is 100 percent correct, the opt-out and the protests are indicative of a massive failure on the part of the state to persuade people that what they’re doing is right. I don’t accept the first part, but even if you did, shouldn’t people take a step back and say, “We’ve really done a terrible job explaining what we’re doing and why it’s important to them as teachers and to kids”? It’s gotten bigger each year the last several years, I think, because people don’t buy the explanations they’re given.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you grade the Obama administration on education?

JACK BIERWIRTH: D.

AMY GOODMAN: Toni Smith-Thompson?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: I probably know less than you do, but I think the current course of education is totally wrong. And I would echo what you said, that the impact of these tests—I mean, the movement has gained traction this year, but really the impact of these tests has been felt for years, under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the schools that have been disproportionately impacted are struggling schools, struggling students, English-language learners, students with special needs. And schools have been closed, teachers and students displaced and funneled into already other struggling schools. And so, I mean, when you talk about the achievement gap, these are some of the things to think about. It’s not just blame the teacher because the kids are not performing. There are so many other factors.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but we’re definitely not going to leave the story there. We will continue to follow these protests in education in this country. I want to thank Dr. Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks Public Schools in Long Island, New York, and Toni Smith-Thompson, who led the boycott against standardized testing at Central Park [East] 1 Elementary School, where she’s co-president of the Parents Association. We’ll link to your piece in People’s World called “Gutting teacher tenure hurts the children.” And we’ll also link to your articles, Juan, in the New York Daily News. Your piece, “Tests Mutiny,” was on the cover of the New York Daily News on Wednesday. Today’s column, “Surge of the opt-out movement against English Language Arts exam is act of mass civil disobedience.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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