An opt-out victory in New York

January 14, 2016

Leia Petty reports on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's retreat from attempts to reduce public education to a series of standardized tests--and what comes now.

IN A December announcement that surprised many, the New York State Board of Regents announced that major reforms would be implemented regarding the Common Core Standards, including an immediate moratorium on linking teacher evaluations to state test-based "Growth Scores" until 2019.

This announcement, which followed the published findings of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's New York Common Core Task Force, represents a major about-face for the Cuomo administration.

Just last year, the Democratic governor made himself a national leader in the corporate "education reform" movement by imposing a dramatic increase in the weight given standardized testing to evaluate teachers--from 20 percent to an incredible 50 percent--in addition to other proposals aimed at dismantling tenure protection and increasing charter schools across the state.

This prompted New York City parents to call a "Protect our Schools" day of action that was endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), in which thousands of teachers, parents and students protested outside of hundreds of schools around the city.

New York City students protest plans to open another charter school in the Bronx
New York City students protest plans to open another charter school in the Bronx

Cuomo became the smug public face of attacks on public education, declaring schools a "public monopoly" that needed to be "busted."

His wish list last year included dismantling tenure protections for teachers, making room for more charter schools, increasing the stakes of test scores for all parties, continuing contracts with testing companies such as Pearson and employing outside agencies to observe teachers in place of principals. All while continuing to deny schools the nearly $6 billion owed to them following a 2006 class action lawsuit.

Cuomo's reversal follows the signing of new federal education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that formally replaces No Child Left Behind and removes the requirement that test scores be linked to teacher evaluations.

But the ESSA merely provided Cuomo with the legal cover to make an abrupt retreat that was forced upon him by the widespread resistance of parents, teachers and students to his school-busting agenda.

For two years in a row, New York saw record-breaking numbers of students refuse to take the state tests: 60,000 in 2014 and an incredible 200,000--one in five of all students statewide--in 2015. This massive opt-out movement simply delegitimized the tests whose scores formed the foundation of Cuomo's project.

"The days of test and punish are over," UFT president Michael Mulgrew triumphantly declared in a New York Daily News opinion piece. But many education activists caution that the Board of Regents' decision does not go nearly far enough.

Cuomo and his allies who want to privatize public education aren't giving up but instead want to call a timeout to regroup and rebrand their agenda. But that decision is an important victory in itself for public school activists and an opportunity to build on our gains.

CUOMO'S DECISION was an outcome of findings published by the New York Common Core Task Force--chaired by former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons--whose central conclusions were that the Common Core Standards were adopted hastily without adequate input from educators, and that their implementation was "rushed" without enough training and preparation of educators.

These conclusions are beyond obvious to anyone who teaches or learns in a public school. The Common Core Standards and their accompanied tests have been dropped on schools across the state like a bomb--in some cases overriding teacher autonomy by mandating new curriculum, in other cases holding teachers and schools accountable based on test scores corresponding to curriculum that was never provided.

There has been a significant increase in standardized testing in every sense of the word--longer tests, expanding high-stakes tests on lower grades and replacing the high school Regents exams with much more difficult Common Core exams.

It's hard to overstate what a disaster the imposition of Common Core standards and their corresponding tests have been. Parents and teachers have talked about children as young as five in tears while taking multiple standardized tests--in Kindergarten. At the high school level, the transition from the Regents to Common Core tests has been so haphazard that many students and teachers have had to prepare for both exams in the same year.

It's no wonder that when the comedian Louis CK took to Twitter to rant on how Common Core Math was making his daughter hate school, thousands of parents cheered him on.

Meanwhile, state officials have arbitrarily raised and lowered the tests' rating scale, depending on whether they want produce low scores to show a "crisis" and need for reform or high scores that show what great improvements their reforms have made.

It is this widespread incompetence and cynicism on the part of Cuomo's education officials that fueled unprecedented grassroots resistance among public school communities across the state. This resistance, in turn, created the need for Cuomo to convene a Common Core Task Force.

IN ADDITION to proposing a moratorium on linking teacher evaluations to state growth scores, the Task Force puts forward 20 other recommendations, including a complete review of the standards with more input from teachers, students and parents, more curriculum support and guidance for teachers, recognition of distinct needs of English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities and reducing overall testing time.

The findings are both wide-ranging and intentionally vague. While they confirm what many of us have experienced, they don't go far enough.

They are not a critique of the Common Core Standards but a critique of their rushed implementation. They do not provide a critique of high stakes testing but instead critique the length and duration of them. They recognize the injustice of students with learning disabilities being forced to take exams that don't correspond to their ability or learning style, but beyond calling for "flexibility in assessment" they fall short of what's necessary to provide such students with meaningful support beyond testing accommodations.

And of course, these are all just recommendations, coming from a body appointed by a governor who is hardly a trustworthy partner for advocates of public education.

During the four-year moratorium, teacher evaluations--which currently link 20 to 40 percent of the overall rating to state test scores--will produce two ratings: an "advisory" one that includes state growth scores and the actual rating which excludes them.

Advisory ratings cannot be used to determine tenure, however, those teachers rated "ineffective" based on previous evaluations linked to tests that are now recognized as invalid are still under threat of termination. For the rest of teachers, the new system begs the question: what is such a score actually advising?

Most importantly, the new rules leave high stakes testing in place for thousands of students, don't decrease the amount of time teachers spend doing test prep (teachers nationally spend 30 percent of time on testing related tasks) and will continue to narrow the curriculum.

The ambiguity of the decision and findings leaves schools under an implicit directive to continue the status quo. New York City principals recently received communication from Chancellor Carmen Fariña outlining the recent decisions but are instructed "for the remainder of this school year, schools should continue to follow current policy and guidance" regarding teacher evaluation and testing administration practices.

Despite these limitations, the Common Core Standards and tests are clearly facing a crisis of legitimacy that is a direct result of the grassroots resistance led by parents and students. Without the opt-out movement, there would be no Task Force, no recommendations and no moratorium on teacher evaluations being linked to state growth scores.

It will be important this spring for the opt-out movement to understand that the fight isn't over, to build on the momentum of this temporary victory by encouraging even greater numbers of parents and students to boycott a test that now even Andrew Cuomo and his state education officials admit is deeply flowed and to develop an alternative vision for public education in New York.

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