Denying Cuomo his test data

March 18, 2015

Marissa Torres, a teacher and education activist in New York City, reports on the growing numbers of teachers and parents who are resisting high-stakes testing.

ON MARCH 4, elementary school parents from downtown Brooklyn hosted a panel discussion titled "Opt In? Opt Out? It's Time To Choose." About 100 people came from around the area to hear educators tell their story of how they became supporters of the "opt out" movement that has been growing movement in New York state.

Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, where 80 percent of parents chose to boycott the state exams last year, said her support for parents "choosing to refuse" is rooted in the medical mantra her mother shared with growing up: First, do no harm.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, unfortunately, doesn't share that philosophy. Cuomo has proposed destructive educational reforms and tied them to the state budget to be voted on April 1. His plan, for which he is holding hostage money that schools desperately need, is based on ideas that research shows will hurt, not help, children.

Cuomo proposes that the new Common Core state tests should count as 50 percent of teacher evaluation score. Most of the rest of the score would come from a state-appointed--but district-paid--observer. Only 15 percent of a teacher's evaluation would be from a school building administrator, under Cuomo's proposal. If a teacher falls into the ineffective category for two consecutive years, they will be dismissed--with no right to an appeals process.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Cuomo is trying to put himself forward as a national leader in the attack on the concept of public education, which its proponents call "education reform." In the process, he has made New York into one of the national centers of resistance and activism.

Across the country over the past two years, parents, teachers and students have begun to reject the idea that high-stakes testing is a fair way of evaluating students or teachers. People are angry about what corporate education reform is doing to their schools and their children, and they are feeling more and more empowered to take a stand.

From Seattle to New York, they have been finding the courage to stand up and fight back against politicians and corporate executives. They are striking, marching, walking out and organizing play-ins and teach-ins, all in the name of civil disobedience.

Over 60,000 parents in New York state refused to have their children take the Common Core exams last year. The major centers of test refusal were in Long Island and upstate. But the opt-out movement has grown considerably in New York City over the past three years and is poised to expand even more this spring.

IN 2012, just a handful of New York City parents refused to have their children take the state exams in English and math. At the time education, activists were mostly focused on stopping then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg from closing nearly 200 "failing" schools.

Teacher activists and parents of targeted communities put up a bold--but mostly unsuccessful--fight during public hearings to save their schools from being closed or co-located with charters. They forced the mayor's handpicked Panel for Educational Policy to listen to them with chanting and "mic checks" borrowed from Occupy Wall Street.

The following year, most of the mayoral candidates--including current Mayor Bill de Blasio--campaigned on a call for a one-year moratorium on school closings and co-locations. That same year, the Department of Education launched its first round of Common Core tests. Again, the number of parents opting out was small, but this time, they were connected.

A group of New York City parents concerned with the harm high-stakes testing was doing to children and schools formed Change the Stakes, which called on community members across the city to demand quality education for all students and encouraged parents to refuse to let their students take the test. A group called Parent Voices New York also formed around this time with the mission of protecting public schools.

In the spring of that year, educators in Seattle led a successful boycott of the MAP test. Lessons of civil disobedience were being generalized nationally, and students and parents were losing their fears and taking direct action to deny the data. School administrators made threats, but nobody was punished.

That year in New York City, when students went home in tears after 12 hours of testing, parents and teachers could see more easily that something needed to be done. Meetings were held, facts sheets circulated and websites created. Parents started learning that it was their legal right to refuse state assessments.

The next year, 2014, was the first year that the state tests were based on Common Core, and the results would be tied to teacher evaluation scores. It was also the year that "opt out" became a household term across New York.

At PS 261, an elementary school in Brooklyn where I'm a teacher and union chapter leader, the talk of refusing the test began only hours after day one of the English Language Arts (ELA) exam. On every floor, there were children in tears, sobbing and screaming, "I can't do it! I don't understand!" One 5th grader with autism came back to class after testing for four hours, yelling, "That was a nightmare!""

The next day, parents and teachers at the school launched a "Know Your Rights" campaign. A flier went out to families, and parents set up a table during arrival and dismissal so families could get information about high-stakes testing and their right to refuse.

Parents from Change the Stakes and schools running successful-opt out campaigns around the city helped other parents get organized. They talked about the big picture, like how testing related to privatization, and they explained how to create phone trees and buddy systems, and shared talking points that helped clarify the issue for parents at their schools. It was a crash course in grassroots organizing.

A week later, 150 parents opted out of the state math exam--up from seven for the ELA test the week before.

That jump in refusals was consistent with numbers across the state--about 67,000 students didn't take the math exam. Nearly 2,000 of those students were in New York City--a tiny fraction of the city's test-takers, but a more than four-fold increase from the year before.

THE LARGE number of opt-outs had an immediate effect. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) announced that test scores would no longer be the primary factor in promotion and/or admission decisions.

After years of using test scores to punish schools and students, the growth of opt-out movement over three years pushed the DOE to change the stakes for students.

The only group of people that still stands to be punished by the use of state tests scores is teachers. Currently, in New York City, 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation is tied to state exams--Cuomo wants to raise it to 50 percent--and teachers cannot be rated "effective" if their students do not show a certain amount of growth from year to year on the exams.

The fight around Cuomo's budget proposal has not only further angered supporters of public education. It has changed the nature of the debate around opting out.

Many parents saw the question of opting out as a purely individual decision to either protect their teacher and/or protect their child. That perspective started to shift as parents began to organize parents in each individual class to ensure that there wasn't enough data to evaluate teachers. In New York City, a teacher can only be held accountable by growth in test scores if there are at least 16 scores available.

If parents didn't see opt out as part of a larger movement to protect public education from corporate reform and the drive to privatize, they do now. Cuomo is upping the stakes for teachers. Testing is central to his education agenda of creating more charter schools and increasing state control on New York City schools.

List serves, phone trees and rallies are popping up everywhere in District 15 where I teach, an area that includes some of Brooklyn's wealthiest families. Teacher letters soliciting parent support are being published on school websites and in the mainstream media.

Parents are building for and attending rallies organized by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). They are chanting, "Education is a right, that is why we have to fight!" and holding signs that read, "What if they gave a test and nobody came?" and "We trust teachers more than Cuomo."

The campaign to fight the Governor's budget proposal has given people a sense of what it feels like to be a part of a collective struggle. Many parents are marching in rallies handing out political literature in the street corner for the fist time.

Now an important question is how to connect to school communities that are not yet involved in the opt-out movement--especially the 91 schools recently identified as "failing" and being used by the Cuomo to make an argument for more charter schools, or privately managed solutions.

"We have to get middle class parents like myself to see that we will never win on our own," says Lisa Cowan, a public school parent active in the fight for public education. "You have to be part of a collective fight. It's impossible to do by yourself. You'll never be able to beat the system--it's too big. You'll constantly have to be thinking about how to jump through the next hoop--for your own kid. It's the system that needs to be changed. We can't do that on our own."

CORPORATE EDUCATION reform is being driven by a "divide-and-conquer" strategy, using class and racial divides.

As Alfie Kohn points out in the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, when people in poor communities and communities of color resist having their schools turned into test-prep factories, their objections are dismissed as sour grapes: Sure, they don't like testing because their scores are low.

But when people in affluent, high scoring communities speak out, they are accused of being too selfish to realize that test-based instruction is necessary for poor kids. In this way, there is no reason to take either group's concerns into consideration.

If their strategy is one of divide-and-conquer, ours needs to be one of solidarity: solidarity between parents, teachers, students and school communities. Teachers unions have the potential to strengthen and give expression to that solidarity, and social justice unionists are pushing their unions to do just that.

Teacher activists have been raising resolutions in support of the opt-out movement and gaining more support and credibility among the rank and file. In New York state, more than 20 locals of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) supported the "I Refuse" resolution opposing high-stakes testing.

While "I Refuse" was voted down at the Delegate Assembly of the UFT--the massive New York City teachers local--President Micahel Mulgrew promised to revisit the issue and admits that there should be a "serious conversation" around the question.

This is a major change for a UFT leadership that helped usher in the new teacher evaluation system during contract negotiations last spring, which ties 20 percent of our evaluations to high-stakes testing. Mass civil disobedience is being recognized and supported by unions across the state, and Mulgrew knows he can't ignore it.

The resolution was raised by Jia Lee, a teacher and parent who is a leading member of Change the Stakes and the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, the opposition caucus in the UFT. Lee is a "teacher of conscience" at the Earth School who recently gave testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee at the Hearing on the Impact of NCLB's Testing and Accountability. Lee has become, in many ways, the face of the opt-out movement here in New York City.

MOVING FORWARD, it will be important for activists to connect the dots between the fight for public education and the movement demanding that Black Lives Matter. Just as ending school segregation was a key part of the fight against the old Jim Crow system in the U.S. South, fighting the covert privatization plans of Cuomo and his wealthy backers is essential to taking on what Michelle Alexander has famously called the New Jim Crow.

As Martin Luther King Jr. told the 1965 AFL-CIO convention, "The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous."

Grassroots organizing is pushing unions to stand with parents and teachers and against billionaires and politicians. More and more parents are heeding the call of former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch to opt out--and bring the edifice of corporate education "reform" crashing down:

Stop the machine that produces that data that are used to label your children, to fire their teacher, to close their school. Take away the data and insist that teachers deal with the needs of every child. Do not feed the machine built in D.C. or at Pearson. Be strategic. Do the one thing that only you have the power to do: deny them the data. Use the power you have. Save the children. Save your schools. Save your community.

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