Who will test the testers?

April 22, 2015

New York City public school parent Danny Katch reports on the state's record-breaking test boycott and its potential impact on the school-busting education "reform" project.

RECORD NUMBERS of students and parents in New York have boycotted the state's Common Core exams for grades 3 through 8, creating a crisis of legitimacy not only for the tests, but the larger project of corporate education reform that has been relentlessly pushed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his backers in Corporate America and Wall Street.

Last spring, when a then-unprecedented 60,000 students didn't take the state tests, the Cuomo administration responded by dropping the exams as a requirement for student promotion to the next grade--but later pushing for legislation under which they would count for a whopping 50 percent in a new teacher evaluation system.

If Cuomo's plan was to divide parents from teachers, it backfired in a major way. More than 200,000 students out of a total of 1.2 million are estimated to have opted out of the English Language Arts test last week--and those numbers are expected to increase with this week's Math test.

Incredibly, the percentage of parents throughout the state who engaged in the civil disobedience of refusing the test for their kids is higher than the 15 percent of eligible voters who cast a ballot for Andrew Cuomo in the low-turnout election last year.

Students, parents and teachers rally against testing at a Brooklyn school
Students, parents and teachers rally against testing at a Brooklyn school (Justin Weiner | Chalkbeat)

The growing opt-out movement has the potential to undermine the whole anti-public school agenda misleadingly known as education "reform," a project that aims to replace the public education system--which, for all its inequities, is still based on concepts of democracy and community--with a business model in which schools compete to produce the highest test scores.

By refusing in massive numbers to provide those test scores, parents and students have invalidated their sample size and made it almost impossible for Cuomo to move ahead with the recently passed teacher evaluation system, which had accomplished a major education reform goal weakening workplace rights that had been won by teachers' unions over decades.

State officials claim they will implement the new teacher evaluation system anyway, but with these numbers of test refusals, they're either bluffing--or they're about to make an even bigger mockery of the entire project.

MANY SUBURBAN school districts reported particularly high opt-out numbers. A whopping 70 percent of students in West Seneca outside Buffalo refused the tests while Newsday estimated that over 40 percent of students across Long Island opted out.

Education reformers often dismiss opposition to Common Core tests as the whining of the privileged and over-protective--most infamously, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan referred to opponents as "white suburban moms who--all of a sudden--their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."

In truth, public schools are one of the few remaining institutions that brings together much of the 99 Percent. The opt-out movement is putting forward a class demand--that our kids deserve a full education that isn't reduced to bubble sheets, just like the wealthy children who go to elite private schools that rarely use standardized tests.

One of the reasons that opt-out numbers have been lower in New York City than the suburbs is that the city's system already has a market-based model, as Emily Giles, a teacher and member of the Movement for Rank and File Educators (MORE), explained in an interview:

Part of the disparity between how many parents are willing to opt their kids out in the suburbs versus the city is the way in which our city public school system is already set up to offer "choice" and "competition." What that translates into is a cutthroat environment, where parents of 8- and 9-year-olds feel like they can't take any chances on getting their kids into a "good" middle school, since that will determine their fate for high school.

Contrast that with the suburban system, where students largely go to their neighborhood school, and parents don't feel as threatened by the chance that not providing test scores could ruin their child's entire future. I think these same dynamics can be at play in the city as well--between families that have backup schools they are okay with, and those that are really concerned about their child ending up in the school in their zoned district.

Despite these obstacles, the number of opt-outs rose dramatically this year in New York City--and everywhere else.

The parents group United to Counter the Core estimated that 429 of the 457 school districts counted at the time had at least 5 percent of their students refusing the test. This puts almost every district below the mandatory threshold of 95 percent test participation required by federal law, beginning with George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), to be considered making "Adequate Yearly Progress" and not be given the dreaded "failing" label.

The NCLB's 95 percent rule was originally intended to prevent schools from cherry-picking which students were allowed to sit for the test, but it's now routinely manipulated by state officials to threaten school districts that have large opt-out movements.

There has been some ominous murmurings about New York schools losing funding because of the 95 percent rule, but the state has, in fact, never withheld money to a district for falling below threshold in the past. This year's tsunami of test refusals would make it politically volatile to start cutting now.

THERE HAS been a sea change in public opinion about "education reform" in the past five years.

In 2010, liberals raved about Waiting for "Superman", a documentary that presented a Li'l Orphan Annie view of the public education system, in which teachers were a bunch of negligent Miss Hannigans, and the best hope for inner-city children were charter schools funded by heroic Daddy Warbuckses.

Education reformers were celebrated for turning around urban school districts--as proven by rising test scores. Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee graced the cover of Newsweek. New York City's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg was popular despite having the personality of sandpaper. Atlanta's Beverly Hall was the reigning "Superintendent of the Year."

Since then, the hype has faded, and the truth has come out. In New York, the state education chief revealed that New York City test scores weren't getting better, but just graded on an easier curve.

Rhee's reputation was ruined by persistent rumors of systematic cheating in 70 D.C schools. And the "Atlanta miracle" exploded in one of the biggest cheating scandals in history--although the biggest scandal of all is that Black teachers in Atlanta are years behind bars for the "crime" of trying to protect their students and their own jobs, while the ruling class architects of education reform scams get off scot-free.

Meanwhile, the tests themselves--created by corporations like Pearson and held up as scientifically absolute measurements of student performance and teacher competence--have turned out to be riddled with shoddy questions and grade-inappropriate material--from the infamous pineapple question of 2012 to this year's ELA exam, which expects sixth-grade students to know the meaning of "paroxysm."

The results of the flawed tests were then manipulated by state officials to produce whatever result they wanted, as Juan Gonzalez explained in the New York Daily News:

Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77 percent of students statewide were proficient in English. The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57 percent. A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more--to 31 percent statewide.

Same children. Same teachers. Different test.

In their greedy haste to privatize the public education system, the Cuomo administration and Pearson have moved so quickly and recklessly that they've squandered the trust of the vast majority of parents who once assumed without question that the people in charge of schools know what they're doing and have our children's best interests at heart.

THE OTHER factor that has started to turn the tide in recent years is that teachers, parents and students are organizing to resist education reform. With socialists and other radicals often playing key roles, these groups are putting forward a different vision of what education should look like--most famously, in the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike.

Declaring that "our teachers' working conditions are our students' learning conditions." the CTU published and promoted a study titled "The Schools Chicago Children Deserve," which argued for important changes like more physical education and other classes that have been cut back; wraparound services for low-income students; and the end of overuse of discipline against students of color.

During the strike, CTU teachers were supported by a strong majority of public school parents--especially Black and Latino parents, who the education reformers have tried the hardest to turn against teachers' unions.

Although Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel later got revenge for the CTU's victory by closing nearly 50 elementary schools, the strike changed the national perception of teachers' unions--and popularized the strikingly logical idea that the way to improve schools is to give them more resources, rather than shutting them down.

Just five years after Waiting for "Superman" presented the American Federation of Teachers as the main obstacle to better schools, opinion polls show that twice as many New Yorkers trust teachers' unions to improve education as Andrew Cuomo.

IT'S NOT clear why parents are expected to be suspicious of the teachers we know and live among, and to trust the motivations of the billionaires pushing tests on our kids--like the hedge-fund investors who have given Cuomo almost $5 million in donations and who hold exclusive conferences at the Harvard Club on the subject of "Bonds and Blackboards: Investing in Charter Schools."

The local media are still trying to scapegoat the teachers' unions. Much of their opt-out coverage has claimed that parents are being duped by the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT), whose leader Karen Magee called for a mass opt-out after Cuomo pushed through the new teacher evaluation system.

This is a complete reversal of the actual dynamic. It was last year's 60,000-strong opt-out that inspired many teachers to challenge NYSUT's passive strategy of relying on Democratic politicians to stave off the attacks--a particularly ineffective strategy when the attacks were being led by Democratic politicians. The ensuing discontent forced NYSUT to refuse to endorse Cuomo for re-election, and led six teachers' union locals in the state to endorse the Green Party ticket of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones.

Even now, the United Federation of Teachers--the New York City local which is the most powerful force in the union--has resisted calling for parents to opt out, presumably because UFT President Michael Mulgrew thinks it is more important to maintain a close relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio than to take part in a mass movement defending the job security and working conditions of his members.

Despite the weak lead being given by the likes of Mulgrew, the opt-out movement is helping to counter years of relentless teacher-bashing from the government and media--and lay the basis for a stronger alliance of parents, students and teachers, who have an obvious shared interest in opposing teacher evaluations based on test scores.

The irony of the "opt-out" label is that this movement is doing just the opposite. If thousands of parents upset with their children's education were to protest by pulling their kids out of public schools and enrolling them in charters, the Wall Street-backed politicians would celebrate them for exercising "choice."

Actually, parents who refuse the test for their kids are "opting in" to a struggle for a say over what happens in our schools. This is part of the democracy of public education--a democracy that Cuomo last fall called a "monopoly" that he intends to break.

This month's historic test boycott shows that, at the very least, Cuomo is going to have a fight on his hands. Moving forward, the task for teachers, parents and students will be to build organization--including fighting teachers' unions--that can not only resist the tests, but put forward inspiring visions and demands for the schools that the children of New York's 99 Percent deserve.

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