Opting for lies to stop New York’s test boycott

April 4, 2016

New York City public school parent Danny Katch reports on a campaign of deception from state officials--and the continuing opposition among parents and teachers.

NEW YORK made history last year when more than 240,000 students--one in five statewide--refused to take the unpopular state tests. It was the largest test boycott in U.S. history and the leading edge of a growing national movement against high-stakes testing that had reverberations on both a state and national level.

This year, education officials are responding with both the carrot of minor changes to the state tests--which begin this Tuesday, April 5--and the stick of a more organized campaign to prevent test refusals.

In an effort to quell opposition to the English Language Arts and mathematics tests that it gives to students in grades 3 through 8, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) has reduced the number of test questions, made the tests untimed and found a new company to write the tests, instead of Pearson, which thoroughly discredited itself among educators and parents across the state.

NYSED claims that these reforms "will improve the testing experience for students and the validity of the assessments." But they don't alter the main dynamic that has driven the boycott: As long as schools are judged by these tests, they will emphasize test prep over real education.

Representatives of NYC Opt Out and other education justice groups speak at a press conference
Representatives of NYC Opt Out and other education justice groups speak at a press conference (NYC Opt Out)

STATE COMMISSIONER of Education MaryEllen Elia has been touring the state promoting the new and improved tests. "We have listened," she said last month. "We have made some changes, and we believe that is important for people to be aware that we are listening to them and making changes based on the input that they've given us."

Elia was appointed last year to replace John King, whose inability to handle any opposition eventually made him a liability for his "education reform" backers. (The Obama administration helped out by...promoting King, making him Arne Duncan's replacement as Education Secretary.)

New York's new commissioner is using her reputation as a moderate to ask parents to "trust in the adjustments we've made so far and the purposeful changes we're going to make," as she wrote in a letter to the Buffalo News. "Opting out of the 2016 tests is not the answer."

Even as Elia tries to make nice and find a middle ground, the business-funded High Achievement New York (HANY) has launched its own $500,000 "Say Yes to the Test" campaign, featuring the Wall Street savior arrogance that is a hallmark of the "education reform" movement.

"This year's tests are shorter, fairer, stronger--and parents should 'yes to test' for their children," HANY CEO Steve Sigmund told the New York Daily News. "Ignore the naysayers who want to go back to past policies that left generations of minority children behind and millions of students unprepared for college."

The stakes in this fight are high. If the opt-out movement continues to grow, columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote in the New York Daily News, it could "mark the final nail in the coffin of Common Core standardized school tests."

Those tests, which are vital to the business model of education that is marketed as "education reform," are already on shaky ground. The historic opt-out numbers in New York forced Gov. Andrew Cuomo to back down last spring from his aggressive efforts to tie the test scores to teacher evaluations.

Months later, Congress passed a new education bill that reduced some of the testing mandates coming from Washington, and President Obama stepped back some from his previously zealous advocacy for education deform, calling for a reduction in "over-testing."

Then last month, the New York State Board of Regents, which oversees public education, elected as its new Chancellor Betty Rosa, a Bronx-based former principal who on the day of her election told reporters that if she had school-aged children, she would opt them out of the tests.

THIS SPRING, New York City has emerged as a key battleground in determining whether the test boycott movement will advance.

Less than 2 percent of city students opted out last year, which pro-test advocates cite as evidence that the opt-out movement is driven by privileged suburban parents who don't want tests to tell them that "their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were," as Arne Duncan once infamously sneered.

In fact, there are two obvious reasons why opt-out numbers are lower in New York City. The city has a system of "school choice," a pleasant phrase for the ferocious competition to get into well-regarded middle schools and high schools. Most parents believe--often incorrectly--that the state tests are necessary for admission to their desired school.

The second reason is that most parents simply don't know that test refusal is an option. Charmaine Dixon is the PTA president at PS 203 in Brooklyn, but she only learned in the past year about the possibility of refusing the test.

"The [New York City Department of Education] has not informed families at our school about our rights to opt out," Dixon said at a March 30 press conference at City Hall. "We were never told that we had a choice or how these tests could be used against our school and our teachers."

The press conference was called by NYC Opt Out, Change the Stakes and New York State Allies for Public Education to call attention to the injustice of New York City's failure to inform parents of their right to opt out.

Another PTA president, Charlana Walker of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx, spoke about her frustration after realizing that her son had gone through years of anxiety over state tests that she hadn't known he could refuse.

Like Dixon, Walker is a parent at a school whose students are overwhelmingly not white. There is a bitter irony in the testing advocates' smearing of the opt-out movement as privileged and white while they support efforts to suppress information about their rights to opt out getting to people of color in New York City.

Johanna Garcia, co-president of the Community Education Council for District 6, said that a lack of information in immigrant communities like her neighborhood of Washington Heights is part of the "tale of two cities" that Bill de Blasio decried when he was running for mayor in 2013.

BUT DE Blasio has stood in the way of reducing "inequity in access to information," as as opt-out parent Kemala Karmen put it at the press conference.

Last year, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on the city's Department of Education (DOE) to include the right to opt out of state tests into the Parent Bill of Rights that is sent to public school parents each year.

DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña ignored this recommendation and instead sent out a confusing FAQ about the tests that first states that parents don't have a right to opt out, then follows that with a paragraph telling principals to respect the decision of parents who choose to opt out.

As the April tests have approached, de Blasio's DOE has stepped up its campaign to suppress opt-outs, warning school employees that they could be subject to discipline if they speak out against the tests.

The clampdown is having a real effect. A fifth-grade student who was passing out opt-out information before class started was brought to tears when her principal confiscated the materials, called her into the office and then convened an emergency assembly to warn students to "get this opt out stuff out of your head."

A week later, Fariña violated her own policy and admitted to a private meeting of parents in the district where she was once superintendent that students who have special needs or are English language learners probably shouldn't take the test. But the DOE has no plans to share this information with all parents.

THE CAMPAIGN of suppression marks an about-face from de Blasio's promises early in his administration to "do everything in our power to move away from high-stakes testing."

In Neil Demause's excellent Village Voice article about the city's clampdown, a "previously vocal elementary school principal, now speaking on condition of anonymity," speculated that de Blasio has changed tack because the "city feels like they have a good relationship with the state right now, and that they are able to have some dialogue with the new commissioner."

Making the situation worse is the silence of the city teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)--a key de Blasio ally--over what should be considered a clear issue of workplace rights.

At PS 234 in Manhattan, teachers who e-mailed their complaints about the test to parents were reportedly warned by the UFT that their action could be considered insubordination. That was enough to scare them away from attending a PTA meeting about the tests, where the principal announced that a DOE official was in attendance to "help oversee our meeting."

The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a social justice caucus inside the UFT, has called on the union to fight the "gag order." MORE pointed out that the New York State Union of Teachers has encouraged its members to "exercise their rights as citizens and professionals to speak out against the harmful effects of high-stakes tests in general and to consider refusing the tests for their own children."

For years, the "education reform" movement sold its agenda of charter schools, high-stakes tests and union busting as a way to empower parents. Now that parents are empowering themselves in one of the most impressive grassroots education movements in recent history, the strategy has shifted to misinformation, gag orders and smear campaigns.

The message coming from New York City and from Albany is that now that there are progressive leaders in office, parents should stop their disruptive opt-out campaign--even as the corporate interests funding charter schools and pro-test groups continue their efforts to privatize public education.

Parents and educators who want to fight for strong and creative public schools would be wise to ignore this "friendly" advice and continue to spread the opt-out movement into new areas. As the March 30 press conference indicates, that's exactly what they're doing.

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