Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Testing: Teacher Letter to Duncan, Parent Opt-Out Call

Overheard at the UFT DA today as I was handing out a blurb for ed notes: A woman who I didn't know says, "Bernie is so cute." And so he is. Made my day.

I've been neglecting the testing issue and here I cram a bunch of amazing stuff on testing. I would do them separately but the poor people who subscribe to this blog would be buried under the weight of the emails.

The GEM high stakes testing committee has been doing such great work with its Change the Stakes campaign. Feel free to join in at this Friday's meeting:
We have a lot to do in the coming weeks considering the impending boycott, the petition, etc so I hope folks can make it.

Room 3102 at the CUNY Graduate Center
See the Change the Stakes leaflet at the end of this post.

I saw Matt Frisch at the DA today and he reminded me I promised to post his letter to Duncan.
An open letter to Secretary Arne Duncan,

It’s test prep season in America. My elementary school in NY City will devote a full 6 weeks to nearly non-stop test prep. Despite individual teacher’s personal misgivings, schools all across America will push everything else aside in the service of respectable test scores. This is the inevitable result of the fact that students, teachers, principals and schools are all judged, rated, hired and fired based on these scores. The intensive preparation taking place now is in addition to part-time test prep which goes on throughout the year.

Rather than corresponding to a clearly articulated curriculum, the standardized tests given in 3rd-8th grade have become the curriculum. Students take predictive tests published by the same corporations that produce the actual tests, throughout the year. School districts pay for detailed analysis of students’ performance on these predictive tests. Teachers are told to use the data from these predictive tests to structure instruction.

Test publishers have become very adept at pairing test questions with standards. This is actually quite easy to do because standards are written in the most general terms so that one or more standards can be matched to almost any question. Testing data determines students’ weaknesses in terms of standards and teachers place students in groups in which, theoretically, common weaknesses are addressed. Standardized tests, predictive tests and testing data have become central to classroom instruction. Tests are loosely based on standards; the connection between test items and curriculum, if one can be found, is even more tenuous. For these reasons, standardized tests have become the de-facto curricula.

In today’s educational climate, teachers’ and schools’ fates are determined by test scores. The validity of the tests is rarely questioned by policy makers or the media, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary. Self-described ‘education reformers’ such as yourself must have absolute confidence in test scores since you advocate ending hard-fought careers and even closing whole schools if test scores do not measure up.

I, personally, have very little confidence in the validity of test scores. In my years of administering standardized tests in upper elementary grades, I’ve noticed that questions are often poorly written. Approximately 20% of published standardized test items contain flaws that should have been caught by even the most rudimentary quality control. Too many questions also exhibit sloppiness in their coordination with facts or skills contained in the curriculum. If an item writer cannot articulate the fact or skill a potential item addresses, the item should be discarded. We have to know what skills and knowledge we are testing. Otherwise, we cannot prepare students to take the test and cannot make any judgments based on the results. It’s not enough to say that we are testing ‘thinking skills’ because you would have trouble finding two people to agree on what they do when they ‘think’ let alone an objective way of judging the thinking ability of others.

Since item writers have become very powerful and influential, how is it that we know nothing about them? What are their qualifications for writing the tests by which our students, teachers, principals and schools will be judged? Shouldn’t they be required to have teaching or administration licenses? Shouldn’t they have credentials attesting to their expertise in the curriculum?

I understand that this particular qualification may not be feasible because in all the fervor to reform American education, no one is talking about curriculum. In N. Y. City, with its hundreds of central administrators and budget in the billions, there is no office of curriculum. Mayor Bloomberg exercises unprecedented power over education in our city and has not been shy about using that power to shutter once proud institutions but, unfortunately, he has had nothing to say about curriculum- all the more reason for test publishers to fill the void. But shouldn’t item writers have some credential if they are deciding what students should learn and when teachers should be fired? I’m not saying you have to do this. But if you are going to raise the importance of standardized testing above all else, you should demand that the people who are holding this power over the future of American education have some qualifications for the job.

Matthew Frisch
Queens, NY 

Brooklyn New School Mar. 19, 6:30

Got an email from Liza Featherstone, an excellent writer for The Brooklyn Rail:
save the date save the date save the date save the date save the date save the date

What does high stakes testing mean for
our children? 
our teachers? 
our schools?

MONDAY, MARCH 19 at 6:30pm 
Education reporter Meredith Kolodner (Daily News, InsideSchools) will moderate a panel discussion with distinguished guests.
Shael Polakow-Suransky Chief Accountability Officer of the NYC Dept. of Education

Sean Feeney Principal of the Wheatley School and Author of the New York Principals APPR Position Paper

 Elijah Hawkes, Former Principal of The James Baldwin Expeditionary Learning Schoo 
If interested in CHILDCARE and PIZZA (starting at 6 PM, $5 suggested donation), RSVP to 
F or G to Carroll St. station, exit 2nd Place 
presented by PS 29 & the Brooklyn New School

Here is the opt-out call from the Change the stakes-- share with everyone. Email me for the pdf.

Dear fellow parents of NYC public school students,

We have two children in public elementary schools in Manhattan, and until this year, when one child entered third grade, we were extremely satisfied with the educations they were receiving. Their teachers and principals have been without exception smart, professional and deeply knowledgeable about our children as individuals. Our experience of our son’s third grade year thus far, however, has convinced us that the standardized testing that has come to dominate our schools severely compromises his teachers’ ability to do their jobs. They have been forced to adopt inferior test-oriented teaching practices and to take too much time away from classroom activities to accommodate endless practice tests. The reward for their efforts from the Department of Education has been a completely unwarranted test-based grade of “D” for their school, which is sapping their morale. Even before the recent disastrous release of flawed teacher evaluations based on test scores, which promises to drive good teachers from the profession in droves, we had come to the conclusion that the current heavy emphasis on testing seriously undermines the quality of public education. 

 As parents, we feel compelled to act. We will be boycotting state-mandated standardized testing of our children for the indefinite future, with the goal of restoring control over education to those who really understand how children learn – parents and teachers. If you would like to join us or just share your impressions, please contact us using the email address given at the end of this letter, or check out the information and resources at

Here are five basic reasons for our decision:
1) Testing is dumbing down our schools. Placing standardized tests at the center of the curriculum forces the reduction or elimination of subjects like history, science, the arts and physical education, as well as narrowing the ways the “core” subjects of reading and math are taught. (For more on our opinions about this see our piece in Schoolbook:

 2) Testing is unduly stressful for young children. The test preparations, including mandatory afterschool and weekend sessions and practice tests scheduled throughout the year, and the official test itself (six days of testing in the third grade, more in higher grades) are extremely onerous for young students who are compelled to sit through them. Testing often becomes torturous for special-education students, who are given the perverse “accommodation” of extra time. To make matters worse, this year the testing time is being substantially lengthened so that test designers can try out practice questions for future years, using our children as uncompensated guinea pigs.
  3) Using test scores to grade teachers hurts the most vulnerable students. The use of standardized tests as the primary performance measure of teachers and schools creates a powerful incentive for teachers to avoid schools that serve students in need of extra help. Teachers often cannot significantly raise the academic performance of children who do not have adequate support for learning outside of school. Punishing teachers when students are struggling because of factors beyond their control, such as unstable home situations or learning disabilities, is gross social injustice – and it is the children who pay the price.
 4) High-stakes tests force teachers to adopt bad teaching practices. The dire consequences for teachers who do not teach to the test prevent them from doing what they were trained to do: to educate our children based on their best professional judgment. Teachers who must constantly strategize to improve test scores at all costs do not have the time or the intellectual freedom to do their jobs properly, and our kids’ educations suffer. 

 5) Standardized tests are a waste of public money. In an age of scarcity, we should not be spending untold millions of tax dollars on practices that add nothing of value to children’s educations. Many of the finest school systems in the world do without standardized tests entirely,  and such tests hardly figure in the lives of children in the elite private elementary schools that our political leaders send their kids to. We should stop funding the testing industry and use that money to hire teachers, build schools, and restore the arts and sciences to all our public schools.

We cannot allow our children to be used as tools in the enforcement of unjust laws and destructive, wasteful policies. They will be educated in public schools, and they will not take state-mandated standardized tests.

We have not come to this decision lightly. We have considered the central argument for the tests, that they are essential tools for assessing student and teacher performance, and rejected it. If the tests are necessary, why does the most successful school system in the world – Finland’s – do without them? The fact is, teaching is too complex an activity ever to be properly assessed by numerical models, which is why expensive evaluation systems based on test scores keep failing. Teachers know how to assess children’s progress, and principals, fellow teachers and parents know how to evaluate teachers, by observing their work directly.

We have been warned repeatedly of serious consequences that might arise from boycotting these tests: our children will not be permitted to move on to the next grade, or, even worse, their schools and teachers will be penalized because student absence from the tests is reflected in teacher assessments and the school’s grade. It has been suggested, in other words, that we should comply with the tests because our act of civil disobedience will cause the state to harm others. Because this is a very real danger, many parents opposed to high-stakes testing have chosen to petition for the legal right to opt out of the tests rather than to boycott them outright (information about this option is also available at However, we refuse to be intimidated by threats coming from the Department of Education into submitting to practices that we consider both unethical and harmful to our children. And we will challenge any actions taken by the DOE to punish our child or his wonderful teachers because of our decision. 

Thank you for reading this letter, and please contact us to share ideas about how parents can play a leading role in restoring public education in our city or to join us in taking a collective stand by boycotting the state tests. 

Jeff Nichols and Anne Stone

March 10 - STATE OF THE UNION PART 2: TIME TO FIGHT BACK ---- See Norms Notes for a variety of articles of interest: And make sure to check out the side panel on the right for important bits.

No comments: