Written and edited by Norm Scott:
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Three pillars of The Resistance – providing information on current ed issues, organizing activities around fighting for public education in NYC and beyond and exposing the motives behind the education deformers. We link up with bands of resisters. Nothing will change unless WE ALL GET INVOLVED IN THE STRUGGLE!
NYS Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia Creates a Culture of Fear, Intimidation, and Misinformation in our Schools
The Every Student Succeeds Act (the federal law known as ESSA) gives states authority to design their own unique accountability plan regarding the state tests. Unfortunately, Commissioner Elia has used that authority to misinterpret ESSA, and has used ESSA as an opportunity to impose a culture of fear on our administrators and teachers, and our children. Under Commissioner Elia’s direction, the State Education Department (SED) at best turns a blind eye to, and at worst encourages, school districts to bribe, coerce, manipulate, and threaten students and parents into complying with a broken assessment system.
As we head into the first round of 2019 grades 3-8 state testing, NYSAPE is receiving an unprecedented number of reports from parents statewide about morally objectionable, educationally unsound, and in some cases, illegal policies and tactics that local schools and districts are using in attempts to suppress test refusal. Parents are reporting bribery with prizes, parties, and exemptions from district course finals. Students are threatened with removal from or ineligibility for honors programs, retention, and summer school; schools are threatened with closure.
Misinformation and scare tactics are coming from school districts, administrators, and even SED itself (see NYSUT’s rebuttal to the Commissioner), and range from claims that refusal students will be scored a ‘1’ and that the tests were created by teachers to statements that the assessments are “vital” and more. The New York City Department of Education even sent out letters--which they later had to retract--informing parents they could transfer out of their schools. Whether the city acted on its own or at the behest of SED is unknown, but SED’s endorsement of “public school choice” for the NY ESSA plan, along with its reductive test-based criteria for identifying these schools as in need of “Comprehensive Support and Improvement” (CSI) certainly paved the way for this debacle. The panic and humiliation caused by identifying schools as CSI was not limited to the city, but was felt in districts all over the state.
Most concerning is the resurgence of purely punitive policies like “sit and stare” (a cruel practice where test refusers as young as 8 must sit in the room with the testers with not so much as a book or a pencil to divert themselves with) and forcing elementary refusers to do old state assessments throughout the testing administration hours. Outraged parents have questioned these abusive actions, and the response many have received from their districts is that these tactics were suggested and encouraged, incredibly, by Commissioner Elia of the New York State Education Department.
A letter from the principal of the Oswego Middle School to her students perfectly illustrates that the NYS grades 3-8 testing system has gone completely off the rails. The sole purpose of the letter was to convince children “why you should say yes to the test.” Given out during the school day, for students to sign while still in school, the letter indicated they should “feel free to share with your parents.” It invoked a warped child psychology, attempting to manipulate students with phrases such as, “you love OMS, and we LOVE YOU! So, you WANT TO HELP!” “If you take the NYS ELA Assessment...you can be exempt from the English Final Exam in June!,” and “Daily Drawings for FABULOUS prizes for all ‘YES’ slips.” And, finally, as a way to single out any child whose parents had decided they wouldn’t be participating, “...a school-wide event if we can hit 100%! Something like a Spring Pep Rally….your favorite teachers will do something FUNNY ‘like’ KISS A PIG.”
Any policy that singles out, discriminates against, rewards, or punishes school children for the decisions of their parents is cause for deep concern. It’s appalling and disconcerting that Commissioner Elia/SED is encouraging these unacceptable policies. SED must immediately admonish these policies, and address the many flaws, complaints, educational issues, and legal questions raised by this deeply flawed testing program—for years the most highly boycotted state testing system in the nation.
NYSAPE calls on the NYS Legislature to pass legislation, before session ends, that reinforces a parent’s right to opt out, protects students from punishment, requires districts to notify parents at the beginning of the school year about those rights, and forbids SED and school administrators to bribe, punish, lie, and manipulate as a way to increase test participation. Neither students, administrators, schools, nor districts should suffer retaliation or negative consequences as the result of parents exercising their right to refuse the state tests.
NYSAPE and parents statewide will continue to monitor the policies and tactics encouraged by SED and implemented by school districts who have chosen to comply with misguided directives rather than advocate for the students in their care. We believe the time has come for the Board of Regents to bring in a Commissioner who values a whole-child education, respects parental rights, and places our children’s best interests at the forefront.