A Fundamental Difference

When I started this blog, my son was in school and I was swept up in the fight against excessive testing and standardization in public education. I continued this fight passionately, well after we pulled our son from school and began homeschooling, a choice that is a perfect fit for our family and one that has quite surpassed all expectations. In short, the homeschooling journey has been extraordinary.

My voice in all things public education has diminished and lately almost wholly disappeared, namely because I felt like my opinions didn’t matter anymore. I mean, who am I as a homeschooling parent to tell public school parents and teachers what their business should be? I resisted the ‘our world/ their world’ mantra for quite a while, but over time became exasperated as the tension between these two worlds became too much and I realized that clearly the allies for whom I had been fighting did not see the unity between our two worlds as much as I did.

I still believe that all children, regardless of the type of educational environment they find themselves in, deserve a meaningful education in which they play a primary role in their own discoveries. I still believe that parents have the right to be fully involved in their children’s education, and I still believe that teachers ought to have the freedom to exercise their expertise in the classroom. But for me, the fight against testing and top-down control became just a tiny part of what does not work in public education, at least not for me or my kids. And I realize that, while my opinion might not mean much to those that choose to remain committed to public education, I am still entitled to my opinions.

Even now that I linger at the sidelines when it comes to discussions of public education, they surround me everywhere I go. Sometimes I feel like I learn more about how people really feel as a fly on the wall than I ever did as an activist leader of a major Opt Out group. Whether I’m waiting outside my kids’ gymnastics or getting my hair cut, everyone seems to be complaining about education.

There are many topics of discussion but one of the most common items of complaint is homework. I watch children being proctored by their parents in between activities at my local YMCA all the time, their tired faces and sighs as they fill in blanks and erase spelling mistakes. I hear parents talk amongst themselves how every night is a battle, how their kids are so tired, how they don’t see a point to homework for a first grader. One of the parents, who happens to be a kindergarten teacher, said if that happened to her kids she would refuse the homework. Another second grade teacher spends the hour waiting for her own children in activities, correcting the homework of her second grade students. Why has homework became such a contentious topic and one where parents and teachers feel they have no choice but to simply comply? Why are so many elementary teachers assigning homework and why aren’t more parents opting out of this distraction from life when experts assert that homework in the younger grades provides no benefits to learning and all parties see the chaotic fallout of the homework trend? See here, here, here, and here, to get you started. But it’s not just this anti-establishment homeschooling mom who is complaining! Teachers have begun to stop assigning homework, and parents who see the ill-effects are refusing to engage in the homework cycle.

Last year, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Alfie Kohn at nearby Walton Central School, where my my own pedagogical ideologies were confirmed as Kohn spoke of education without homework, without testing, and without grades. And this is where my journey, my deep philosophical beliefs about what education can and should be like for children breaks away heavily from business as usual in the classroom. It isn’t just about the excessive testing or whether Common Core math is good or bad. These issues used to be the big deal for me, and I couldn’t understand why parents did not opt out, or why teachers thought the Common Core was a good idea. I now see a more fundamental difference: whether one takes the tests or not, whether one likes close reading or not, whether addition takes two steps or ten, children are being forced out of their childhoods in an overly structured system that disallows the input of the learners themselves and sterilizes the entire process of learning.

I overheard another conversation between parents last week. The second grade teacher parent asked the other parents about registration for an activity that would structure her children’s spring break days. She then stated that after witnessing her kids “going crazy without structure” during a recent snow day, she couldn’t bear to think about an entire week of them being home “without anything to do.” Before I continue, let me state that my opinions are simply that: opinions. I make decisions that are right for my family and would never directly criticize another parent or teacher for making a different decision. We all parent differently, I realize, and the beauty of teaching is that all teachers  should be allowed to exercise their own unique teaching methods and personalities. But for me, hearing this conversation was shocking. To me it was the ultimate confirmation that the decision to homeschool is the right one for us. I don’t give tests; my kids don’t have homework; largely, they learn what they want and when, and are thriving academically, socially, and mentally in this environment! But the core of my beliefs stems from the notion that kids nowadays are being robbed from their childhoods and natural tendencies with a constant over-structuring that begins when they stagger out of bed in the morning, continues through the school hours, extends to the pre-dinner homework battles, and rolls over into any free time they might have had to themselves.

If my children were in school, I would most certainly opt out of testing, and say no to homework. That is my right as a parent. But how could I possibly preserve childhood without the freedom my children have at home to be themselves and make their own decisions?

Your Refusal is Needed this Testing Season

I almost can’t believe that it has been more than a year since I started this blog with my first post about opting out of testing. A lot has changed and nothing has changed.

What has changed? People are more aware than ever about the destructive effects of education reform. We know that excessive testing corrodes the type of authentic learning experiences we want for our children. It’s easy to see if a child doesn’t enjoy school, but now we know why. We know that our children are being forced to learn at a rate and a level that isn’t appropriate for many of them. We know that education has taken a cookie-cutter turn for the worse and that many of our children are not benefiting from this at all. We know that it is wrong for teachers to be judged based on our children’s test scores. And we are outraged that the state is planning to collect our children’s private data and that our pleas as parents are completely ignored.

We know that the reform policies of New York State aren’t working. Parents, teachers, students, and community members are uniting in an unprecedented way to challenge this agenda. Forums continue to be organized across New York State and are always well-attended. The majority, including those who attended King’s listening forums, are speaking out against the reform agenda. I’m still in awe sometimes at the passion and energy that is being exhibited by individuals and groups across the state as they fight to wrest public education from the hands of bureaucrats and non-educators.

Sadly, there is much that hasn’t changed. Commissioner King, the SED, Governor Cuomo, and the Board of Regents largely are not listening to parents or educators, and one has to wonder how one can be so void of human emotions after hearing the many personal stories that were shared by attendees of King’s listening forums. Testing is still the driving force behind public education, and the meager rotten bone we were thrown regarding the elimination of one eighth grade test is laughable at best. Although the upload of sensitive private information to inBloom has been delayed, it is still disturbing that New York State has not pulled out of this wretched scheme. APPR is a cruel joke. How can we expect more than a teach-to-the-test style of education when test scores account for such a large part of a teacher’s evaluation? We know that merit pay isn’t the answer and we should wholly reject Governor’s Cuomo’s proposal of merit pay for public school teachers.

Many problems still exist, but we are making progress and are on a united journey that must continue! I urge parents all the time to get involved. You must ask questions and find out more. You are your child’s best advocate. As parents, we already know how education reform is affecting our kids. They don’t enjoy school anymore; Some hate it; Some don’t even want to go anymore. Learning is no longer enjoyable. They’re stressed out because so much is expected of them. We’re stressed out because we can’t help them. 

The workload is inappropriate and the things they love are reduced–valuable programs like art, music, library, gym, recess, unstructured free-play–all things that are not only outlets for fun and creativity, but are also necessary for our children’s personal well-being, brain development, social development, and among other things, high academic achievement.

Education has changed. There is something wrong when the joy of learning is replaced with training to pass a test. There are more tests today than ever before, and as a result our kids are beginning to feel like failures. A kindergartner I know came home upset with a graded pre-test during the first week of school and said to her mother, “Mommy, I guess I’m just not a good reader.” More recently, when confronted by a parent about a classroom-related issue, her daughter’s kindergarten teacher replied, “I’ll have to look into that. I wasn’t there. I was out of the room testing.”

This is just a fraction of the evils associated with the testing culture dominating our schools. But it’s not our teachers fault.

Teachers’ hands are tied with mandates and they’re being judged on our kids’ test scores. Pressure is high to push kids harder and faster. Teachers are under immense pressure to get their students proficient to a certain level, regardless of whether or not all of the children are ready, or what their individual strengths and learning styles might be. Testing is creating a one-size-fits-all environment because the stakes are so high. Our kids are treated like products on an assembly line. But, teachers are doing a great job despite this, and we need to let them know that we support them and that we don’t blame them for this mess.

But there is something else parents can do. We can opt our children out of high-stakes tests! Only 31% of NY students passed the state tests last year. We know that this doesn’t represent their true abilities. These tests reduce our children to numbers and data points. They only measure a fraction of what is really important, leaving out things like creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, and more. They consume valuable days of classroom instruction and promote an environment of stressful test prep for months prior to the testing dates.  These tests are kept secret and the results are untimely. There is no useful information to help parents or teachers.

Opting out won’t hurt your child and it won’t hurt your school. An estimated 10,000 students refused the state tests last year even though schools were threatened with financial consequences for failure to comply. But this turned out to be more of a fear tactic than anything else. The situation is complicated, but there’s one thing you should know. Of the many schools across the state that had high numbers of opt-outs, not a single one reported any type of financial punishment. There is no harm in opting out.

But there is great harm in opting in as we perpetuate a test-driven type of education. The state tests are big ones–very high-stakes–but the testing goes beyond grades 3-8. There are other types of district-mandated assessments that are being used to unfairly judge teachers and drive instruction. As a parent, you have the right to know which tests your children will be facing and how they will be used.

Opting out can be confusing and there’s a lot to consider. Some tests are useful tools for teachers. Some help determine if your child has special learning needs. I’m not against useful and authentic forms of assessment that have real merit for the classroom teacher. But I am against any test that uses my child to unfairly judge teachers, or that collects his data, or that expects him to perform at a level that isn’t appropriate.

I won’t stand here and ask you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. My personal opt out stance is this: Opt out of anything that isn’t used solely to help the individual classroom teacher tailor instruction to your child’s particular learning needs, and that isn’t required for promotion or graduation, like the Regents. You can’t opt out of those.

Many have asked: “Isn’t it true that even if my child doesn’t take the test, he will still be subjected to test prep and inappropriate curriculum?” Yes… for now… but if enough of us take a stand and boycott these tests, the data becomes invalid, and the tests themselves carry little meaning. They might even go away if enough of us refuse! And that can have amazing consequences: Our teachers will gain much-needed autonomy; They can teach in ways that have our children’s best interests in mind; They no longer have to focus on the test; And a world of possibility for creative and authentic instruction opens up.

The Common Core deserves criticism. It was created without much input from real educators, and the corporate benefactors of all the testing and materials is very troublesome. Much of it is developmentally inappropriate, especially at the elementary grades. But it is all the testing it promotes that turns the Common Core into a monoculture of the mind. If we can remove the testing element, our teachers might actually be able to sift through and find the good while ignoring the bad. Then they can make it work for them and our children. That will never happen as long as so much is riding on test scores.

We cannot buy into all of this testing and let it become the norm. Imagine what teaching and learning will be like if we do. Imagine the door we will open to large corporate profits by companies who provide the tests, the prep materials, and the technological infrastructure to administer them. And just imagine the products and services we will be sold when our schools are unfairly proven to be institutions of failure based on the score of a high-stakes test.

The State Education Department isn’t listening to parents or teachers. They’re busy following a data-driven agenda. Let us band together and remove the source of that data by refusing to participate! If we do nothing, things are only going to get worse and our children will see even more tests.

There has been a recent concern that opting out is going to negatively affect your children’s teachers. First of all, it is untrue that students who refuse get an automatic 1 or 0. They get no score and are not used for accountability purposes according to NYSED’s SIRS manual. Secondly, there’s the fear that only top-performing students will opt out, leaving lows scores to affect teacher evaluations. But teachers are evaluated using “growth-scores” A teacher wants to show improvement in their students. The highest performing students plateau and have nowhere to go but straight across, so top performers do not help to show that growth. Finally, teachers have been reporting opt out from a wide range of student ability. 

I’ve been in this movement for over a year now, and without a doubt, there is one thing that everyone, everywhere agrees on– Parents are the key to change! Our teachers’ hands might be tied, but ours are not. We have the right to direct the upbringing and education of our children, and we have the right to refuse this harmful testing culture. Please consider sending your refusal letter (nysape.org, tool#10) today and join us in ending the testing madness in our schools.

The Right to Opt Out

There are many different things going on in education today, and they have raised concerns by a growing number of people from across the country. The dialogue has been heated as we grapple to understand the logic in things like the new Common Core State Standards, APPR, inBloom, corporate profiteering, and excessive testing. These things are all worthy of discussion and in my opinion work in unison to destroy an environment of authentic learning. They are all connected and the results have been disastrous with school closings, low teacher morale, kids dreading the school day, and parents kept purposely in the dark about the whole mess. But the latter is starting to change.

I’d like to focus this post on testing and your right to opt out or refuse these tests in New York State. As excessive testing and related pointless and time-consuming activities like test prep can consume up to 25% of our children’s academic year, it’s time for parents to rise up and say NO MORE! We cannot stand by and watch our kids disengage from learning, losing any deep and meaningful connection to their education. We cannot allow qualities like creativity and innovation to be replaced with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning and a ‘teach-to-the-test’ mentality driving the curriculum. Curriculum itself is being narrowed to cover only what is on the test and is largely concerned with areas of ELA and math, giving less importance to other subjects. It fosters superficial learning and rote memorization; Test prep* drives kids to retain information just long enough to pass the test, and then that information is easily forgotten and replaced with the next round of tested material. It does not foster deep thinking and creative problem solving skills. It also teaches kids that there is only one correct answer to a question in academics and in life, when we know that in real life this is rarely the case. It fosters a deeply seated fear of failure, when in fact making mistakes is a normal part of any learning process. We see kids with high levels of stress, reporting stomach- and headaches as a result. All of this together is a large reason why so many kids hate school these days. Standardized tests do nothing to foster a child’s natural love of learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Furthermore, these tests cost tens of millions in taxpayer money in New York state alone, and the additional mandates associated with them cut into our districts’ budgets and force us to make cuts to faculty & staff and other valuable programs. These tests use our children as pawns to judge their teachers and their schools, and they promote the idea that tests scores and data charts are more important than the individual student. Let us not forget that test scores are an unreliable way to judge students, teachers, or schools. And tests contain cultural biases that are generally unfair to students of color or non-English-language students. The list goes on and on.

There are so many different tests out there and the regime can vary from state to state and district to district. The majority of these are administered unbeknownst to most parents. The only ones that are widely publicized are the so-called state tests, which are administered in grades 3-8 in the spring over the course of 12 days. To be sure, these are the beasts that dominate education, causing chaos and fear among the school population and disrupting learning in many ways from endless test prep, to the tests themselves, to the time and money invested in grading them, paying for substitute teachers, etc. These tests are high-stakes tests that can make or break students, teachers, and their schools.

But what about field tests? Many parents don’t even know what they are or that their children are being subjected to them. Field tests use our children as guinea pigs so that testing companies can try out new test questions before marketing them on the ‘real’ tests. Certain grades/ subjects are chosen at certain schools and the children there are given an extra test. Field tests are even embedded in the spring state tests. Corporations like Pearson Education stand to make a fortune selling tests to states like New York, with whom it has a $32 million contract.

With New York state’s controversial APPR plan, schools must submit a detailed plan on how teachers and administrators will be evaluated. This plan, which must be approved by the state, includes SLOs (student learning objectives). At EngageNY, we learn that a Student Learning Objective is “an academic goal for a teacher’s students that is set at the start of a course. It represents the most important learning for the year…. It must be specific and measurable, based on available prior student learning data, and aligned to the Common Core… Teachers’ scores are based upon the degree to which their goals were attained.” If, as a parent yet unfamiliar with the all of these terms and going-ons, you find this hard to understand, you are not alone. Just look at the litany of links, videos, and how-to’s offered by NYSED (New York state education department) so that teachers can familiarize themselves with the concept. SLOs can be teacher-created, they can be part of the state tests, or they can come in the form of state-approved third party assessments. In many cases, our children are subjected to yet more testing to rate their teachers. And in most every case, you as a parent will be completely unaware that any of this extra testing is taking place. You might even find your child coming home one day saying they just took a test in gym class!

I mentioned state approved third-party assessments. These are computer-based tests that our schools must purchase. My school uses STAR, a product by Renaissance Learning. Often times these assessments are part of the SLOs in the APPR plan, but sometimes they are just part of the mandate that schools must administer a pre-test, post-test, and various benchmarks along the way to judge student progress. I am not opposed to teacher-created methods of assessment–authentic assessment–for their own use, but I have many reason to oppose third-party assessment tools for use in SLOs and progress-monitoring. You can read those here.

And there is more testing to come, with PARCC assessments for K-12 slated to roll out for the 2014-15 school year. This is going to affect our schools and our children.

*Test prep is big business, considered a commonplace key to success. It reinforces the concept that the test is the main goal, and with the right test prep anyone can succeed.  Not only is test prep replacing real learning in our children’s classrooms, it is being marketed to us as an ‘aid’ to help our kids ‘succeed.’ Take this site, where we are asked if our kids are “preparing for the New York State Testing Program, also known as NYSTP?” Or this one, where we are told that “some races are worth the extra effort” so you’d better get “the Kaplan edge.”

CCSS Garbage

This is the garbage that I’m scared of… has it already made it’s way into my school? And if not, how long before it takes over real teaching? A nearby school district has fully aligned itself with the Common Core and is totally on board with CC modules. This to me is scripted curriculum. I mentioned my fears to my school board and administration… and all I got was one sentence in the following board’s minutes, “our curriculum is not scripted.” Well, judging by the number of Pearson worksheets that I saw even in PreK, it’s only a matter of time.

Stay the Course, Revolution in Progress

Each day, we move eerily closer to the inevitable New York State tests for grades 3-8.  From what I hear all eyes are turned on New York to see how we react.  We are poised to make a difference, to send a real message to policy makers that we will not stand for the abuse excessive testing has performed against our schools and against our children.  I’d like to take a moment to say ‘thank you’ to every single person out there who is committed to refusing the tests this year!

Choose to REFUSE!

I can feel it in the air.  Something is brewing.  We ARE a movement.  We are a force with which to be reckoned!  If you’re currently undecided, I URGE you to take a stand in the fight for public education.  This IS happening!  And it’s happening NOW!  It is raw and it is exciting.  If you are already committed to opting out this year, I congratulate you for being part of the first wave that will take back our public schools.  You folks are amazing!  And I can’t thank you enough.

Every day I hear your stories of empowerment!  You send in your refusal letters and you know you are doing the right thing.  I’ve heard wonderful stories about enlightened administrators who understand your concerns and are supportive.  They are willing to accommodate your wishes to refuse and are willing to provide alternate activities for your children, or they are allowing your children to read after they have refused the tests.  We need to thank these administrators!

As stated in the SIRS (Student Information Repository System) manual, all schools have the option to allow reading.

Unfortunately, the most repugnant stories I hear are those of administrators who continue to regurgitate NYSED’s message that all children must be tested and how beneficial these tests supposedly are.  These same administrators seem bent on causing as much aggravation to opt-out parents as they possibly can, and they don’t seem to mind having a child sit for 70 minutes doing nothing but stare out into space.  This is child abuse!  They reply to parents as the mouthpiece of NYSED, stating they will not cannot honor the parents’ request.  They exercise their authority freely and expect parents to cower.  In these scenarios it might be tempting to back down. It might seem like opting out is more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s not!  Stay the course.  Be strong.  You are right, and you are acting in the best interests of your children!  Tell them that you’re sorry they misunderstood your letter.  Tell them you were not asking for permission.  Tell them you were simply informing them as a courtesy and that you STILL INTEND for your child to refuse the test!  They have the right to allow a child to read!  And if they refuse to do this, I consider this an act of aggression against the children.

These same administrators tend to be the ones touting NYSEDs message of comply or be punished.  They are scared that their school will lose funding.  NYSED makes it seem like this will be automatic and immediate.  But this is simply not the case.  Although schools are required to have 95% participation in the state tests, the financial penalty only affects Title I schools, and even still the school district doesn’t necessarily lose any money.  If these schools fail to reach 95% participation, then the district must set aside 5-15% of their Title I funding.  This money is intended to cover expenses if students ask to be transferred to another district.  It is unlikely that parents will transfer their children simply because their school participation rate on the state tests dropped below 95%.  In this case, the money stays in the district.  This is certainly complicated, and the fear of losing money is the driving factor behind uncooperative schools.  But there’s more to it.

New York State has granted schools a three-year waiver from failing to meet their AYP starting 2012-13.  Furthermore, Albany already expects our students to do horribly on these tests because they are so new and so much more difficult than the previous years’ tests.  Therefore they have also stated that no new districts will be identified as Focus Districts and no new schools will be identified as Priority Schools based on 2012-13 assessment results.  You can read their memo regarding this decision here.  Because of these reasons, it does not matter if participation falls below 95%!  We will not hurt our schools!  Now is the time to make a bold statement and REFUSE the tests!

I know some of you are still scared.  I know some of you are asking, “what if?”  So let me ask you some questions.  Are you happy with the education your children are enduring experiencing right now?  Are you happy with the huge percentage of the academic year being devoted to testing?  Are you happy with the increased amount of homework your children are bringing home?  Are you happy with the fact that your first-grader is stressed out and hates school because he’s being forced to learn material that your oldest child didn’t get until third grade?  Are you happy with the boring worksheet curriculum that has suddenly started coming home in your child’s backpack?  Are you happy with the unapologetic test prep your children have been performing?  Are you wondering why your child’s teacher, who you have always known to be a sweet person, seems cranky lately and began yelling at her students?  Are you happy that your school is about to become insolvent and possibly close its doors to its community?  Are you happy that you’ve noticed curriculum narrowing and becoming less creative?  Are you happy that art, music, and gym have been cut back?  Or, if you really stop to think about all the other changes you may have noticed over the past few years, do you find yourself frowning and shaking your head in disgust?

If disgust and outrage is what you feel, then it doesn’t matter if there is any truth in NYSED’s fear mongering.  We have to take a stand now, and we cannot allow ourselves to be complicit in the rape of public education.

Choose to REFUSE.  You have NOTHING to Lose!

Last year in Seattle there was a mass opt-out of several hundred students.  The threat of penalty was there of course, but it is noteworthy that no punitive action was ever taken.  Take a look at the brave teachers of Garfield High who refused to administer the MAP tests.  They were threatened with discipline for their actions.  But in the end, Superintendent Banda backed off.  My point is that we cannot be swayed by mere threats.  In an effort to call their bluff, we MUST act.  We must follow our conscience!  We must do what is right.  And I truly believe that we will prevail in the long-run.  I believe that these threats are empty.  But I also know that disgust and outrage at the things going on in our schools are growing rapidly.  If NYSED even dares try to punish one of our schools, there is going to be an immediate outpouring of public support for the schools and for change on the grandest scale.  NYSED’s ‘comply or die’ tactics are going to backfire.  We are being pushed too far.  We cannot back down.  Let us unite and make our move by REFUSING these tests!