Opting out in Brooklyn- Fuhgeddaboutit?

As testing season begins in New York, it’s another round of the opt-out wars—well war might be an exaggeration, given that the-opt out percentage is relatively low—let’s say the opt-out melees.  While pundits and shills (myself included) spout slogans and dominate the airwaves, there is a better and deeper conversation taking place between parents.

This exchange began on a  Brooklyn listserve with a call for opting out, and a letter that could be sent to your child’s principal to remove your child from the state exams,

[T]he tests are still quite long – longer than the LSAT!  And although they are now untimed, that does not necessarily reduce the stress associated with taking the tests for many children. Plus how that affects the standardization process is unclear, as surely some kids will be told to finish, as the “take all the time you want honey” is simply impractical for most public schools.  Finally the tests will still be used to calculate teacher VAM scores (the formula used for teacher evaluations); they just won’t be used to evaluate them for 4 years.  But make no mistake – they will exist and can be published in the papers, as they have been in the past. The state had plenty of time to change the law that dictates that the scores changes (VAM) will make up 51% of the teachers’  evaluations – and did not.

Taken together, these changes really do not address the major reason parents opt out: that when children’s test scores are used to evaluate teachers, teaching and learning becomes all about the tests and the special place that school can be is lost.

I then received a couple of responses from other parents, the first was more agnostic,

I received this tonight from a yahoo group I am a member of as a mom in Fort Greene and would love to hear your perspective on this movement.

Mis-informed group of parents or something real to consider and address in our school communities.

Thinking from a parent, a former school leader, and now a supporter of schools looking to make a huge difference in the world, I am interested in hearing from the leaders and thinkers I respect the most.

No matter what – I hope your kids show them who is boss tomorrow!

The next letter was a thoughtful argument for taking the tests,

My child will be sitting for the 4th grade NYS ELA tests this week and the Math tests the following week; however, her participation should not be construed as an endorsement of the current state tests.

Our family has chosen to have our child take this year’s state tests because we wish for her to gain experience in test taking, which we recognize as a necessary aspect of our educational system. We also respect the crucial role that benchmark assessments play for families who don’t have the educational background to confidently gauge their child’s learning or a history of being treated well by institutions to trust that their child is being well-served. These families also depend on tests to access better educational opportunities and provide some measure of the quality of their child’s school and hold schools and educators accountable.  Although we are fortunate in knowing that our child’s public school is providing a very high quality education, we wish for our child to sit tomorrow in solidarity with the families of children who don’t have that same assurance.

Our continued participation in state tests depends on their continued improvement.  We ask that:

–tests be shortened (ideally not more than 2 days)

–tests be offered that are appropriate for ELL and IEP students

–results are released in a timely and detailed manner so they can be useful to teachers

–results are used to support efforts by schools and educators rather than punishing them

–the tremendous cost and time spent on testing be redirected toward teacher training and coaching and to support the arts and sciences.

We hope that our elected officials continue to work with our dedicated educators to ensure that all New York school children receive an excellent education.

Firstly, I really appreciate the tenor of the debate—which is an open debate on what is best for children (mostly) and how to make the schools better.  It is not a vilification of opponents or over the top in the rhetoric.  Folks give arguments and facts and trust families to make decisions.

While I personally don’t think the opt-out movement is going to make schools better or provide families all the information they need, I do believe that the testing regime in NY (and elsewhere) has been flawed.  I have gone to schools on the testing days, and really the month(s) leading up to them—where schools are relatively miserable places.  Kids are reading short disconnected paragraphs and pulling out evidence for conclusions, or drilling on math problems and they are often stressed on the test days, and leading up to it.  School is less fun, and from a more purist perspective, it’s less “real” teaching and learning.

New York has responded, making greater testing accommodations, allowing untimed tests, and slightly shortening the exams.  But there is still a lot of work to do.  And parents need to continue to put pressure on the system to make the tests better, more humane and more responsive.  But in the end we should not conflate the flawed testing regime with a rejection of all testing or assessments.

Even if you think the whole idea of sitting down for 4 hours of testing a day over 2 weeks is not a good way to measure real learning (as I do), you have to recognize that these testing experiences, as contrived as they may be, are incredibly important in the real world.   The SAT or ACT may matter as much or more as their 4 years of high school for college admission, when I took the LSAT that was weighed equally in my law school admission as my 4 years of college.   So knowing how to take these completely contrived tests, flawed as they may be, actually really matters.

And I would argue that poor, Black and Brown kids tend to be most disadvantaged on these tests as a way to demonstrate their knowledge or intelligence, and need the most practice in these contrived formats to master them.  So yes, there are all kinds of problems with the tests, but even bigger ones for our kids in not taking them.

So, I need to side with parent 3 in terms of the benefits of taking the tests outweigh their flaws.  However, if this is the level of parent engagement and debate, I know that we will come to the right decisions, and hopefully the families and children will show us who the real boss is and should be.

Now that’s a platform I can get behind.

What do you think?

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