In the last two years, there’s been a surge in opposition to the system of high-stakes testing that’s fueling the corporate takeover of public education. In New York, almost 60,000 students opted out of last year’s federally mandated state tests—up from about 10,000 the year before. Last summer, student activists in Rhode Island successfully pressured the state legislature to pass a three-year moratorium on using standardized tests as a requirement for graduation. Meanwhile, public school teachers across the country have refused to administer the tests, even though doing so can expose them to serious reprisals from administrators.
The growing revolt against standardized tests, used to measure the performance of teachers and students, is captured in the 27 first-person narratives presented in More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
As part of a national tour, the book’s editor, Seattle teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian, participated in an hour-long panel discussion at the Powerhouse Arena bookstore in Brooklyn on Monday night. The discussion, which was co-sponsored by The Indypendent, also included three of the book’s contributors: New York City parent Dao X. Tran, former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch and New York educator and activist Brian Jones.
MAYOR IN THE HOUSE
When it was Ravitch’s turn to speak, she began by acknowledging the presence of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, who were among the more than 100 people attending the event.
“I can’t help but say that a year before the mayoral elections started, one of the newspapers was doing a round up and said: What do you think the next mayor should do in education? And my proposal was that the next mayor should declare a three-year moratorium on standardized testing,” she said.
In past statements to the press, de Blasio has expressed sympathy for parents who choose to have their children opt out of standardized tests. Meanwhile, his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, appeared in Albany on Tuesday to speak out against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s emphasis on standardized tests as a measure of teacher performance.
De Blasio would not comment on policy related questions. He told The Indypendent that he was only attending the discussion to show his support for Hagopian, who is married to de Blasio’s second cousin.
“I think he’s challenging us to think differently about education and I’m inspired by him,” de Blasio said of Hagopian. “But also, as a relative, I’m just very proud of him.”
In 2013, Hagopian helped organize a successful standardized test boycott at Garfield High School in Seattle, where he teaches history and is the advisor of the school’s Black Student Union. He told The Indypendent that the relationships he established with educators and parents who contacted him to offer support or seek advice laid the foundation for creating the book.
“I realized there was a story that had to be told. There was a manual of resistance that had to be written,” he said.
Indeed, teacher Emily Giles, who attended the discussion and co-wrote one the chapters in the book, participated in another successful boycott last year at an International high school in Brooklyn on the grounds that the state test could not effectively assess the progress of the school’s students, who are almost all English language learners. At the end of the school year, Giles’ school along with every other International school in New York City was exempted from some of the state exams after New York’s Board of Regents recognized that English language learners cannot be assessed with the same methods as fluent English speakers.
“Jesse’s story in Seattle, that was really big for our staff because there was nothing like that in New York for us to look to,” she told The Indypendent. “There were a lot of moments where we were nervous and would lose sight of the bigger picture. To be able to look to the lead that they set was really critical for us.”
Several studies have concluded that the results of standardized test are not only unreliable for assessing the progress of English language learners, but all students. In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences, which had been commissioned by Congress to study the effectiveness of standardized tests, concluded that they had “little to no positive effects” on student learning. And when the New York City Department of Education (DOE) released it data reports on public school teachers in 2012, which scored teachers based off their students’ progress on state Math and English exams, the department acknowledged that the system had a margin of error between 35 and 53 percent.
Despite this, the DOE still puts a tremendous emphasis on the results of standardized tests to access the performance of students and their teachers. Proponents of the exams say they are implementing a much-needed system of accountability. Others see the standardized tests as an attack on public education, designed to weaken teacher’s agency in the classroom and privatize America’s education system.
“I think that accountability argument is really about busting up teachers unions,” said Hagopian. “It’s really about vilifying teachers and labeling them the problem with public education to hide the fact that they’re systematically underfunding our schools, denying the kids that need the most resources.”
Ravitch agreed that emphasis on standardized tests had exaggerated, not narrowed, the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
“Many of those scores you can correlate with family income. Without fail, the wealthiest are at the top and the poorest are at the bottom. So what the tests do is to redistribute privilege,” she said.
Tran said that, as a parent, she would support tests that were designed help teachers evaluate their students. But the current system seems focused on closing low-performing schools and punishing teachers. In 2013, all but a handful of the parents at Tran’s elementary school in Washington Heights decided to have their children, who were no older than 7 years old, opt out of city-mandated test.
“For parents, if the purpose of the tests were actually to help our children learn, I think most of us would probably be down with that,” she said. “We want to know how are kids are doing. We want to know if they are going to be able to learn to read. And work with numbers. But as it turns out, these tests are not about our children’s learning at all.”
“The Common Core And Its Discontents” by Owen Davis
“Tested By Language” by Emily Giles
“Seattle Teachers Deliver a Powerful Lesson” by Sarah Jaffe
“The Data That Nourishes” by Brian Jones
“The Faces of School Reform” by John Tarleton