This post requires full disclosure: I could hardly be more involved in what I’m writing about here. Not only do my two children attend PS 29, one of the main teachers involved in the story teaches my son’s class, I’ve personally worked with the teachers and parents trying to organize resistance to high-stakes testing, I know a number of the Teachers Resolution’s signatories and I’m totally biased in their favor.
Now, on to our story: this past week, third through eighth graders in New York State public schools took the English Language Arts standardized tests. In New York City, the tests have an unusually high-stakes dimension absent in most of the rest of the state (and the country) in that students’ scores can play a significant role in their admission to middle school.
There’s a growing nationwide movement opposing these tests as the result of a corporate-driven agenda that has distorted real learning, widened the achievement gap, increased financial strain on schools and parents, unfairly stigmatized teachers and introduced unnecessary stress into the lives of young people. There’s a litany of grievances cited by critics and the opposition comes from both the left and the right.
In many places, activists have encouraged parents to opt out of the tests, which is legally allowed in all states. The most dramatic example of a successful opt out movement took place in January 2013, when teachers led a test boycott at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Teachers refused to administer and students refused to take the state test, which organizers argued wasn’t aligned to curriculum and provided statistically unreliable results. After a months-long standoff with the district, which saw teachers threatened with suspension, the district relented and allowed the high school to forgo the test.
Nothing has gone that far in New York City. Yet. But three Brooklyn schools did have significant opt-out numbers this past week and there’s a huge undercurrent of resentment building to what even many school administrators are calling unreliable, unfair, unintelligible and unnecessary tests.
Liz Phillips, the highly respected veteran principal of Park Slope’s PS 321, was so aghast at the muddle that was apparently this year’s ELA that she issued a strongly worded statement on behalf of her administration and faculty, telling parents, “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.” She added that she was “devastated” at having had to administer the tests and underscored that “our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability. ”