Friday, April 24, 2015

We Demand An Investigation Into Pearson Tests

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
Office of the Attorney General
The Capitol
Albany, NY   12224-0341

Dear Attorney General:

I am writing to demand an investigation into the Pearson-created standardized tests that are being given to New York State children in Grades 3-8.  As you know, the tests are paid for with tax money, through a contract negotiated with New York State.  The tests are designed to fail students, with questions that are written beyond grade level, ambiguous “equally plausible” answer choices that would confound even an adult, and developmentally inappropriate vocabulary and reading texts.  Mr. Attorney General, do you know what “plinth” means?  Because that was one of the vocabulary words on the sixth grade ELA, along with the words ephemeral, paroxysm, clamorous, tutelage, furlong, absconders, and surmised.  Equally difficult vocabulary was noted on the ELA for other grade levels, along with archaic text passages that are grade levels beyond the students ability or interest.

Last week, Dr. Roy F. Sullivan, Carol A. Sullivan, M.S., and Rebecca F. Cooper, Au.D., of P-O-S-E, published a comparison study of the ELA assessments that were given to Mineola.  I quote:  “Findings reveal significant issues with face validity of the NYS ELA examination as currently implemented. NYS ELA test passages for Grades 3 and 4 in 2013 and 2014 present an exaggerated range of grade-inappropriate reading levels effectively rendering invalid any test questions based on these passages.  Reading levels for NYS-released 2014 Grade 3 passages were well above grade level, well above the level for 2013 Grade 3 passages and even higher than Grade 4 passages for 2013.”!report-why-ela-is-invalid-unreliable-/cx6r

We are now hearing reports from parents and teachers that children were crying throughout both the ELA test and the Math test this year.  An anonymous Facebook poster remarked that the “fifth grade exam was like a borderline Regents exam” and another that “the Grade 3 math exam was akin to a middle school math exam.”  Children are being traumatized by these exams that are failing 70% of our students, lowering their self-confidence for learning and instilling test anxiety that could become a serious handicap to them in the future. 

The exams are rife with errors.  On the ELA, one of the exam questions misnamed a character, confusing students because it was not applicable to the passage.  On the Russian version of the math exam, passages were written in Korean.  And those are only the errors we know about.  Gag orders and secrecy surrounding the tests makes it impossible to identify all of the mistakes and errors within the exams.

There is little to no transparency on these exams.  When information on questions is “leaked,” (as happened with the “Pineapple and the Hare” question years ago, when the nonsensical question created a tidal wave of complaints), there is no response and no remediation or adaptive improvement by Pearson or State Ed of the test questions on future tests.  The difficulty of these exam questions has been at a level grades beyond student age/developmental abilities for three years, and protests have been made, but the tests continue to be as difficult or more difficult for students, year after year.  Many of the questions ask for abstract thinking processes, a cognitive ability that does not develop until the average age of 12.  One can only make the conclusion that Pearson and/or NYSED wants children to fail these tests.

I have also heard that the cut scores are set after the tests are graded, guaranteeing a failure rate that the state chooses.  Surely that must be an unethical practice.  In addition, if students, parents, and teachers are never allowed to see most of the questions on these tests, then how are teachers to appeal “ineffective” or “developing” teacher ratings based on the tests?

At least one of the 2015 ELA tests featured a text and questions that also appeared in a Pearson test preparation book, giving an unfair advantage to schools that could afford to purchase Pearson products.  This has also happened on previous tests.  Again, complaints fell on deaf ears.

I am requesting that you conduct an investigation into the Pearson tests.  You could start by giving the exams to adults.  I have no doubt that they will have problems with many of the questions.  The paying for faulty tests that are clearly designed to fail our children and thereby fire our teachers, is an unethical fraud perpetrated on the children of taxpaying NYS citizens, and deserves your attention.

I look forward to hearing from you,

For more information that will help you write your letter, see

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Don't You Dare Call This Opt Out Movement a Labor Dispute

A Guest Blog by Lily Alayne Owen

Lately there is constant discussion about the relevance, efficacy, and morality of the NYS tests. I met someone at the gym a few weeks back, who described the children in her 3rd grade class last year, who had vomited, sobbed, and shown obvious signs of distress. I had heard of these things before, when I read similar accounts on the internet. Before meeting this teacher, I had assumed it was all rhetoric, based on a mere handful of kids. When I spoke with her, I realized that this distress is not an isolated incident, but a widely observed phenomena. Children everywhere are seriously struggling with these tests. Children want to please the adults around them, because they generally want to do well on whatever tasks are put in front of them. Children trust parents and teachers to present them with appropriate challenges and they trust us to help them through those challenges. They don’t expect to be tricked, deceived, or abandoned during a difficult time. What must it feel like to a child experiencing these NYS tests?

It seems that those who are in power in NY State feel that our children belong to them, to be used at their discretion. It also seems that these same people, elected officials, have become drunk with their power and have taken from children the basic rights that all humans deserve and which are increasingly even afforded to animals. Children have a RIGHT to be protected from unnecessary suffering and psychological and emotional abuse. Do politicians and education leaders believe that children are not capable of mental anguish? Do they believe that children are not capable of suffering, of emotional distress, of understanding complex situations? Do they think kids can perform as well in a high pressure situation?
Children are capable of seeing and sensing the shades of gray. They have the same emotional attunement that has guaranteed the survival of our species and they know when the adults around them, particularly the adults to whom they have strong bonds, are struggling. This is a relevant component of empathy. Children can sense the seriousness of high stakes tests, even if they don’t know the implications of these tests. No child should feel responsible for any adult, they should not be saddled with the tremendous responsibility of helping to determine which of their beloved teachers get to keep their jobs, and which ones get fired. The burden of that responsibility would be oppressive to most adults, and it is absolutely crippling to the compassionate hearts and delicate minds of children. It is unconscionable for any adult to put this weight on a young child’s shoulders in the name of education.

Knowingly causing another human to suffer is abuse. When a private individual, a parent for example, abuses a child, the state sees fit to remove that child from his parents for protection. What, then, should we parents do when we see that the state is abusing our beloved children? Should we not take the same action and remove the state's access to our children so that the state, too, can be prevented from harming and abusing our youth? This is what the OPT OUT movement is all about. Parents reclaiming their Constitutional right to protect their children and raise them in the way they see fit. We parents intend to keep refusing until officials and legislators reconnect with the empathy, compassion, and basic understanding of human development needed to contribute in a meaningful way, to a discussion about education. Children are not robots. They are complex, beautiful, disorganized, spontaneous, creative, magnificent little creatures. They are not miniature adults. They are not inanimate objects. Misusing governmental authority for the sake of the profit of private companies is an unscrupulous corruption of power. Doing so at the tremendous emotional and psychological expense of children, is unforgivable.

I find it strange that politicians and government leaders assume that children cannot experience emotional distress in the chokehold of high stakes testing, when they also assume that children in 6th grade are capable of comprehending and manipulating language that is at a 10th grade reading level. Children ARE, in fact, capable of incredible suffering when put in a difficult position.
The job of a child is to wildly engage with life; to conduct a constant series of passionate experiments with his or her surroundings. To try out behaviors, to learn self control, to ask millions of questions, to create hypotheses and constantly test them in dialogue with adults and with their environment. It is the job of children to make mistakes, sometimes huge ones, in the service of learning. It is their job to be imperfect. They are works in progress. Their progress comes from an ever more complicated set of mistakes.
In order to fly an airplane, you can’t just set off in a straight line, in the direction of your destination. You have to aim in the general direction and then you must make a series of corrections of little mistakes as you get closer and closer to your destination. So it is in learning, too. The best we can hope for is that our children will be bold enough to make the essential mistakes in life that will guide them to their greatest discoveries and learning. My hope for my children is that they will have a growth mindset. I want my children to know that people are not born brilliant mathematicians or architects or doctors or writers or artists. Babies are born with potential and children and adolescents hone skills and follow passions, which turn them into great mathematicians, architects, doctors, writers, and artists. And how do children hone these skills? How do inexperienced little people know how to follow their passions in a way that becomes gradually more sophisticated? Their parents. And their teachers.
As a mother I see teachers as one of my biggest allies in life, in raising my children, in teaching them how to be good humans, to help them think critically and be knowledgeable about the world around them. An attack on teachers is an attack on my family, because teachers and schools are simply an extension of parents and family. I hope that this comparison will help people understand why this is such a deeply personal battle: a battle, for which some of us would offer our lives.
In my life, there has been no greater gift, than that of my parents and teachers.   As a child my mother educated us in hundreds of fascinating topics during the summer, after school, and on weekends. She dragged me on insufferable house tours, charming architecture walks, to darn near every national park in the United States, and she and my grandmother taught me the name of every flower in our backyard gardens. My mother stocked our house with craft kits and science kits. She took us to musicals and played Dvořák records around the house. My mother taught me what it was like to love learning. She made the world come alive.
When I entered school I found that there were others like her, who were absolutely obsessed with the joy of learning. These special people were my teachers. From elementary school to graduate school there have always been teachers who made my head swirl with difficult ideas and excitement. It just makes sense that when learning is fun, it creates motivation and a virtuous cycle. The intrinsic rewards of joyful learning guarantee that a happy student will never stop wanting to learn and grow.
Now I have my own children, four of them. And they are wide-eyed and excited and making messy mistakes all over the place. Now I watch as they experience the miracle and joy of imagining, hypothesizing, modeling, and refuting. I set out everyday to model for my kids that learning is a lifelong adventure. I trust their teachers to give them room to grow and the courage to take risks as they explore their world. I know their teachers have the best possible knowledge and skills to help fan their curiosity, develop their critical thinking, shape their character, and teach them to find answers to their most burning questions.
Which brings me to the point of this whole post.
Parents and teachers are more alike than different.
We love our children. We want to protect them. We know what is best for them.
Don’t you dare call this Opt Out Movement a Labor Dispute.
This movement, most definitely is a Dispute about Love.

What Harm Are We Doing to Our Children?

In the current controversy surrounding high-stakes testing of our children, there are those who call such testing “child abuse,” and those who state that tests could never be tantamount to abuse.  The truth lies somewhere in between.  Studies do seem to point to the conclusion that a high-stakes testing environment is harmful to children, and may even have lifelong consequences.  

Over the past three years, there have been many reports of test anxiety in students during Common Core tests.  As early as November 2013, a group of eight principals in New York State wrote to parents to express their concern that, among other things, students were crying during tests, vomiting, losing control of their bladder or bowels, and at least one child was banging his head on the desk.  Before Common Core testing, incidents like these were not commonplace in classrooms.  In 2014 and now again in 2015, teachers and principals report students crying before, during, and after tests, while parents are sharing stories online of nightmares and other signs of anxiety in their children. Children are expressing feelings of negative self-image and inadequacy, and there are also reports of self-harming after the receipt of scores.  Before Common Core, New York administered language arts, social studies, science, and math tests for years, without such widespread signs of anxiety.  What happened?  And is it important to understand the implications of test anxiety in children?

Most who hear of test anxiety, are not overly concerned.  There is a general mindset that such anxiety happens to only a small substrate of the population, and that it only has effects on children during the hours of testing, a small percentage of their life.  In fact, the American Test Anxieties Association estimates that high test anxiety affects about 16-20% of students, with another 18% of students experiencing moderate test anxiety.  That equals about one-third of our students, or about ten million children.  The problem is also on the increase since the advent of high-stakes testing, and could have lifelong consequences. The AMTAA states that such anxiety can "restrict career choices and lower quality of life."

Dr. Natasha Segool, a psychology professor at the University of Hartford, was one of the researchers who conducted a study of children in grades 3-5 in Michigan schools in 2013.  The study showed that children were "significantly more anxious when taking statewide assessments compared to other classroom tests."  59% of the test subjects reported moderate text anxiety about high-stakes NCLB testing. 11% of the children surveyed reported severe psychological and physiological symptoms tied to the assessments.

In Segool's study, teachers also reported their own anxiety about student performance on NCLB tests, and researchers feel that such anxiety may have the potential to indirectly influence student perceptions. The higher the perception of rewards or sanctions by students, the more heightened the anxiety.  Researchers Denscombe (2000) and Putwain (2013) state that fear appeals by teachers, or repeated messages about the importance of test scores, can exacerbate the development of stress and anxiety in children.  Even when teachers do not overtly stress the importance of the test, when the fate of their career is tied to student performance, they will unknowingly pass their own anxiety on to the children. In such an atmosphere, scores on high-stakes tests have the potential to make children internalize messages about their own ability to learn and succeed.

Using "motivation" techniques such as Success Academy's "red-lining" and shaming of students by rewards or punishments, creates a situation where anxiety and stress is heightened.  This is especially troublesome for the population that Success Academy serves, because a 1993 study by Turner, Beidel, Hughes and Turner found that the prevalence of high test anxiety among African American elementary school children could be as high as 41%. The advent of high-stakes testing would certainly exacerbate such anxiety, and leave students extremely vulnerable to negative consequences of the boot-camp type school environment. Consequences of this institutionalized bullying include in the short term, increased lethargy, sadness, jealousy, anger, resentment, and failure-acceptance.  In the long term, students would develop a lack of empathy for others and disengage from their own learning, thereby preventing the development of higher level thinking skills.

Studies have proven that chronic stress and anxiety changes brain chemistry. The effects of chronic stress are most harmful to children on the autism spectrum, or those with neurological, sensory, or developmental delays.  Child Psychologist Dr. Gary Thompson believes that ADHD, English Language Learners, and gifted students are also highly vulnerable to negative effects of testing.  He likens what is occurring in the US today to a huge, untested, "social experiment," which lacks parental "consent that would inform of possible damage that could result from the experiment."  

Negative outcomes from test anxiety include decreased school-related motivation and low academic self-concept. Studies have also shown a significant correlation between test anxiety and generalized anxiety or mood disorders (Owens et al, 2012).  Damage associated with prolonged stress includes desensitization, loss of imagination, loss of humor, loss of spontaneity, self-injury, and inability to concentrate. The results of prolonged and chronic stress do not manifest completely until teen or early adulthood, when an increase in mood disorders and personality disorders such as narcissism and antisocial behavior appear.  

What are we doing to a generation of students who are enduring chronic stress and anxiety for much of the school year?  The damage inflicted by test-obsessed, data-driven education "reforms" may result in a greater incidence of psychological problems that will affect the well-being and economy of our society.  Parents are taking a stand and saying that they will no longer allow their children to be put in jeopardy for the sake of political gains.  It is time that our governments listen, and be held accountable to end the high-stakes testing that is endangering the future of our children.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Public Comment to NYSED on Teacher Evaluations

I am writing to express my deep concern over the Governor’s proposed education reform to the evaluation of NYS teachers.  It is my belief that this plan would be disastrous to public education in our state for a number of reasons.  

My concern is not unfounded.  Evaluating teachers by “Value Added Methodology” based on student test scores is a deeply flawed plan that has no validity in practice.  Surely the NYS Education Department and the Board of Regents have taken notice of the studies that have thoroughly discredited this methodology.  All one needs to do is “assess the assessment” over the past years.  One-third of New York teachers moved from one category to another each year on that measure.  In other words, a teacher could be found “highly effective” one year, and “developing” or “ineffective,” the next; or vice versa.  There is no consistency in the ratings, which should be a huge red flag to those overseeing the rating system.  Lack of consistency is tantamount to lack of validity.  The proposed plan worsens this effect because a teacher can still receive an ineffective rating, even though they were developing or effective on the other three categories of the system.

A brief prepared jointly by the American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education warned against using the VAM scores in high-stakes evaluation, and the American Statistical Society (a group whose findings should be weighted heavily, since this is not an “educational” organization) stated that using these VAM scores “can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” Research states that teachers have at most 1-14% impact on student test scores, yet our governor would like to base 50% of the evaluations on such measures?  It is ludicrous.  

Those teachers most at risk are the ones we need the most. Special education teachers selflessly give to our neediest students. Because these students are often tested at grade level (regardless of their intellectual age) they will not show "growth" on the test scores that judge their teachers. These students show progress in a thousand different ways, but these ways are not going to show on a grade-level test, alternative assessments are needed.  Also at risk are teachers of English Language Learners. Only 3% of these students show proficiency on the test because - duh - they do not speak the language yet. Also at risk are gifted teachers or teachers of highly able students in excellent districts - these students often max out the tests, hitting a "curricular ceiling," and so do not show growth. Teachers in high-poverty communities, where psychological and social problems abound - these students are not going to show growth unless they have the resources of well-funded, well-staffed community schools where they receive social services as well as instruction.

The worst consequences of the proposed evaluation system are on new teachers just entering the profession.  They have four years to receive three “effective” ratings.  Anyone who has stood in front of a classroom remembers those first years of finding self-confidence and developing techniques as a teacher. Many first-year teachers leave the field entirely because of the stress associated with learning the profession.  To tie new teachers to a system that basically counts them out if they receive ineffectives on test growth scores during their first two years, is a plan that dooms many new teachers who may have developed their skills if given time and mentoring.  How would you even determine their growth score for the first year, when they did not have a class the prior year?   If a new teacher somehow miraculously gets effectives the first three years, and then has a rough class the fourth year and gets a developing - well as Assemblywoman Nolan said, they "get another bite at the apple" for a fifth year.  But if that is not effective, they are gone.  No recourse. All the years and expense to get a master's degree so they can put their passion for helping children into a teaching career?  ALL HOPE GONE! They will never teach in NY again. But they will still be saddled with school debt.

Who will want to go into teaching in our state?  Enrollment at teacher prep colleges is already down 20-50% in NY!  We need quality professionals to teach our children.  Who would really consider teaching children with identified disabilities, ELL’s, or teaching in high-poverty areas, when they know they would most likely lose their career after two years??

In Washington DC (where this whole debacle occurred years ago with Michelle Rhee) they dropped the weight of VAM/test scores from 50% to 35%.  Maybe that's because they lost 83% of their work force when they instituted an evaluation system similar to what Cuomo advocates.  Wisconsin has also given teachers more discretion in how student performance factors into their evaluations.  NJ has gone down to 10% weighted on the tests.   TN has also backed down from a reliance on VAM.

The plan for “drive-by evaluators” is also preposterous.  Who will be the evaluators?  Administrators cannot “trade schools” to spend hours evaluating professionals in other districts without putting their own school, their primary responsibility, at risk.  Paid evaluators?  Where will the money come from?  Will it be yet another unfunded mandate?  And who will do this – certainly not Pearson, who already hires the scoring of these all-important high-stakes tests out to anyone with a college degree via advertising on Craigslist and Kelly temps.  And certainly not our State Education Department, who has shown their lack of attention to detail and follow-through in performing important tasks (like vetting exam questions for grade appropriateness and managing the timely scoring of exams, for example). An evaluator cannot do a teacher observation justice without a deep, ongoing understanding of the school culture, population, and issues that affect the community.  

The tests themselves are designed for failure, calibrated to an SAT score of 1630, with “passing” cut scores adjusted after the tests are scored.  Literary analysis indicates that test reading passages and questions are often three grades beyond the age of the children.  “Equally plausible” answer choices (favored by the Pearson tests), require abstract thinking, a cognitive skill that usually does not develop until age 12.  70% of New York State children fail these tests.  I would like an answer to my question of how Pearson and New York State Education Department does not know the literacy level on these tests are years beyond the students' grade, and how they think it is at all fair that they are making a whole generation of students think they are failures.  The psychological and emotional effects of this are profound and will not be fully realized for years, but I am very fearful that we are in for a "statistically significant" rise in mood and personality disorders due to low self-esteem and chronic stress engendered by the tests.

Worse yet, studies show that high scores on tests correlate with superficial thinking skills.  In other words, the better a teacher does at encouraging deep critical thinking, the worse her students may fare on the exams (Alfie Kohn).  We are therefore looking at a system that will put our most qualified, master teachers at risk of losing their jobs.  Before my retirement, three colleagues that I considered master teachers (in-depth projects, critical thinking, heightened student motivation) were labeled “ineffective”  and had to create a teacher improvement plan. They did not understand how their high-functioning students did not show growth, and they could not get an answer from the district or from State Ed as to what formula was used to label them "ineffective" or "developing.". It was completely humiliating for these teachers, who had put more than a decade each into their development as master teachers.

An increase of any amount in the weight of standardized testing on teacher evaluations will most certainly lead to increased emphasis of tests in curriculum and lesson plans, with the children suffering with more test prep as important developmental thinking and "whole-child" instructional goals get put on hold.  No time for debates or projects.  No time for multimedia experiences or field trips.  No time for arts, humanities, music, service projects, character education.  The teachers will have no choice if their career and their livelihood depends on it.   

I am also quite certain that there are lawsuits in NYSED's future should they move forward with firing teachers based on these widely criticized, and poorly constructed, tests.  One entity that should be fired immediately, is Pearson because of their ineptitude, unless they were instructed by State Ed to deliberately make tests that are developmentally inappropriate, confusing, ridiculously long and age-inappropriate for students.

Parents have responded with an overwhelming protest, pulling their children from the tests in record numbers and responding to every survey that has been conducted that, No, they do not agree with increasing the weight of standardized tests in teacher evaluations.  Will you listen?  Or will you also be bullied by our governor, who has nothing but disdain for the students, parents, and teachers he is supposed to represent?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

From the Mind of a Student

The following guest blog was written by Vivienne Owen, a 7th grade student.

Do you think most kids like to take tests? That they like to essentially be in a high pressure situation with their grades at stake? Especially if it is hammered into them that they must do well? This is what the state test has turned into. 

As if all the studying for it and pressure isn’t enough stress for kids as young as 7 or 8, now almost the ENTIRE curriculum is based on doing math the way the state will give you credit for, instead of letting kids do it the way they can understand.  Writing pieces have to be set up with strict formats that the state likes, discouraging young writers from just getting ideas down and editing later. This can’t be teaching kids much, can it? And most of the time if you do things the way you can do them best, you get in trouble or get points taken off.  This is not really achieving school’s purpose, to prepare kids for life and furthermore, it is making intelligent kids feel stupid because they can’t grasp the common core way of doing math, or anything else for that matter, again discouraging intelligent young people.

The test preparations have gotten out of hand, probably because teachers are scared to death of being fired, but they can’t say anything, so they just begin test prep from the first couple weeks of school so the students do well on the test. But students AREN’T LEARNING ANYTHING from this, and isn’t learning the entire purpose of school?

These tests DON’T HELP ANYONE. They are taking away good teachers from students who need them the most. Is this fair to those students? No. And in an already high pressure environment, which tends to make students uneasy, the tests are designed not to test our knowledge but to trick kids so they’ll get questions wrong and fail!! So these tests are really not a very accurate measurement of a student’s intelligence or a teacher’s capability.

The state tests do not affect kids later in life, they are full of trickily worded questions, and curriculum is by far too centered around them. So why are we still taking them? Your kid doesn’t have to. You can send in a letter saying they’re refusing.  They can refuse on the day of the test (they should say “I’m refusing, score me a 999 and they should NOT FOR ANY REASON TOUCH THE TEST OR BUBBLE SHEET!) and they can tell their friends.  You can donate to the cause, and also post about this on social media, using the hashtags #morethanatestscore and #refusethetest. Your help will greatly benefit public education, and you and your kid have nothing to lose, so why are they still taking the test? Have them REFUSE THE TEST, and maybe soon kids can start LEARNING something in school.

Refuse the Tests Robocall Campaign

Over the last ten days, I worked with four very dedicated education activists and teachers to crowdsource funds for a robocall to all NYS parents.  We were successful, and believe it has had an impact on the number of last-minute test refusals that came into schools on April 13th as well as those that came in on the day of the ELA test, April 14.  The following is the campaign's final press release.  For more about our process, visit our guest blog on Anthony Cody's Living in Dialogue.

A small grassroots committee of education activists, teachers, retirees, parents and grandparents raised nearly $17,000 in only ten days to pay for a robocall that informed parents that they have the constitutional right to refuse Grades 3-8 state tests.  Two different versions of the robocall were delivered on Sunday, April 12th.  State English Language Arts tests begin on April 14, and math tests that will begin April 22.   

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor and candidate against Andrew Cuomo in the last gubernatorial primary, recorded the message in English.  In order to reach the large Hispanic and Latino population of the state, Aixa Rodriguez, an educational activist and high school teacher, recorded the message in Spanish. The results of a poll taken at the conclusion of the call indicated that more than 50% of parents who responded intend to refuse the tests.

Last year, more than 60,000 parents across New York State “refused” their children out of testing.  This year, tens of thousands across the state have expressed their concern about the increasing emphasis on tests that are ruining the education of their children, but many parents do not know they have the right to refuse testing.  Supreme Court cases have upheld this right that is based on the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, stating in the case of Meyer v. Nebraska that parents possess the “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children.”  

Some school districts respond to parents with confusing information that can be interpreted as threatening and punitive, as well as intentionally misleading. Letters to parents often claim that if the school does not achieve 95% student participation on the test, their school district will incur loss of funding. Ken Wagner, Senior Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, admitted in a television interview that those penalties would not occur for “several years.”  Parents in many districts are given inconsistent information on the effect test refusal has on selection for alternative instruction services (AIS) or other programming.  NY State Part 100.2 regulations allow individual school districts to “develop and maintain on file a uniform process by which the district determines whether to offer AIS…,” and these procedures can be different in every school district. State regulations do not discuss test refusals resulting in the mandated provision of AIS, or the elimination of students from other programming.   

Many districts mislead with semantics, telling parents that there is no “opt-out” provision for the tests in NYS.  In reality, parents always have the right to refuse the tests for their children.  A test refusal is scored as a “No Score - Code 999” on the test, and has no repercussion on the student, the teacher, or the school.  Though school districts like to be informed ahead of time so that they can make alternate arrangements for students, test refusals can be made right up to the day of the test.  

The tests themselves are designed for failure, calibrated to an SAT score of 1630, with “passing” cut scores adjusted after the tests are scored.  Literary analysis indicates that test reading passages and questions are often three grades beyond the age of the children.  “Equally plausible” answer choices (favored by the Pearson tests), require abstract thinking, a cognitive skill that usually does not develop until age 12.  70% of New York State children fail these tests.  Only 5% of students with identified cognitive disabilities, and 3% of English language learners, achieve proficiency on the tests. Test scores are negatively correlated with zip codes, with impoverished communities having higher failure rates. The result is that teachers lose their jobs, and schools are wrongly declared failures, while the real issue confronting schools in trouble is poverty and lack of funding.  The ultimate goal of the Governor’s “reforms” appears to be the replacement of public schools with for-profit charter schools.  

Children are the pawns in this political game, and their education is short-changed.  In his zeal to “break the monopoly” of public education, Cuomo’s education “reforms” double down on testing by weighting test results more heavily in teacher evaluations.  This will surely force even more test preparation as teachers fight to keep the careers they worked hard to establish.  As creative and authentic types of instruction are lost to testing, our children lose their self-confidence along with their enthusiasm for learning.  More class time is now devoted to practice for testing with workbooks and worksheets, instead of authentic learning through projects, experimentation, and constructive inquiry.  Music, art, social studies, enrichment, and science is crowded out to make more time for language arts and math, the only two subjects that matter on the tests.

Eric Mihelbergel of the New York Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) believes that test refusals may double or triple this year.  A large increase in refusal numbers will send a powerful political message to New York State, as well as to our federal government, that parents will no longer allow their children to be used as a profit market for testing corporations, politicians, and government bureaucracies.  For more information on refusing tests, visit or

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Yet Another...Letter to Obama

I have written to President Obama a number of times about education.  He has never replied.  I guess I must be an eternal optimist, or maybe it's therapy for me to write down what is happening.  Regardless, here's the latest one.

Dear President Obama:

This is not the first time I’ve written you about education.  But I am an eternal optimist, and I believe in the possibility of your greatness as a President.  I cheer you on when it comes to health care and immigration, and when I hear your words about equality, they vibrate within me.  So somewhere deep inside, I have to believe that you will listen if we call out loudly enough. There are some who think that it is your intent to privatize public education.  I am starting to agree with that as well, because you have been so resistant to seeing what this obsession with testing is all doing to public schools and our children.
Maybe you thought you were doing a good thing by instituting Race to the Top, taking NCLB to the next level.  Maybe you thought you were helping inequality in education between states, encouraging states to up their game, and believing that if teachers worked harder they could achieve miracles.  I am a retired teacher.  I have seen miracles worked in classrooms, even worked some myself.  But the thing is, those miracles have nothing to do with the results of a test.  It has everything to do with building student self-confidence as learners, with helping them to discover the innate thirst for knowledge and the rewards of pursuing something that is at what we educators call “that sweet spot” of learning.  The spot where the task is just a little bit hard, but not so hard that it defeats the student and makes them stop trying.

President Obama, Common Core and Rttt has hit impossibly above that sweet spot.  It has actually smashed the sweet spot.  Our children today are no longer finding joy in their learning.  They are being forced, more and more, to do test preparation out of workbooks and worksheets instead of enjoying the thrill of discovering by experimentation and constructive inquiry.  It takes time to let a mind discover, to engage in Socratic dialogue.  And classrooms no longer have that time because they have to prepare for a test that may well determine the career fate of the teacher.  What this means, is that there is no time for growth, for joy, for creativity.  Humanities, music, art, and yes even science is crowded out to make room for English and Math, the only two subjects that matter on the almighty tests.  Field trips and special all-day events like Medieval Fair or Career Day, are gone.  Imagination is wilting.  Dreams are dying.  This is what you have created.  This is what you must bear responsibility for.  This will be your educational legacy and it clouds all the other things that you have accomplished.

Here in New York, we have it especially hard.  We have a governor hell-bent on using test results to bludgeon our teaching force and declare our schools, even the high-quality schools of excellence, failures.  For what end I can only speculate, based on the fact that he gathers millions from hedge fund contributors and speaks at $1,250 a plate fundraisers for charter schools, it’s not hard to make that assumption. 

Teachers in NY face the prospect of 50% of their evaluation being based on Value Added Method that does not make any sense and has been criticized in respected places (American Statistical Association, for example), and test scores that have failed 70% of our students.  The tests are impossibly hard, written grade levels beyond the student’s age, with cut scores set by some undisclosed secret. The proficiency rate is calibrated to a 1630 on the SAT.  Tests are so hard that even our governor acknowledged this, and put a moratorium on using the scores for students.  But no such moratorium for teachers.  We face the prospect of losing a large percentage of our teaching force within the next two years, because if teachers can’t “show growth” on scores they cannot get an effective rating no matter what else they do.  After two years, they will lose their careers.  When Michelle Rhee instituted a similar weight of testing into teacher evaluations, DC lost 83% of its teachers.  If we lose even a quarter of that percentage we are in trouble, because student enrollments at teacher preparation programs at universities and colleges in NYS are down 20-50%.  There are some programs that have zero enrollment, some that have single digit enrollment.  So where are our teachers going to come from to replace those we lose to a faulty evaluation system?

Especially hurt by your programs are students with identified disabilities and their teachers.  A 1% waiver is not enough, and even some of the most severely handicapped students end up having to take a test that is grade levels beyond their intellectual capacity.  I once administered an 8th grade test to a student who could not speak or write his name.  He cried during the test.  The teachers for this population are our unsung heroes.  They selflessly give of themselves every day to our neediest children – sometimes being physically hit, handling tantrums with the patience of Job, or listening compassionately and with interest and a smile to the most halting of young voices.  Yet, their students will not show the growth required, and they will soon lose their jobs.  Who will want to take their place?  And in whose twisted mind does it make sense to punish our special needs students in this way?   And how does it make sense to give a test written in English, to English Language Learners?  Only 3% of ELLs achieve proficiency.  Do you wonder why?

I place this at your feet because that is where it belongs.  If not for your hammering the states with Rttt money, AYP and APPR, high stakes testing and Common Core, we would not be in this mess.  Our children would not be going home crying because rigor has turned their minds to stone.  We would not have children pulling out their hair and eyelashes, crying and vomiting during tests.

Do you care President Obama?  Do you really?  Then listen to some of the voices that are crying out.  Meet with someone like Diane Ravitch (or read Reign of Errors) and really hear what they are saying.  Talk to some teachers, not just our unions. 

Please restore my faith in you.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Campaign Seeks to Notify Parents of Their Rights to Refuse Testing for Their Children

New York State tests are hurting our children.  According to reports from superintendents of New York State school districts, stress while taking the "Common Core" state exams has caused children to shake, cry, and vomit.  Over the past few months, tens of thousands of parents and teachers took to the streets in protest and their angry voices filled forums across the state, demanding to be heard about the effects that Common Core high stakes testing is having on their children.  Governor Cuomo refused to listen.  In fact, in his quest to “break the monopoly” of public education, Cuomo’s education “reforms” actually doubled down on testing by weighting test results more heavily in teacher evaluations.  This will surely force even more test preparation as teachers fight to keep the careers they worked hard to establish.  As creative and authentic types of instruction are lost to testing, our children lose their self-confidence and their zest for learning.

The tests themselves are designed for failure, calibrated to an SAT score of 1630, with cut scores that are adjusted  after the tests are scored to make sure that 70% of NY children fail.  Cuomo, at the behest of hedge fund pro-charter donors, uses these faulty statistics to declare public school failures, ultimately usurping local control of our schools.  Teachers lose their jobs.  Schools are closed.  Impoverished communities are hurt the most.  The ultimate goal of these “reforms” is the replacement of our public schools with for-profit charter schools.  Our children are the pawns in this political game.  It is time to fight back.

Last year, 60,000 parents across New York State “refused” their children out of testing.  This year, tens of thousands across the state have expressed their concern about the increasing emphasis on tests that are ruining the education of their children, but many parents do not know they have the right to refuse testing.  The Refuse the Test Robocall campaign aims to raise enough money to pay for a call to New York State households, advising them of their parental right to “refuse the tests” for their children.  Supreme Court cases have upheld this right that is based on the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, stating in the case of Meyer v. Nebraska that parents possess the “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children.”

The goal of this campaign is to raise $30,000 by April 10th, and create a celebrity recording for a robocall that will go to selected New York State households on April 12th.  Testing for the NYS ELA is from April 14-16, and math testing is held from April 22-24.  Parents can send in refusal notices right up to the day of the test.

Test refusals will send a powerful political message to New York State, as well as to our federal government, that parents will no longer allow their children to be used as a profit market for testing corporations, politicians, and government bureaucracies.  To donate, visit  For more information on refusing the tests, go to


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sad Day for Teachers in NY

My response to an editorial by the Albany Times Union, stating it is "Time to End the School Fight." No.  It is not.  Here's why:

Oh goodness.  Where do I start?  TU Editors, how would you like your job to hang on how well citizens understand your articles?  They could take a test to determine your overall effectiveness as an editor.  We'll make the test impossibly hard, with reading levels years beyond the ability/age of your readers, and there will be no transparency so you will never get to see the test. Oh and answers on the test will be "equally plausible" choices (see EngageNY test directions). Don't worry, we'll notify the public that 70% of people will fail this test.  But that won't save your job.

The tests are designed for failure.  In my last response to an editorial here, I said they were calibrated to a 1500+ on the SAT.  Upon more research I found it is actually a score of 1630, higher than the score College Board uses (the 1500 number) to define college readiness.  Under the Governor's direction, State ED and Regents inflated those scores impossibly high so that 70% of our students were guaranteed to fail.  How did they know that ahead of time?  70% of SAT test-takers fail to get a 1630.  Then just in case, they set the cut scores after the tests are taken to give the Governor his failure rate and fire teachers.

THE GOAL of our Governor, and his hedge fund privatizers, is to use these tests to demolish our public schools and teaching force.  Our high-quality master's degree teachers are to be fired and replaced with lower wage workers or "facilitators" who watch children learn online.  It is happening in other states (see Chicago for ex).  And now the fight has come to New York.  The reason we have an abundance of "effective" teachers in NY is because this is one of the few states to require a master's degree, tough entrance exams for certification, and ongoing professional development - not to mention three years of probation on the job.  Are there a few ineffective teachers out there that need to be removed?  Sure.  That's why in 2008 the legislature made it easier to get rid of bad teachers, and it is working.  But that's not good enough because they want the whole system gone.  You don't get rid of a quality workforce unless that is your intent.  Fire teachers, close public schools, and replace them with privately operated, for-profit charter schools.  Oh, and let's not forget - charter teachers are not held accountable by these same "teacher evaluations."  And their financial accounts are not examined thoroughly as are our public school accounts.

What our governor bribed his way to with our democratically elected legislature, is that our NYS teachers now have to fight their way through tests every year to keep their job.  Oh, you're buying the soundbyte that there will be no evaluation percentage tied to a test?  Yes, that's true.  No percentage.  In the new matrix that is proposed, score TRUMPS everything. You have a bad class or teach to a population that can't show growth on testing (special education teachers, English as second language teachers, gifted teachers, teachers in impoverished communities) and you are gone after two years.  Gone.  It doesn't matter how loudly you are extolled in observations or how well you serve your students.  You.  Are.  Gone.

And for new teachers - even worse.  You have to, as Peter Greene stated, "Get snake eyes on the VAM dice" every year for three years out of the four.  If those numbers don't line up for you - you are gone after four years.  If you somehow miraculously get effectives the first three years and then have a rough class the fourth year and get a developing - well as Assemblywoman Nolan said, "you get another bite at the apple" for a fifth year.  But if that is not effective, you are gone.  No recourse. All the years and expense to get a master's degree so you can put your passion for helping children into a teaching career?  ALL HOPE GONE! You will never teach in NY again. But you will still be saddled with school debt. Enrollment in NY teacher prep programs is already down 20-50%.  What will happen when we can't find teachers to teach our kids?

All this WILL double down on test prep and hurt our children. Kids are already pulling out their hair or eyelashes, deliberately scratching themselves, shaking, crying, and vomiting during tests.  Students with identified disabilities, some of whom are tested at grade level, no matter what their intellectual ability sometimes cry through the test. I personally witnessed it. Enough.

This is child abuse.  This is teacher abuse.  This is war against those who see our children as a profit market.  No we will not give up.  We cannot.  REFUSE THE TESTS.