Take yes for an answer

On Board Online • January 25, 2016

Timothy G. Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a vocal and politically effective group of parents and educators opposed to a "test and punishment" culture, recently produced a list of seven conditions it says must be met before it would stop urging parents to boycott state tests in grades 3-8.

Although our state has shifted from overdrive to neutral on testing, NYSAPE has declared it's frustrated that "nothing has changed."

Nothing has changed? A lot has changed:

  • Gov. Cuomo has endorsed the recommendations of his Common Core Task Force, which incorporate the goals and recommendations on NYSAPE's list.
  • The Board of Regents has taken emergency action to prevent state 3-8 tests from having consequences for students or teachers for the next four years.
  • A new test vendor is developing new versions of tests, and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has pledged that teachers will be even more closely involved in the vetting and development process. (However, the state's contract with Pearson has not yet expired. As a result, Pearson developed 3-8 ELA and math tests - for which the state has paid millions of dollars - which will be administered for the last time this spring.)
  • In the near future, New York will once again revise its learning standards, grade-by-grade.

That's not all. We can expect new curricular materials, digitized resources, and new forms of professional development. Testing times will be further shortened, the number of test questions will be reduced as will the number of field tests, and test results will soon be analyzed and reported in near real time. Accommodations and testing alternatives will be more readily available to assist our students who need extra time and help.

The point is that the state is taking seriously the concerns raised by parents, teachers and others. It's hard to understand why NYSAPE thinks further antagonism through test refusals is their best course of action.

School boards have been in a tough position throughout the testing debate. On one hand, boards recognize the value of measuring progress. On the other hand, school board members listen and value the opinions of all stakeholders, and the flaws of New York's approach have been obvious to all.

At the end of the day, school boards want to make sure the system works. Test refusals are boycotts designed to be disruptive to the status quo. But the status quo is now the vigorous pursuit of the very goals that NYSAPE has enumerated!

Whether mandated by the federal or state government, or established at the local level, assessments can help educators identify students' strengths and weaknesses, track their progress, and enable school systems to improve student academic outcomes.

Indeed, the newly passed federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) maintains the requirement that states show 95 percent participation for federally mandated assessments or risk losing federal money. An ominous "Dear Colleague" letter was issued by the U.S. Department of Education to states with high opt-out rates. So if opt-outs continue, there could be a financial consequence for states and school districts, especially those that educate our neediest students.

NYSSBA has expressed concern over this punitive approach in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education. Just as policymakers in Washington, DC ought to recognize that withholding money is a destructive way to make a point, parents and teachers in New York State should recognize that testing boycotts are not constructive - especially when everyone is bending over backwards to try to make the very adjustments that parents have sought as quickly as possible.

I hope that parents, school officials, state policy makers, teachers and others throughout New York can come together over the next four years as the state does what Cuomo has called a "reboot" of the system. Parents have an important role to play; they can increase the chance for success by holding our state leaders accountable so they will do what they said they will do to make the system better. One way parents could communicate their willingness to be a positive part of the solution would be to end the test refusals. It's time to heal.

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