Education Op-Ed/Test wars: the resistance builds


Orchard Park middle school math teacher Craig Dana stepped up to the microphone before a large spectator audience at the March 15 Board of Education meeting. “Tonight I’d like to tell you all a personal story,” he began. The tale started with a recent visit to his district board office where Dana reviewed the thirty-plus glowing first-hand teacher observations and evaluations he had received over the years from administrators who knew his work in the classroom. This year, however, included a new assessment. It was the first time New York teachers were rated by the State Education Department on a scale from zero to twenty, and ranked as “highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective.” To arrive at these ratings the state relies on a single standardized student test score, something detractors refer to as high-stakes testing.

“I was dedicated to those students,” Dana stated, reflecting on the previous school year, “They worked hard; we had a rewarding year; they’re an awesome group of kids, and they’re doing awesome at the high school.” What Dana said next was as surprising to listeners as it had been to the longtime educator: “[Albany] rated me as ineffective, a two out of twenty; the first negative evaluation of my career. New York State thinks that I let my students down, that my students would have been better off with a different math teacher, someone higher than a two. I know those kids, and I know in my heart that I did not let them down.”

It couldn’t have been easy for Dana to stand before an audience of parents and peers and disclose Albany’s estimation of him as a failed teacher. But he was driven by something bigger than his ego. “I cannot remain quiet about this evaluation system that unjustly gives me a score of two,” he stated defiantly. He went on to invite anyone from the district, the State Education Department, and Governor Cuomo, to visit his classroom. “They will not see ineffective teaching.” The Governor has proposed that ratings based on single test scores count for fifty percent of annual teacher evaluations. “Cuomo believes that if I am ineffective like this year for two years in a row, I should be dismissed. I am not perfect but I know in my heart I am not an ineffective teacher.”

As a final protest, Dana requested the board give him an alternative assignment on future occasions when the ELA (English Language Arts) and Math Common Core tests are administered and graded. His next words were drowned out by enthusiastic applause. When the clapping subsided he continued: “Knowing that these tests are not diagnostic, nor prescriptive, knowing that these tests are arbitrary and capricious, gives me grave concern. This is educational malpractice.”

It might not have been the shot heard round the state, but Dana’s oral blast was one of many being fired by hordes angry teachers, parents, administrators, school boards, and education leaders. As a result, a loosely-knit alliance has been engaged in an unprecedented grassroots rebellion occurring right now in school districts across the country. It’s driven by individuals who are frustrated by what they consider to be wrong-headed education reforms, and they are not afraid to stand up to politicians and government officials. Instead of pitchforks and torches, these insurgents brandish pointed data and fiery talking points, and in the face of strong resistance they are taking ground. New York is among the most active states in the uprising, and Western New York is playing a major roll. It is a battle for the minds of children, and the dignity of education.

The unfunded mandates begin

The groundwork for the rebellion was laid with President George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind, a ham-fisted attempt to correct the (disputed) failures of American education. It declared that all US children would be “proficient” in school by 2014. A string of school closings and charter school start-ups followed, but as with any arbitrary, unrealistic, and inadequately funded initiative, No Child Left Behind never had a chance.

In 2009, with bipartisan support, President Barak Obama instituted the Race to the Top. The initiative dangled huge grants before cash-hungry states, compelling each that signed on to accept the corporate-produced and owned Common Core Standards, and use high stakes tests to evaluate teachers and schools. Once again, the costs of full implementation exceeded funding. Every school district in New York (and others vying for the funding), regardless of past success, had to revise curriculum and develop new teacher assessments. This meant reopening union contracts and funding ongoing planning and new budgetary requirements. As staffs and administrators burned out from added financial and workplace demands, the national witch-hunt for “bad teachers” and “failing schools” began in earnest.

Albany brought in Education Commissioner John King, a supporter of Common Core Standards, and the Governor climbed onboard big time. But growing segments of the public were becoming vocal in their opposition to both the Common Core and high stakes testing. “Yes, it angers me that my APPR (teacher evaluation) score is based on my students test results,” says Teresa Leatherbarrow, an elementary teacher in Buffalo schools, who has taught several grade levels. Leatherbarrow is also the mother of three children who attend Williamsville schools. “It’s further outrageous that our governor is determined to keep a list of low performing schools, while at the same time cutting funding and programs. It’s ridiculous to me that schools and districts compete for the top [rating] spots while ten minutes down the thruway there are students who don’t have the opportunity to play on a sports team or pick up an instrument.”

Heidi Indelicato, a parent of three, first became concerned about Common Core when one of her three sons began to hate school. “Test prep with material above grade level started replacing valuable and needed lesson time,” she says. “Basic skills like multiplication, division, and fractions were being rushed through. The focus was shifting to a data mining and excessive testing culture with a concentration on teacher evaluations.” After speaking with other parents and learning that her son’s stress in school was shared by other kids—especially in the younger grades—“we did our research and realized the reform movement had major issues that needed fixing.”

First stirrings of resistance

In 2012 a group called Western New Yorkers for Public Education (WNYPE) was formed by parents to spread the word on testing, using—mainly—social media. They presented informational forums to encourage what has come to be called the opt-out movement, wherein parents keep their children out of the ELA and math tests which only serve to evaluate teachers and schools.

“The public opt-out cause started with a few families scattered throughout the Empire State in 2011,” says Chris Cerrone, a Hamburg Middle School teacher, parent of two, and Springville district board member. With the advent of WNYPE, the opt-out movement began to gain momentum in Western New York. In the summer of 2013, parent leaders from across the state met to form NYS Allies for Public Education, which unified regional opt out groups. By 2014, over 60,000 students boycotted the state assessments. “As the movement grew,” says Cerrone, “many parents became highly educated and helped to answer the concerns and inquiries of newcomers. This empowering of parents across New York has become a boon to the movement, helping to achieve a boycott of over 200,000 students this past spring.”

“Stop-Testing” websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages sprouted up to provide information, advice, talking points, and moral support to parents joining the movement. Districts were forced to develop policies for dealing with kids who opted out of the tests. They range from moving them to other locations, having them read quietly, to the now-waning “sit and stare” policy, in which students are forced to do nothing for the duration of the tests.

One parent who chose to have her three children opt out is Mary Bieger. “The direction that the state is heading with education has me quite concerned,” she says. “Please understand that I am not against tests; [my son and I] study together to prepare for tests administered by his teachers throughout the year.” Bieger is concerned about the millions of dollars the state is spending on standardized tests, while neglecting important issues known to impact learning such as poverty. “Schools are closing; class sizes are becoming larger, and yet the state continues to place importance on curriculum to support Common Core, and technology to implement computerized tests.” Bieger fears that the emphasis on standardized tests is depriving students from learning through “discovery, creativity, and play.”

Last year, in an unprecedented move, the Kenmore-Tonawanda School Board voted unanimously to “seriously consider” boycotting the tests districtwide.  After threats to cut district state aid and remove the board were issued through Cuomo’s office, the plan was dropped. But the act raised eyebrows and drew additional attention to the movement.

Governor Cuomo’s involvement in education reform has been aggressive, placing emphasis on teacher evaluations and the elimination of “failing schools.” Many educators believe his hard line approach is payback for the union’s backing of another candidate in the Democratic primary. “Governor Cuomo piled on as NYSUT supported Carl McCall,” says Cerrone, “and he seemed to take it out on teachers ever since.”

A movement matures

Bipartisan opposition to Common Core testing is now growing among a number of national and local political leaders. “Governor, if you’re listening, I’ve got a challenge for you,” said Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco from the floor of the New York State Assembly in April. “If you think the Holy Grail of improving our education is Common Core testing, I’ve got a challenge. I want you to sit in the Red Room; I’ll bring in the fifth-grade Common Core math test, the fifth-grade Common Core English test, and then we’ll evaluate what your scores are and we’ll release them to the public. And I believe you won’t prove you’re smarter than a fifth-grader when we’re done.”

Unsurprisingly, Dana’s request not to be assigned to testing in his school was denied. However, there were so many student opt outs in his school that he was only needed for a single day of grading rather than two or three. It’s his hope that the next state legislative session will bring about the repeal of Common Core standards. “Next year we need all the parents to send their refusal letters in on the first day of school. Make it part of the school supplies—pens, pencils, paper, calculator, folders, binders, glue sticks, and refusal letter! Do I think there is a revolution against Common Core and testing?” Dana asks rhetorically. “Heck yeah, and we—the parents, students, and teachers—are going to win this.”

In December, Commissioner King resigned after an embattled tenure to take a position on the federal level. Former Hillsborough County Florida superintendent MaryEllen Elia was selected to replace him. As she enters the battlefield of public opinion and government pressure, time will tell where her allegiances lie. In the meantime, the ranks of the revolution swell.

Bruce Adams is an educator, artist, parent, and Spree’s art critic.