Thursday, April 9, 2015

Welcome to the Testing Games - Part 4

The Testing Games : Fire is Catching – If We Burn, You Burn With Us – Comparing Ed Reform to the Hunger Games

By Bonnie Cunard Margolin 
Originally posted on her blog:

Welcome back to the Testing Games. This week, in our comparison of current education reform policies to the popular, Hunger Games series, we will dive deep into the heart of the games: The Burn Scene.

The idea came from my ten year old. Driving to school, recently, I turned to my daughter, a self proclaimed, Hunger Games expert, and asked:

“What is your favorite scene in the Hunger Games?”

She responded, “When Katniss says, ‘If we burn, you burn with us.’”

I was speechless. I can not deny: She is absolutely right. That is the pivotal scene of the story. It is the scene in which Katniss, during a fight with the Capitol, uses a bow and arrow to shoot down their hovercrafts. As she retreats back and discovers the Capitol army has bombed a hospital full of children, she turns, defiantly, and yells, “Fire is catching. If we burn, you burn with us.”

It is definitely a powerful scene and begs for comparison in our Testing Games analogies. And,  as I must admit, the timing has never been more perfect. You see, we are full blown right in the middle of our Testing Games here in Florida. In fact, my own ten year old daughter recently entered the testing arena:  The Florida Standards Assessment (Common Core) State Test.

No doubt, she was well prepared for the test, having sat through a year of test prep, practice,  and training.

Not to mention, she is in fifth grade. In America, that means she has been playing these Testing Games for years. Thus, she is well aware of the consequences of losing the game. Believe her when she says, the struggle is real.

This year, however, was different than previous years. This year, she broke the seal of the test, put down her pencil, and refused to answer any questions. Simply put, my daughter opted out.

Let me say, upfront, the choice to opt out was her own. While only ten years old, she has been accompanying me to conferences, rallies, and school board meetings for years. Being the daughter of a teacher, and an outspoken teacher at that, she has heard me holler, over and over, about the disadvantages of investing our resources into these high stakes tests. She knows the validity of the test items are being called into question by teachers, parents, and even elected officials.

Make no mistake, my daughter may be young, but she knows. She recognizes that too much time is spent preparing for these state tests and she is tired of it. She knows the tests are not true indicators of her abilities.

She has learned how much the tests cost and she wishes we would spend that money on field trips, art supplies, and musical instruments. She may only be ten, but she has an opinion and no qualms about speaking up.

So, despite her fear of upsetting her teachers, and despite her worries of being ostracized by other children, she chose to commit her first act of civil disobedience.

In Florida, her unanswered test is designated as a ‘NR2’. Essentially, she participated in the test, as statutes require, but she gave no response. No data will be collected on her. No penalties for low scores will be sanctioned. Her electives will not be stripped from her next year based on her scores. She will not be pulled out of drama rehearsals for test prep tutoring and she will not miss band practice to take practice tests. She opted out. Period.

While the choice was hers, the decision to allow her to opt out was mine. It was not a decision that I made quickly or without serious consideration. You see, being a teacher, not to mention a teacher who works right down the hall in the same school as her, I know the costs of opting out on a public school. I know the corporate testing industry has lobbied our legislature for years and, as such, has been successful in getting laws passed that tie school funding to these test scores. I know, as an educator, that our teacher evaluations, salaries, and contracts are tied to these scores. Naturally, I was concerned about what the consequences of her actions would be. I didn’t want my daughter suffering under this oppressive testing regime but I also did not want to cause personal or professional harm to her teachers. I certainly did not want to hurt our school funding.

Consequently, I scoured my state statutes, connected with Opt Out groups online, and met with school officials. I learned a NR2 score is a possibility. I discovered rules allowed my daughter to sit down for the test, break the seal, sit and stare through the duration of the exam, but not answer any questions. I learned a NR2 score does not penalize the teacher, student, or school. I knew I had the answer I needed.

However, as more and more parents became aware of the fact that they do, actually, have a choice to use concordant scores or portfolios, our state leaders began pushing back. Twice in the last two months, our school district, via our state Dept of Ed, sent a letter home stating students are required to take the test. Parents were told, repeatedly, that they do not have the right to opt their children out of these state tests, despite clear proof to the contrary.

The frustration is overwhelming, especially as round 2 of testing is quickly approaching. It just makes me want to scream to our leaders: “Do you realize just how hard parents have worked to figure out how to do this without hurting teachers or schools?”

Truly, that is the point. Parents love their public schools and teachers. They just don’t love the manner in which high stakes testing has completely taken over the curriculum. Parents are taking a stand, but they are being careful to do so in a manner that will not backfire on public schools.

They are trying to start a fire without anyone getting burnt.

Seriously, think about it. Think of the consequences to our schools if the opt out parents simply did not care. Imagine the hit to funding if all these parents just kept their children home, absent, on test days. Since funding is tied specifically to attendance during testing, the damage would be serious.

Or worse, imagine if the opt out parents just withdrew their students from public schools altogether. The hit to funding would be catastrophic and certainly would lead to massive school closures. The thought is unthinkable.

I feel the frustration of the parents, especially as I am one of those parents. I feel my daughter’s frustration. It is infuriating to hear our leaders defend this obsession with high stakes testing.

Case in point, just last week, our FL Senate passed a new accountability bill, holding schools and teachers harmless from these test scores, but not our kids.

Not our kids?

It just makes me want to scream. Why would our Senators admit they are concerned with the validity of the tests and take steps to protect schools and teachers, but not our children?

Do our leaders truly want to push parents to the point of no return? I cringe, thinking of the day when parents finally reach their tipping point. If the dystopian Hunger Games are meant as a warning, I sure hope our leaders take note.

Fire is catching …

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