Wednesday, June 7, 2017

NYSAPE and Class Size Matters
Contact: Kemala Karmen 917-807-9969 |

“Another Squandered Opportunity”:
Parents, Students, and Educators Slam NY State Education Department’s
Flawed ESSA Proposal & Process

Brooklyn, NY—Frustrated public school students, parents, activists, and educators gathered in front of the Prospect Heights Education Complex this evening to protest the New York State Education Department’s new schools accountability proposal and the sham process that supposedly generated it. Inside the building, department officials were setting up for one of several hearings scheduled across the state in order to gain feedback on the proposal, which was created to comply with recent federal legislation.  

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the successor legislation to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill. While ESSA preserves much of NCLB, including an onerous and misguided annual testing requirement for all children in grades 3-8, it also gives states more latitude in defining their school accountability systems than did NCLB, primarily through the inclusion of an additional “school quality indicator.”

For this reason, New York’s families and educators were looking forward to the state creating an accountability system that incentivized schools to provide children with a high quality, well-rounded education. ESSA also includes a statement that explicitly recognizes a parent’s right to opt their child out of testing without consequences for the school or district, a point that is crucial in a state where hundreds of thousands of parents have boycotted the tests as developmentally inappropriate and deleterious to their children’s educations.

Instead of benefiting from the flexibility of  the legislation, New York State Education Department, under Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, let down New York’s children, parents, educators, and schools, by submitting an accountability proposal for Board of Regents approval that squanders the  opportunities that ESSA confers. Its proposed accountability system doubles down on testing, counts opt out students as having failed the exams for the purpose of school accountability, and guarantees the continuation of narrowed test-prep curriculum that has spurred the nation’s largest test refusal movement.

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters and a member of the NYSED ESSA Think Tank’s Accountability work group, said, “Even though the largest number of people who responded to the NYSED survey wanted an Accountability system that would include elements of a well-rounded, holistic education providing the Opportunity to Learn, including small classes, and sufficient instruction in art, music, science and physical education, their input was ignored.  Many schools in New York City and elsewhere have already narrowed the curriculum because of the over-emphasis on state exams.  Instead, NYSED proposes to add only a very few high-stakes indicators, such as student attendance and, in high school, access to advanced coursework.  This may have the unwanted effect of making schools offer even less art and music in favor of more AP courses. It is time that the State took account of what matters in providing children with a quality education.  This is their chance to do so by incorporating an Opportunity to Learning index in their formula.”

Johanna Garcia, NYC parent of public school students, contended that the proposal’s use of chronic absenteeism as the sole additional indicator for elementary and middle schools, along with test scores and ESL proficiency, meant that the accountability system would disproportionately punish high-poverty and high-immigrant school populations, while doing little to level the playing field among schools. “It is disheartening to see NYSED once again fail to take the opportunity to finally do right by students who have been ignored, penalized, and re-victimized by the very institution entrusted to lift them out of poverty. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that schools with high chronic absenteeism are suffering from concentrated numbers of homelessness, children in foster care, undocumented immigrant status, economic instability and special health and developmental needs. The proposed policies will further the inequities in our children’s education, while giving credence to the misconception that students from low income neighborhoods are less competent. This disconnect continues to be inexcusable and can no longer be accepted as the status quo.”

Kelley Wolcott, a teacher at South Brooklyn Community High School, a transfer school that serves over-aged, under-credited students--at least a dozen of whom spoke movingly during the hearing about the lifesaving role the school played--agreed. "The proposed accountability measures would devastate our ability to serve the needs of diverse learners. For true accountability, the state needs to focus on and incentivize supplying the resources necessary for students to thrive, including small class sizes, less emphasis on high-stakes testing, fair funding, and a vastly reduced student-to-counselor ratio for students with a history of trauma. Very few schools in NYC still have nurses, let alone a real school-based support team. Without these things--and with the change in graduation requirements mandated by ESSA--we’ll see the destruction of the safety net provided by transfer schools for students who are pushed out of charter schools or drop out of large underfunded public schools where they are no more than an OSIS number."

Kemala Karmen, the parent of children who attend a 6-12 school in New York City, served on the Standards and Assessments work group of the Think Tank. “NYSED seemed intent on perpetuating the narrow strictures of NCLB. The nonpunitive plan (i.e., ask districts to analyze participation to ensure that students had not been systematically excluded, as per the intent of the law) that the majority of my work group proposed to address ESSA’s 95% testing participation mandate was rejected by the NYSED group leader who said it wouldn’t align with the Commissioner’s  expectations. This decision to reject the plan was not reflected in the official notes sent later. Leadership insisted that parents just needed to be ‘educated’ about the assessments, rather than acknowledging that the test refusal movement grew out of legitimate concerns with how testing is reshaping classrooms. Moreover, I couldn’t believe that research-based evidence was never shared or apparently considered during our deliberations.”

Jeanette Deutermann, Nassau county parent and founder of Long Island Opt Out, expressed particular consternation for the way that opt-out students will be figured into the accountability system. “It is clear that the option exists to leave opt out students out of the test score accountability formula. To choose instead, and arbitrarily, to count these students as having received low scores, solely for the purpose of rating schools, would make the entire  accountability system invalid. While we understand SED's temptation to discourage test refusals, accountability regulations will not change a parent's decision to protect their child from an unfair and unreliable testing regime.”

Eileen Graham, Rochester City School District parent advocate and founder of Black Student Leadership, sent a statement to be read: “Accountability needs to flow not only from the school to the state, but from the state to the schools. In order to succeed, the students of Rochester need the state to deliver well-resourced school facilities, prepared professional educators, and opportunities for teacher-created relevant curriculum. They should be ensuring that parents' voices are heeded and that capable leadership is at the helm. Regrettably, Commissioner Elia’s current ESSA proposal is just a continuation of the test-based accountability that we've had for decades and that has done little to lift Rochester City School District out of a state of educational emergency.”

Lisa Rudley, Ossining public school parent and founding member of NYSAPE, said, “As long as Commissioner Elia is steering the ship, the winds of discredited former Chancellor Tisch and NY Education Commissioner John King will remain. If real significant and meaningful change is going to occur, the Board of Regents needs to replace Elia with someone who represents what's in the best interest of the children. Otherwise, New York’s education policies will remain punitive and harmful to children and schools.”

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