Friday, April 19, 2019

Threats, bribes, deceit and glitches highlight another testing debacle in New York

A version of this article originally appeared at The Progressive

In the ongoing national parent revolt against high-stakes standardized testing, New York has had the largest test refusal movement by far, with approximately one in five students refusing each year since 2015. The first round of this year’s grades 3-8 tests began last week amid fresh outrage over punitive new regulations and an official misinformation campaign designed to intimidate and confuse parents. The drama now unfolding in New York in response to this year’s testing troubles foreshadows a growing national clash over what really counts in our schools. 

Seeing their concerns ignored, New York parents began publicly sharing district letters showing threats, bribes, and false information. The chaos and contention was compounded by a large online system crash almost immediately after testing began April 2; reports emerged that the state’s computer-based testing platform would not let some students log on or submit tests they had worked on for hours. By day’s end, headlines from Long Island to Buffalo and everywhere between declared the online testing a “debacle”. 

According to the NY State Education Department, some 6,600 students were affected; all online testing was postponed one day as experts scrambled to troubleshoot the problem. Because a similar crash plagued New York schools last year (along with student data breaches), the NYS Council of School Superintendents, the largest state teachers’ union NY State United Teachers, and the NY State Parent Teachers Association immediately called for the firing of the testing vendor Questar. The Minnesota-based testing corporation has also presided over disastrous system crashes in Mississippi and Missouri, and in Tennessee where the legislature responded with a multi-year moratorium on online exams.

Leading up to test time, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia touted shorter tests, developed by New York teachers. But long testing times remain a major complaint, and claims of teacher involvement are over-hyped, as teachers only get to choose readings and questions from choices provided. Ultimately left unclear was whether parents even had a right to refuse testing, so in a significant development, the teachers union stepped up to inform parents. Last year, NYSUT publicized parent’s right to opt-out, but this year, led by Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT prominently challenged the underlying validity of the tests, noting that the hidden scoring formulas are shockingly misaligned with high school level exams and inaccurately label thousands children across the state as “failing.”

In a campaign called #CorrectTheTests, NYSUT published a blistering fact-check of SED’s 2019 information, also noting that the highly flawed tests are too long and developmentally inappropriate. On the ground, teachers reported this year’s 4th and 6th grade English Language Arts tests contained the same 10th grade level passage, and the 8th grade exam had an abstract poem studied at the university level. There were, as usual, ambiguous questions teachers felt had more than one plausible answer.

There are many reasons parents reject the high-stakes tests, but chief among them are the lack of any tangible benefit to students, schools or taxpayers. Widely considered scientifically invalid, standardized tests are vulnerable to cheating and manipulation, highly subjective, inaccurate and arbitrary, but have also been weaponized in New York to advance a narrative that has helped expand charter schools and corporate privatization. Recent flare-ups challenging testing length and validity in Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and other states show that tests remain as controversial as ever.

The time wasted on testing is insane. Most of my students finished within 70-90 minutes on Day 1, but still had to sit silently in the testing room for another two hours. They are allowed to read, but are not allowed to draw or do homework. Day 2 tests took longer, and a few students in my school tested from 9:15 a.m. straight through to the end of the school day, stopping only for a “monitored” lunch break.

This untimed testing regime, now in its fourth year, was questioned from the start. Introduced without any supporting research, the idea was to relieve student stress; instead, it has by greatly increased testing time. Untimed tests are frowned upon by the American Psychological Association and actually run afoul of a 2014 NYS law that limits to only 1% the annual instruction time that can be interrupted for testing.

A disturbing story emerged this year from a district that had incorrectly informed parents the tests were mandatory. A 6th grader spent 4 hours testing on Day 1 and then almost 7 hours on Day 2, with only a 20-minute lunch break and no recess. The child appeared anxious when his test was collected at the end of Day 2 and he reportedly collapsed when he got home, ending up in the hospital where he was treated for dehydration. He apparently hadn’t eaten or drank during the day and was monitored past 2 a.m., missing school the next day.

Across the state, social media buzzed with reports of schools using rewards such as candy, pizza parties, field trips, and extra recess and punishments such as denial of privileges or a trip to the principal’s office. One school told students they could not be in the honors program unless they take the tests while another threatened summer school. An upstate principal told students they needed to take the tests because their school loves them, and they love their school, telling students that “say YES to the test” will be exempt from June English finals, while telling students who opt-out they must take their English finals during state testing time, in the same room as the others. The principal also promised that if the school reached 100% compliance, “...5-6 of your FAVORITE Teachers will do something FUNNY ‘like’ KISS A PIG”.

Once the coercion and resultant nightmare stories came to light, SED would publicly blame local superintendents. At the end of the week, SED finally issued a long-overdue statement clearly affirming a parent’s right to opt out:

“We would like to remind school leaders of the importance of honoring requests received by parents to opt their children out of the exams. While federal law does require all states to administer state assessments in English language arts and mathematics, parents have a right to opt their children out of these exams.”

Up until this point, SED had danced around the question, giving many districts impetus to deceive and exaggerate, telling students the tests were mandatory or inventing hurdles. Parents reported being required to come in person to speak directly to the principal, or to submit opt-out letters by an artificially imposed deadline.

Why this manipulation by some school administrators? Because the stakes were dramatically raised for schools this year. As a direct result of SED’s new ESSA implementation plan, a number of schools with high opt-out rates ended up on the state’s list of schools in need of intervention. Led by Betsy DeVos, the US Department of Education has been forcing testing compliance under threat of withholding Title I funding, meant for students in poverty. In NY, Commissioner Elia assured schools there would be no consequences if parents refuse testing, but changed her tune after a meeting with DeVos.

The Patchogue-Medford School District is a prime example, with several well-regarded, high-performing elementary schools ending up on the list after as much as 80% of students opted-out in 2018, leaving a non-representative test sampling. The Pat-Med community is outraged over being wrongfully “labeled” and is even concerned about local home values. But urban schools in impoverished areas were also put on the list, threatened with eventual closure or conversion to charter schools if they do not improve under a complicated new formula that treats opt-outs students as if they got the lowest score on the test.

One alternative school in the South Bronx that exclusively served over-aged, under-credited students will now need to shift resources towards new compliance plans to boost test scores and test participation. A well-loved “progressive” school in Manhattan with opt-out rates topping 80% ended up on the list this year, prompting NYC schools Chancellor Richard Carranza to speak up in their defense.

In bald hypocrisy, SED blamed districts for deceiving and coercing parents and students to test, writing: “To be certain, the vast majority of schools honor parents' requests to have their children not take the tests; however, we have also heard of isolated but troubling reports of parents' requests being ignored.”

The NYS Council of School Superintendents immediately responded with a heated letter, upset that SED “cast aspersions” on all superintendents instead of dealing directly with the bad apples. The letter also reveals that district superintendents doubted the policy from the beginning, yet felt pressured to carry out SED’s dirty work, out of fear of the new “corrective action plans.” From the letter:

“Since the inception of high-stakes testing, school leaders have done their best to carry out the directives of the State Education Department… many superintendents are now questioning why they have stood side-by-side with the Department to implement its assessment agenda, even when they disagreed with it.”

SED indeed gave their stamp of approval for schools who used alternative tests as a scare tactic. Asked about the tumultuous first week of testing, embattled SED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Questar’s connectivity problems were inexcusable and their contract would be reviewed. But she said the grades 3-8 tests are federally-mandated and unavoidable, and claims to seek the best tests possible through the involvement of NYS teachers. Educators maintain the opposite, claiming they’ve been ignored and marginalized since Elia first took office when they presented her evidence of the many flaws in NY’s high-stakes standardized testing. Teachers also were ignored during regional policy implementation workshops, public hearings and comment periods.

In a radio interview, when Commissioner Elia was asked to respond to criticism that her actions have fallen short, she momentarily admitted as much (at 5:48), awkwardly trailing off in an unclear sentiment:

“Everyone doesn’t agree that that’s enough and to be perfectly honest I don’t think it’s enough, but what we have done is clear, and I think incontra-futable [sic] that that’s what we’ve been working on.”

If the Commissioner is listening now, high-stakes testing in New York does more harm than good. It is incredibly intrusive and skews what’s important in our classrooms. When I was a kid in my NYC public elementary school, I remember a combined math/literacy bubble test held one afternoon, late in the year, that was short, diagnostic and low stakes. My middle school today has over 12 days of high stakes testing and other schools have over 20 days. All across the country, it’s time to reduce standardized testing, make the tests developmentally appropriate for all learners, and finally end this damaging testing obsession.

Written by NY BAT Jake Jacobs
Additional assistance provided by Deborah Abramson-Brooks.

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