By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
Why are these children protesting in front of their school?
Oh, wait—their parents are there, too.
And their teachers.
And their principal?
One of them was Brooklyn mother, Jody Alperin. She has a first and fourth grader in PS10, a school that draws students from Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and Greenwood Heights.
Why were she and her kids expressing their discontent with the recent round of state language arts (ELA) tests?
She’s not against all forms of testing. She’s not against standards. But she had expected that after last year’s experimental first round—the first to be aligned with what has been a problematic rollout of Common Core standards—this year’s state tests would reflect improvements. By most accounts, she says, the tests were worse.
For Alperin, that presents a complex set of frustrations. The children taking the test emerge discouraged, she said. That is in part because the questions are reportedly poorly written and ambiguous. And also because sprinkled within the test are field questions, some of which are not age appropriate, but time and energy consuming all the same.
While the “cut score” to determine proficiency may be adjusted this year, she says the emotional toll is already done.
A significant percentage of teacher evaluations is linked to performance on both these state and local standardized tests. For many schools, student participation and funding are also tied to performance. Knowing these stakes, Alperin says, means that for “the common good” she will not have her children opt-out—at least not yet. For now, they will speak up.
And speak up is what they were doing on that Friday morning a few weeks ago in the hour before school started. They had a protest in front of the school, joined by teachers, families, and yes, their principal. Noteworthy, because the contract between the state of New York and the test maker imposes a gag order on those who administer it. The principal and teachers can’t talk about the specifics of the test.
A few weeks ago, after students in grades 3-8 spent three days taking the ELA exam, the principal of PS 321 in Park Slope Brooklyn, Liz Phillips, organized the first protest and wrote about it in an Op-Ed for the New York Times.
” …We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools.”
” In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.”
25 principals in NY’s District 2, a top scoring district, supported Phillips writing:
“The tests seem not to be particularly well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; the tests themselves are embargoed and only a handful of select questions will be released next year; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; students and families receive little or no specific feedback; this year, there were product placements (i.e., Nike, Barbie) woven through some exams.”
These principals called for another protest, and this time Alperin’s school (not in District 2) joined in.
I asked Alperin how her oldest child, a fourth grader, felt about the situation.
“I don’t think we should give the people who are making the test prep books our money. I don’t want to buy their material anymore,” he told her, finding an alternative to opting-out that he thought still sent a message. On a personal level, his scores are needed when applying to middle schools across the city.
“It’s important to take time to listen to what the kids have to say,” Alperin told me, “ and to feel like there are people who are listening.”
Generally, she said of their school community, “We don’t make a lot of noise and we do what we’re supposed to. The push back is the new thing that is happening.”
Those of us who are not in New York, or one of the states in the forefront of rolling out the Common Core aligned tests, may still watch from afar, hoping things smooth out before we are affected. But Principal Phillips has an idea on how to move towards a solution, one she restated in her Times Op-Ed:
“For two years, I have suggested that the commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests — I’d recommend Days 1 and 3 of the third-grade test for starters. Afterward, I would like to hear whether they still believed that these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.”
A summary of nationwide push back to testing appeared in The Answer Sheet blog on April 15th in The Washington Post, with movements forming in pockets across the country.
Late last year, US Secretary of Education was heard explaining that the frustrations came from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
And Alperin notes the politics of criticizing a program of testing many argue will help children in failing schools.The tests, she believes, won’t address the underlying issue of poverty that contributes to the schools’ struggles. But they will likely lead to closures.
“It’s a very fine line to walk.”
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