Dear NYS Parents

Originally posted on @thechalkface on April 27th, 2013

An Open Letter to NYS Parents,
I’m sure that you have heard about some of the drama that is going down in public education and I’m sure that you have been overwhelmed by the mixed messages from teachers, reform groups, anti-reform groups, and the state. It’s a lot to process, and if you are like me, your brain is probably starting to turn off right about now. But I am going to ask you to stick with me for a few more minutes because there are some things that you need to know about the reality of your child’s education.

This month, students in grades 3-8 took the new NYS Math and ELA Exams. The state promised more rigor, and I suppose that they delivered on that promise. Over the past two weeks, your son or daughter was forced to sit for 9 hours of testing. And if he if or she required extra time, you can make that 13 to 18 hours. I would say that’s pretty rigorous. By the way, here is how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines rigor: harsh inflexibility in opinion; the quality of being unyielding or inflexible; an act or instance of strictness; severity; or cruelty.
I would like you to ponder how sitting for a 90 minute to 3 hour testing session at the age of 10 affects your ability to maintain focus and answer questions to the best of your ability. As an adult who has voluntarily sat for the SAT, the GRE, and multiple licensing exams, I can attest to the fatigue and “brain drain” that sets in after about an hour. Also consider the fact that children are not allowed to eat or drink while taking the test, for fear that they may soil the testing protocol, and that for many children, testing cuts into lunchtime and specials.
The NYS teacher’s union, NYSUT, recently ran a campaign called “Tell It Like It Is.” Teachers were invited to share how the new mandates are impacting their students. In one of the testimonials, a teacher talked about how her third grade student was so anxious that he vomited on the 3rd grade ELA exam. After the child was sent to the nurse, the principal called the state for guidance on how to proceed. She was told to retrieve the vomit-soaked test from the garbage, place it in a Ziploc bag and send it back to the state. Are you getting the impression that the state cares that much about the security and well-being of our kids?
You have probably heard and read various comments to the effect that tests are a part of life. A doctor must take a rigorous exam in order to practice medicine; a new driver must take a written exam to ensure that they know the rules of the road; high school students must take the SAT in order to gain entry to college. If you are trying to convince parents that an 8-year-old should sit for 9 hours of testing, you are going to have to do better than that. Yes, tests are a part of life–adult life. Can any adult really believe that forcing children to submit to tests that rival the SAT and GRE in length at the age of 8, 9, and 10 will help them later in life? 50 years ago, society used to think that bullying and hazing helped build resilience and toughness, but for the sake of our children, I would like to think that we have all grown past this “baptism by fire” mentality. And yes, I did just equate NYS testing to bullying.
If you are not already aware, the NYS Commissioner of Education, John King, has stated that he knows that kids are going to do poorly on the tests this year. In response to a question asked at a meeting this past March, about what he would say to a student who is nervous about the tests, King said:
“At the end of the day…Learning is about having challenges…sometimes one does well…sometimes one doesn’t do as well as one hopes…and one learns from that and goes on…The role of educators…is to instill in students…the ability to self regulate around those kinds of anxiety. We start at the earliest stages. That is the work that adults have to do with young people to help give them perspective. That is our job.”
Parents, you need to know that this how our Commissioner of Education views the role of teachers: To set kids up for failure so as to teach them perspective, in the third grade. As a parent, I want to be there to pick my child up when he falls. I’m not going to trip him or knock him down, just so that I can teach him perspective and how to deal with challenges. And although the commissioner is OK with this being done to our children, apparently he does not want the same treatment for his own– they go to a private school. Commissioner King may be able to spare his children the abuse and degradation of a system that intentionally sets students up for failure, but the rest of are being told that we do not have the right to refuse. Rather, we are being told that this is the price of a public education.
Maybe your child is a struggling learner. Maybe she reads below grade level and has just had her self-esteem gutted by a test. Or, maybe your child is brilliant and eats the 5th grade ELA exam for breakfast. Both are being short-changed; why go outside the curriculum to challenge a student, to help him pursue a special interest that he’s passionate about if it’s not on the test? Conversely, how can teachers spend additional time explaining and re-teaching a concept when they are under tremendous pressure to stick to a curriculum schedule dictated by the test? We must stand up for the needs of all children, and for common sense. If we continue to stick with a “one size fits all” approach, someone is going to be left out in the cold, whether it’s the struggling learner or the child prodigy.
If you are the parent of a kindergartener, you may think that this is something that you do not have to deal with yet. I hate to burst your bubble, but your child is already being prepped for the 3rd grade ELA exam. The days of carefree coloring, self-directed learning and exploration are already over. Because of the new teacher evaluation system, 4 and 5 year olds are being given pre-tests filled with questions that they can’t answer, for the sole purpose of achieving a baseline by which to grade their teachers. This is how we welcome them to the long and rigorous path to career and college readiness.
You should also know that the corporation that is making the NYS tests and profiting handsomely from them is also putting your child to work. Each test contains something known as “field test questions.” These are questions that Pearson is “trying out.” They do not count towards your child’s overall score, but they do tax their energy and efforts, efforts that could otherwise be spent on the questions that count. Also, your child may be taking something called a field test in June (and by the way, the school does not have to inform you that he will be taking it.) The field test is an experimental test to help Pearson design more tests and make more money. They are using your child as a guinea pig, and NYS state is only too happy to play pimp.
You should also know that the teachers at your child’s school are most likely responsible for scoring the test. That means that they will have to be pulled out of class for a day or even 2 days. During that time, your district will have to hire substitute teachers, and the extra money for that will come from your district’s already stretched budget. Your child’s teachers will be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement before scoring the test that prevents them from ever discussing what was on the test with you, the parent, or with anyone else. In the past, NYS tests became public after they were scored. Now, for the first time ever, after completion the tests will go under lock and key, never to see the light of day or the eye of public scrutiny. Your hard-earned tax dollars are paying for a product that will never have to undergo any kind of public quality control.
Some of you may have heard the line from Albany that parents who oppose the test do not want to know where their child stands “on the path to career and college readiness.” I hope that you find that as offensive and patronizing as I do. I would think that one of the foundational skills for college readiness is the desire to learn. It’s common sense that to succeed in college, you need to want to be there in the first place. By exposing children to developmentally inappropriate testing, we are creating burnouts. I don’t know if you care where your 8-year-old is on his path to “career readiness,” but I bet that you do care about his love for school and learning. And try as I might, I cannot explain how a test result that will not be available until next October will benefit any of our children. Their teachers won’t see the test results in time to use them to plan instruction and target areas of weakness, and the score reports do not show growth. So whom, then, do these “rigorous” tests benefit? I have a feeling that if our children flunk the test and our schools are deemed to be in failing health, Pearson will be only too happy to sell us the cure.
Parents, I know that you are busy. I know what it’s like to live a life that is an endless shuffle between work, activities, doctor’s appointments and the mini-crises that seem to pop up several times a week. You are tired. I get it. But if there was ever a time to call on that little reserve of brain power and energy that we parents save for when the s@&t really hits the fan, this is it. We are at a tipping point in education. Big money corporations and politicians with questionable motives are monitoring our apathy. They are counting on the grind of daily life to distract parents from the fact that the profiteers are twisting their moustaches while quietly tapping into the multi-billion dollar market that is our children’s education.
Act now, before a corporate, high stakes test driven education becomes a way of life. Be the Rosa Parks, the Erin Brockovich, the Rachel Carson, the Homer Plessy, the Karen Silkwood. Better yet, do what a friend did, and engage in some real learning. Play hooky from work, take your kid to the library, and read about these whistle blowers and activists. Make some signs. Make some noise. Your kids will never forget that you took a stand for them.
Bianca Tanis
Hudson Valley Parent and Educator