Opting Out of Governor Cuomo’s Attack on Public Education

The attack on public education in New York State is taking place on several fronts. On one front, our schools are being underfunded and starved of resources. On the other front, our schools are deemed ineffective, and two thirds of our children are labeled as failures. Policies have been put into place claiming to foster equity and access. Ironically, these reforms have resulted in a test driven education in which children are ranked and sorted by test scores and the needs of the highest and lowest performing students are sidelined. Young children sit for tests that rival the SATs in length while students with disabilities as young as 10 sit for more than 18 hours of testing.

Rather than addressing the very real challenges created by poverty and disproportionate school funding, Governor Cuomo wants to double down on the use of draconian “test and punish” policies that emphasize test scores over teaching.

The policies being put forth by both Governor Cuomo and the NYS Board of Regents rely on competition and a policy driven narrative of failure that damages our children while increasing the profit margin for vendors of education products and interventions. Make no mistake, the more children fail, the more money there is to be made. It is lost on no one that in addition to making the tests (taxpayer funded tests that are not subject to public scrutiny or oversight), Pearson led the setting of the test cut scores that determine not only which students will fail, but also how many will fail. These manufactured rates of failure will also provide Governor Cuomo with justification to call for an increased number of charter schools in New York, furthering the pro-charter, pro-privatization agenda of his billionaire hedge fund backers.

Failure by design seems to be the guiding principal in the state’s education policy. According to NYS, whether or not our children will be successful post high school boils down to a number, 1630. The theory goes that if our children are not on track from the age of 5 to achieve a 1630 on their SATs, they will not be career and college ready. The origin of that number is murky, especially since the College Board itself cites a score of 1550 as College and Career ready. NYS’s answer to poverty and inequitable school funding is to create an arbitrarily high bar and to tell students, “clear the bar or fail.”

We know that SAT scores are very closely tied to income.  A student who scores a 1630 on the SAT likely comes from a home with an income upwards of $160,000. We also know that SAT scores are a relatively weak indicator of student success in college. High school grades, success in higher-level math courses, and in advanced placement courses are much better predictors of college performance than SAT scores.

A recent study of students in colleges that do not require SAT scores demonstrated little difference in academic performance between those who had submitted SAT scores and those who had not. Those who did not submit SAT scores were more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, female, or a person of color.

Despite the fact that over the past 10 years the number of students considered economically disadvantaged has grown steadily, from 41% to 53%, NYS has chosen to hang its hat on a weak indicator that is known to favor students who come from affluent, college educated families. Simultaneously, Governor Cuomo has withheld the necessary resources needed to ensure that all students have access to challenging math courses and advanced placement courses, opportunities that (contrary to the SATs) can yield strong predictors of student success in college. By correlating success with a score that favors privileged students, we are reinforcing the existing class structure and promoting a biased instrument that does more harm than good.

Because we have now back mapped and correlated success at every level to this bizarre metric, a high school diploma will soon be out of reach for many students. This is especially true as NYS has now tied every diploma to a high stakes test, eliminating the local diploma and aligning the new GED with the common core. Starting with the freshman class of 2017, NYS will require “career and college ready” passing scores on the Regents exams required for graduation. If these score requirements were put into place right now, only 5% of students with disabilities and less than 16% of African American and Hispanic students would have graduated in 2014.

The new Career Development and Occupational Studies credential is the ONLY commencement credential available to students with disabilities who cannot pass the Regents with modified passing scores. It precludes a student from taking a civil service exam, attending technical school or college, or joining the military. To date, the NYS Department of Education has NOT launched any major public awareness campaigns to inform the labor force and employers of its existence yet students have already begun to leave high school with this little known credential as their only entry to employment. At a time where the school to prison pipeline persists and individuals with disabilities struggle to find long term employment, these reforms will likely widen the achievement gap and lead to fewer opportunities.

Around the same time that NYS set this incredibly high and arbitrary benchmark for success, the state also began rolling out a new set of experimental and unproven learning standards, aligning these standards to high stakes tests. A large-scale experiment that purported to close the achievement gap and overcome to the effects of poverty has done anything but. In 2012, 20% of economically disadvantaged students scored a 1 on the grades 3-8 ELA tests. In 2013, this number ballooned to 43%. In the course of one year, we doubled the number of students living in poverty who were deemed “Below Standard.”

Recently, Governor Cuomo took to the media to call out 17 school districts with “failing schools.” He conveniently left out the fact that of the 17 schools districts he cited, 12 of them are among the 50 school districts in NYS with the largest funding shortfalls (as compiled by Bruce Baker), shortfalls generated by the Governor himself.

It is ironic that in the age of “data driven” instruction, those in power seem intent on ignoring the facts.

At the heart of the issue is that as a state and as a nation, we have allowed non-practitioners, individuals with no experience teaching in a public school, let alone sending their children to public school, to have undue influence on our education system. Policies created in a vacuum with no regard for the negative consequences for those they impact are the hallmark of incompetent leadership corrupted by political ambition. Only the most jaded politician would deprive schools of much needed resources and label students as failures by citing a benchmark for success that favors the most privileged children.

The attack on public education has many moving parts and they are intricately linked. Ultimately, high stakes testing is the hub around which they all revolve. You can’t talk about charter schools without acknowledging the use of test scores to justify them. You can’t talk about the use of accountability measures to ensure equitable education without acknowledging that these same measures often have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable students.

This begs the question, how do we talk about eradicating stereotypes while embracing the use of flawed assessments that have perpetuated the labeling of impoverished children as failures, serve to widen the achievement gap and discourage the best educators from working with the most challenging students? How do we inspire children who have been told that they do not measure up, year after year, beginning at the age of 8?

How do we talk about fair funding without addressing the numerous unfunded testing mandates being imposed on our schools, mandates that are often paid for at the expense of field trips, librarians, and music?

How can we talk about learning while failing to ensure that the policies governing education are rooted in research and empirical evidence? How do we hold teachers accountable when those who govern public education do not value their experience and knowledge?

And while those in power may be hearing us, unfortunately, they are not listening.

That is why alongside tens of thousands of other parents, my family is refusing the NYS Common Core tests. It is a necessary act of civil disobedience to safeguard public education for every child in NYS.

We are refusing because patronizing these tests gives tacit approval to a system that serves few and harms many. We are refusing because we reject shoddy and illogical education practices that do not support individual learning, and because we object to valuable learning time being co-opted to generate a data point that is used to punish. We are refusing because we can’t support practices that squander our schools limited resources, erode local control and have not resulted in better outcomes for our children. We are refusing because we will not be part of a practice the harms all children, but especially children of color, children who learn differently, and children living in poverty.

We are refusing the tests because we know that loss of funding due to test refusals is a myth, and because we know that legislation passed last March prevents a school from using state test scores as the sole, or even the majority factor in placement decisions. We are refusing the tests because we believe in assessment and accountability, but not at the expense of children’s dignity or their education. We are refusing because we know there is a better way.

So until we reframe the conversation, until we redefine the term high standards to mean universal preschool, equitable school funding, schools that honor the interests, strengths and culture of every child, education policies and learning standards that are rooted in research and empirical evidence, schools where the diversity of educators mirrors the diversity that children see in their communities, assessment practices that have been vetted for cultural and economic bias and do no harm, until every school has a librarian, a social worker, reasonable class sizes, until the benefits of play, exploration, and creative inquiry are valued, and until we begin to value the expertise experienced educators….we will continue to opt out.

Governor Cuomo’s hopes that his attacks on educators and public schools will distract us from the fact that he is nothing more than a charlatan desperately trying to sell us snake oil to remedy ailments of his own design. It’s not going to happen. Without the test scores, the Governor will have nothing left to peddle.

Learn more about how to opt out of the attack on public education by visiting nysape.org