By Marla Kilfoyle and Bianca Tanis
For some time now, the parents of New York have been in full revolt over the testing requirements set down by both federal and state leadership. Parents of children with special needs have been extremely vocal about the fact that Common Core state tests in grades 3-8 are abusive and inappropriate for their children. You can read examples of parents informing Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch that these tests have harmed their children with special needs here, here, here, and here. Despite anecdotal stories of children engaging in self-injury and soiling themselves during state testing, Merryl Tisch blatantly ignored parent concerns and allowed testing abuses to continue. As a result, New York is experiencing the largest parent test revolt in education history.
One of the most public examples of parents voicing their concerns was in the fall of 2013 when Chancellor Tisch listened to hundreds of parents speak out about the harmful effects of New York’s new Common Core tests on their children with disabilities. At first it seemed that some of what she heard at a series of town hall style meetings and forums had made an impact. Shortly after the forums, Chancellor Tisch announced that the state would be requesting a waiver for students with special needs from federal No Child Left Behind testing mandates that she called “cruel and unusual.”
But the Chancellor’s concern was short-lived. Despite calling these tests “cruel and unusual”, Chancellor Tisch spent the next eighteen months attempting to convince parents and the media that any attempts to opt children out of state testing would deprive parents and educators of the meaningful data needed to help struggling students.
In fact, just a few months ago, Chancellor Tisch penned an editorial in which she criticized parents who planned to opt out of state assessments by asserting that opt out hurts the neediest children, characterizing opt out as “putting blinders on.”
In her editorial, Chancellor Tisch states:
“It used to be easy to ignore the most vulnerable students….Without an objective measure of their progress, it was easy to deny special education students and English Language Learners the extra resources they need. Obviously we still need to do more for those students, but now is not the time to put blinders back on.”
Tisch went on to minimize the concerns of parents who refuse state tests by writing:
In short, test refusal is a mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing. Those who call for “opting out” really want New York to “opt out” of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well students are doing. We cannot go back to ignoring the needs of our children. It’s time to stop making noise to protect the adults and start speaking up for the students.
In April of 2015 Chancellor Tisch continued to downplay parental concerns, painting the opt out movement as a “labor dispute” between teacher unions and the Governor.
Yet on Monday, July 20th 2015, the very same Chancellor who chastised parents for opting out of assessments made the following public statement:
“Personally, I would say that if I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them.”
For parents who have spent years working to raise awareness about the harmful effects of high stakes testing, especially for students with disabilities, this statement was baffling. And in light of the Chancellor’s continued failure to respond to parental concerns, this statement was infuriating. While the Chancellor supported a federal waiver that would offer a modicum of protection for some students, she failed to make even a single change at the state level that would spell relief for students with disabilities.
As Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch is keenly aware of the fact that a current 5th grade student with a disability who receives a testing accommodation of extended time may sit for as long as 9 hours over the course of 3 days for a single exam. Despite being aware of this and other egregious examples of abuse, the Chancellor has done nothing to lessen the duration of testing or to mitigate the harm to students. Rather, she has overseen changes to the New York State testing program that have doubled and in some instances, tripled the length of testing and allowed the inclusion of reading passages years above grade level.
While many parents have been able to protect their children by refusing the state tests in grades 3-8, a handful of districts still require that a student verbally refuse the test themselves, despite the fact that some of these children are unable to verbally refuse due to the nature of their disability. So while the Chancellor claims she would “think twice” before opting a special needs child into these tests, she has failed to exercise the power of the Board of Regents to enact a regulation requiring school districts to not only recognize, but inform parents of their right to refuse “cruel and unusual” testing mandates on behalf of their children.
The implications of Tisch’s most recent statement go beyond test refusal. Teachers in New York are now mandated to align Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals with the Common Core Standards which are not always in alignment with the needs of a student. If the Chancellor would think twice before having a child “sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them,” would she also think twice before compelling that child to receive instruction that is beyond their current level of academic achievement?
The Chancellor’s actions are tantamount to sitting by and not only watching, but commissioning the abuse of the most vulnerable children. Her failure to inform special needs parents of the potential for harm while simultaneously encouraging them to subject their children to inappropriate tests is inexcusable.
Merryl Tisch should immediately relinquish her Chancellorship and step down from the Board of Regents. Failing her resignation, parents and educators must urge their legislators NOT to reappoint to Merryl Tisch to the Board of Regents when her term expires next year. New York needs education leadership that will protect our children, not lead them to harm.
Marla Kilfoyle is a Parent, Educator, and the General Manager of BATs
Bianca Tanis is a Parent, Educator and Co-Founder of NYS Allies for Public Education