Parents: Time to Step Up Our Game

Just over two years ago, a letter to the editor appeared in our local paper that sent teachers into an uproar.  Our schools are failing! a man named Mr. Sabine had written, and the only way to fix them was to get “tough on teachers.”

Educators from across the district wrote in to defend the hard work that they do each day. Many called the author ignorant – which he was.

But I fumed for a different reason.

For seven years, I had worked in schools deemed failures based on the rules of No Child Left Behind.  My first year, I was determined to raise my students’ test scores and lift us from an F to an A.  By year seven, I knew that I was playing a rigged game.

Our schools were deemed “failing” because standardized tests said they were – not because they reflected any truth about our schools other than the economic background of our student population.

Mr. Sabine’s perception of our schools was proof that the planned attack on our public schools was working: the public believed what the tests said about our schools.

And so I wrote my own letter pointing out the problems with using standardized test scores to determine the success of our schools, and warned that things would only appear worse when our students took the made-to-fail Smarter Balanced Assessment.

Within a few days, a mother wrote to me to thank me for my response, and invited me to join her local Opt Out group.

Opt Out? Parents were actually having their children sit out of these wicked tests?

My spirits soared.

As a classroom teacher, I learned quickly that there was only so much I could say or do without risking my job, but I pushed the envelope as far as I could to spread the word about Opt Out.

When one of my letters about testing was published by the Washington Post, I felt certain that we were winning the war.

I was, of course, dead wrong.

The more I researched, the more I came across documents that made me wonder if there were people on the other side – the reformers and profiteers – that actually wanted us to opt out.  One article written by Tom Vander Ark – one of the Kings of Corporate Reform – called for the “end of the big test” all together, in favor of more frequent, “formative” tests.   When I did a search of these emails, I found one from Vander Ark expressing his worry that PARCC and SBAC would end up being just another “cheap” end-of-the-year test.  What he wanted was a testing ecosystem. 

Then I read another document predicting that standardized tests would soon be obsolete, to be replaced by continuous data feeds that would scoop up all sorts of personal information about children.

And so  I started watching the testing scene carefully, wondering how much truth there was to these predictions, and sure enough, corporations like Pearson and McGraw Hill began to announce that they were moving away from the “big test” toward the burgeoning “formative assessment” and “personalized learning” market.

Then came a huge punch in the gut:  this document from the Gates Foundation made it clear that the weird “proficiency-based diploma” mandate that had recently entered my state through the Nellie Mae Education Foundation was directly linked to the high-tech, research-devoid “personalized learning” experiment that was being unleashed on our children.

To my horror, I also began to discover that there were actually moles in this war:  groups pretending to represent parent voices and operating under the banner of Opt Out, but whose agenda was actually to herd us toward new ways of tracking, monitoring, and profiting off our children.  For these groups, Opt Out was an opportunity to lobby for their version of  “assessment reform.”

Recently, a group called NYSAPE published a document titled, “What Does the Opt Out Movement Want?” and I shuddered at some of its language.   Lexile benchmarks?  State-wide digital learning platforms?  Time limits on state assessments?

Since when did Opt Out become about all this compromise?  

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe in Opt Out.  I don’t think any child should have to sit for any of these state mandated tests.  I am a classroom teacher, and I can assure you that they do not provide one lick of useful information about your child’s abilities.

But here’s what I also know:

It’s time for us to dial up the original Opt Out spirit – the one that wasn’t afraid to say hell no – and realize that we’re going to need to extend this fight way beyond the big end-of-year-test.

Data-mining.  Key-stroke tracking.  Collection of sensitive personal information that ends up in the hands of advertisers.  Digital badging.  Unhealthy amounts of screen time. Growing class sizes. Depleted school budgets.

If I sound alarmist, it’s because I’m a mom and a teacher, so we’re talking about my kids here. I am seriously alarmed.

And you should be too.

It’s all happening, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t step up our game.

For more specific information on what you can do next, check out this post from Alison McDowell and this document from Parents Across America.