This letter arrived in my email from a professor at the University of New Mexico who is deeply disturbed by the over-testing of her children. The president of the local PTA did not want her to speak, she said. Even more shocking was her statement that teachers had to sign a pledge promising not to say anything negative to parents about the PARCC test or to disparage testing in general. I don’t know why, but I was reminded of the loyalty oaths that many teachers were compelled to sign during the McCarthy era in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to “prove” that they were not Communists.
Albuquerque PTA Smackdown
This is a redacted version of the talk I attempted to deliver at my children’s Elementary School PTA meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.
The former PTA president had suggested that I ask the current president to put Standardized Testing on the agenda for this meeting, so my understanding was that the PTA was inviting me to speak on this topic.
In the five days leading up to the meeting, I was intimidated by emails from the PTA president and a phone conversation intended to censor the content of what I was going to present.
I knew that teachers’ freedom of speech on the topic of Standardized Testing had been curtailed, but until last week I hadn’t heard of parents being censored on this topic.
The president told me that the PTA officers had met in advance of the meeting, and that if they were going to allow me to speak (her words), they had the right to control the parameters of what I might say.
When I arrived on Tuesday night, the doors to the building were locked. When my husband, who had been misdirected to another building, managed to get in, he was told not to bother plugging in the projector for my powerpoint presentation, because they were not going to let me finish presenting.
While speaking, I was repeatedly interrupted by the PTA president’s attempts to cut me off. When PTA members called out “let her speak,” a vote was called and a majority voted to let me continue. Still, feeling harassed in the hostile environment the PTA president had created, I was only able to read about half of the following:
I would like to begin by thanking the PTA officers and the former PTA president for suggesting that I put Standardized Testing on the agenda for this meeting. The current PTA President has asked me to supply you with the means to get more information on this topic, so flyers with links to websites will be handed out.
I am Dr. Kimberle López and as Spanish professors at the University of New Mexico here in Albuquerque, my husband and I have had the honor and privilege of having many of this elementary school’s teachers and parents as our students. I am here not representing the PTA but as a parent and private citizen presenting the results of research I have conducted over the past year since attending a meeting at our neighboring elementary school.
I present this information so that you can draw your own informed conclusions. First I would like to present a little background on Standardized Testing.
The thing is, test scores can be used to argue opposite points, depending on how you interpret cause and effect. If you want to assert that people with lower incomes or different ethnicities are naturally less intelligent, then lower test scores can back you up. But if you say that testing favors those who have economic advantages, you will interpret the correlation between test scores and income level very differently, taking into account that not all students are given equal educational opportunities.
The increase in testing over the past decade and a half arose in part as a response to a supposed dramatic rise in test scores in Houston and other parts of Texas, which were soon proven to be the result of lies, cheating, and manipulation of data.
When I first learned about No Child Left Behind, what struck me most was that it seemed that when schools did poorly on standardized tests, the plan was to take money away from those schools. That always seemed backwards to me, since aren’t those the schools that need more resources and support?
There is a new test for this Spring that is causing a lot of consternation because of a format unlike that of any other large scale high stakes test given before.
Standardized Tests are designed from a model of what do kids need to know to go from high school to college into a career, and then that is trickled down into middle school and elementary school exams. The exams are designed and graded by individuals who do not necessarily have any training in child development nor classroom experience with children. The high school model is not developmentally appropriate for young children.
The letters ARCC in the acronym PARCC stand for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers, and this is the test that our 3rd through 5th graders will be taking in Spring.
The PARCC test is problematic on a technological level since from one question to another students have to switch between typing in answers, clicking on multiple choices, filling in blanks, navigating texts between split screens, dragging and dropping, highlighting, using a drop-down menu, etc.
This involves class issues and institutional racism, since children from affluent families who have their own iPads would be more familiar with dragging and dropping and using drop-down menus than children who live below the poverty line.
We all have concerns about “teaching for the test,” but up until this year, those concerns had to do with teachers having to take class time away from more appropriate forms of learning to teach the content of what would be on the tests. But this year with the PARCC a whole new level of concern has arisen—that we need to take time away from classroom instruction to prepare students for the technological format of the test.
Some schools in New Mexico have computer labs and computer lab teachers, but not all children across the state have equal access to computers. Many schools across our state don’t even have the computer facilities to administer the PARCC test, much less to prepare student for its technological challenges.
In addition to time spent preparing for the test, the administration of the PARCC test will take approximately 10 hours. Ten hours—that is more than twice as long as the MCAT college seniors take to get into Medical School or the LCAT they take to get into Law School.
I have heard that the PARCC will take time away from instruction and interrupt the school routine for six weeks in Spring. Even though the kids won’t be taking the test all day, I think we all know that if students are taking tests in the morning, they may not be as receptive to learning in the afternoon.
I would like to see our school keep our current high rating, but not because we have an unfair advantage over other kids across the state. Our neighboring school has an “F” rating that is affecting student enrollment, the ability to hire teachers, and property values in their district.
Why? Not because it is a bad school with bad teachers, but on the contrary, because they have a magnet Special Education program, and my understanding is that Special Education students must take the standardized tests corresponding to their grade level without reasonable accommodations.
Because test scores are tied to Teacher Evaluations and School Rankings, Special Ed teachers are more likely to be rated as “minimally effective,” get lower raises, and the schools that serve the most underserved children are ranked lower and risk having their funding reduced. So again, the kids who need the most help get fewer resources, and the teachers who work the hardest and have the most stressful job are the least rewarded.
New Mexico teachers have 50% of their Teacher Evaluation based on student test scores—no other state in the union has a higher percentage, and most count Standardized Testing as a significantly lower percentage of Teacher Evaluations. States risk losing federal funding if they don’t tie Teacher Evaluations to student test scores.
The rating of schools using A-F grades is particularly demoralizing to teachers, because teachers took pride in being “A” students when they were in school.
Schools having an F rating for a certain number of years risk closure. What is happening across the country is that Standardized Test scores are being used as a pretext to close public schools and then re-open them as corporate-run for-profit schools funded with tax dollars.
The process of privatization seems to follow this sequence: first, there appear headlines saying “Our Schools Are Failing.” If they repeat it often enough, we begin to believe it. Then they use Standardized Testing to give failing grades to school, then after a few years they close them and replace them with Corporate Charter Schools. Last year in Chicago alone, 50 public schools were closed, and in Chicago the for-profit corporate charter school industry is booming.
When I say corporate charter schools, I am not talking about the grassroots charter schools run by dedicated educators who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and rolled up their sleeves ready to work to contribute to educate our kids and make our communities a better place. No–I am talking about multi-billion dollar corporations that run for-profit schools using our tax dollars.
They use the top-down corporate model that pays administrators top dollar while treating teachers like lowly assembly line workers, underpaid and overworked. The administrators making educational decisions are businesspeople not educators.
New Mexico, like other states, is moving toward the privatization of education. The privatization of public education means that, like the private prisons, our tax dollars would be used to pay for-profit companies to run our schools.
If you haven’t heard about these issues, it may be due to the fact that teachers are discouraged from discussing testing with parents. It surprised me to learn this, since one would think that it would be a professional obligation of teachers to critically examine the tests and discuss them with parents. Instead, it is a taboo subject and teachers are led to believe that they might lose their jobs if they talk to parents about something so relevant to their students’ educational wellbeing. We want teachers to teach our kids critical thinking, but they are discouraged from applying critical thinking to examining the circumstances in which they practice their own profession.
[The day after this PTA meeting, I attended a School Board meeting where I learned that New Mexico teachers who would be administering the PARCC had all been obliged to sign a waiver saying that they would not speak disparagingly about the PARCC.]
It is because teachers have been intimidated and made to feel fearful about discussing the topic of Standardized Testing that I feel compelled as a parent to speak. Teachers are threatened with losing their jobs, but parents still have the right and the obligation to monitor their children’s education.
[I didn’t think that parents were also censored on this topic, but by this time the PTA president had interrupted me several times and was trying to cut me off. A vote was called and a majority voted to let me continue. The PTA president set a timer for two minutes so I didn’t get much further]
The topic of Standardized Testing makes teachers very nervous. Students pick up on this, and it makes them nervous as well. Anxiety is running high–although it is only November, kids are already coming home and telling their parents about a big test they will be taking next Spring.
What causes a lot of teacher stress is the top-down corporate model of education. The idea is that a school or a school system is basically like a business and should be run like one, with the administrators at the top being paid top dollar and the teachers being not just the lowest paid and least appreciated, but also those whose opinions are least taken into account when educational decisions are made.
Instead, decisions that affect our children most are taken by business managers without taking into account input from those who know the most about what is best for our kids, their classroom teachers. I would venture to guess that what is most demoralizing to teachers is not the low wages or the ever increasing workload (teachers are used to being overworked and underpaid) but the fact that the administration fails to draw on teachers’ extensive experience when making decisions that affect our kids.
The main reason this corporate model is flawed is that a school is not like a business. A business runs to produce a product and make a profit. Our school system has tried to copy this model with the student as the “product” and the teachers as the assembly line producers. Standardized Testing has grown as its own multi-billion dollar industry in response to the need to measure educational “production.”
Standardized Tests have never been proven with independent research (not funded by the publishing companies that produce and sell the tests) to be an accurate measure of students’ knowledge. The only thing Standardized Testing has definitively been proven to have achieved is to have enriched the coffers of the publishing houses that design and produce the tests.
New Mexico has dedicated $9.8 million to the online PARCC tests for this Spring, and it has cost our public school system $1.3 million to add a testing coordinator at each of our schools this year. The state reforms are forcing our most experienced teachers out of the classroom while we are adding testing coordinators and computer experts to prepare students for these exams.
Ten million dollars could be better spent on something directly contributing to education: 10 million dollars could fund thousands of teacher salaries, buy thousands of computers and hundreds of thousands of books for our schools.
Although it is common knowledge that teachers are underpaid and overworked, they are often treated as if they were overpaid and underworked, and each year they are loaded up with new bureaucratic tasks that don’t translate into more meaningful classroom experiences for their students.
If you lined up 10 teachers and asked them whether they would prefer to have a higher salary; less work; or the right to have a say in decisions that affect education, and the knowledge that the work they were doing was not bureaucratic busy work but meaningful work that contributes to education, I believe that at least 9 of them would accept their current salary and workload if they knew that they were respected for their experience and their opinions were taken into account in educational decisions.
At the meeting over a year ago at our neighboring school, a highly esteemed teacher who works tirelessly for students at our school, said that our “B” rating is due in part to the fact that our faculty have figured out how to say what bureaucracy wants to hear when they fill out the forms set up for ranking schools. Someone in the audience replied that it is unfortunate that we have put our teachers in the position where they have to jump through hoops. Indeed, jumping through hoops is something we train circus animals, not professional educators, to do. It is appalling that teachers need to spend so much time on meaningless bureaucratic tasks, taking time away from doing the meaningful work they were educated and hired to do.
Most of us just let this happen because we figure there is nothing we can do about it. The public school system doesn’t make parents aware of the fact that they can opt their children out from testing. And if we do happen to find the opt-out form on line, we read language that aims to “guilt” parents into not signing the form. Our form says that opting out may “hamper instructional planning for my child” but if the tests are taken in Spring and results are not received until the next school year, it is simply not true that these tests help instructional planning for my child, who will be in a different class with a different teacher by the time my kid’s current teacher receives the test scores.
Many parents feel torn about “opting out” of standardized testing—even if parents think that opting out is best for our children, they are told that it will hurt our schools. The only reason it would hurt our schools is because the system is arbitrarily set up to base teacher raises and school rankings on standardized test scores. Why should parents be forced to choose between what is best for our schools and what is best for our kids? Shouldn’t what is best for our kids and our schools be the same thing?