Monday, September 7, 2015

Opt Out Movement: Live ON and Thrive!

Originally viewed as a fringe movement fueled by a few disgruntled people, the Opt Out Movement has grown over the last few years to become a force that is having a significant impact on New York State’s educational system.   Opponents have raised numerous questions and made assertions about the genesis and intent of this movement.   Up front, this is what the Opt out movement is not:

Ø  A conspiracy devised by organized labor to thwart teacher evaluation comprised of a component linked to student performance as measured by NY State standardized tests
Ø  The manipulation of gullible parents by these same labor unions or other professional educational groups/individuals
Ø  A scheme to protect vulnerable students – in this case students whose parents believe their children are brighter than the test results indicate (Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed the “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”)
Ø  An attempt to prevent standardized testing of any kind

A grassroots movement, led by parents and including educators, Opt Out has gained momentum.  The founders have worked painstakingly to educate parents and share the Opt Out arguments against high stakes testing.  This year that message resonated with parents, across this state, who made the decision to refuse the tests for over 220,000 students.  My granddaughter, a third grader, was one of those students.  Her parents decided to refuse the tests after they reviewed the 3rd grade ELA and Math tests and researched the literature documenting the reasons these tests are flawed as accurate measures of children’s abilities :  1) they are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) the tests are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) the results of the tests are returned too late in the year to impact teaching for that school year 4) almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach 5) children are being demoralized and frustrated by long hours of testing. 

Furthermore, the “high stakes” emphasis on the tests encourages teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects such as art and music.  In addition test results are being used to grade schools and to evaluate educators, even though statistics experts dispute the validity of this methodology.   The Governor has pushed for up to 50% of the teacher/principal evaluation to be derived from the test results. The other critical use of these tests results is for “accountability”.  The data generated from these tests contribute to designations of children as “well below proficient”, “below proficient”, “proficient” and “exceeds proficient”.  Individual schools and Districts are labeled “persistently struggling”, “struggling” (these are new labels), “focus” or “good standing”. 

The outcome of the Opt Out Movement can be seen in the conversations about “high stakes” testing, teacher/principal evaluation tied to these tests and the validity of using these tests to measure individual student performance as well as school and District performance.   The impact of 220,000 opt outs, over 20% of New York State students who didn’t take the test raises serious questions about the validity and reliability of the test results especially from the 2015 testing.
Although, he has not publicly questioned the “high-stakes tests”, Governor Cuomo has now called for a re-evaluation of the Common CORE Standards to which the tests are aligned.  He plans to impanel a commission to review the Common CORE implementation between now and January 2016. The State Education Department and its new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have not known how to respond to the astounding number of test refusals.

Initially, the Commissioner threatened to contact the Federal Education Department to determine if the State could punish Districts by withholding federal funding.  Before the Feds could respond, however, she received a resounding “NO” from both the Governor and Regents Chancellor Tisch. Next, she condemned the Movement and those supporting it, especially educators as “unethical”.  She has since backtracked on that statement. She has also pronounced that parents absolutely have the “right” to refuse testing of their children. Finally, the Commissioner has pledged to create a “tool kit” for Superintendents and other educators to teach them how to convince parents that their children should take the tests.  She also has pledged a personal tour to talk to parents and convince them about the importance of these tests. Parents have long asked for a dialogue with State Education officials.  However, Ms. Elia seems to be offering a monologue instead.  But time will tell.

I am a proponent of the Opt-Out Movement.  I believe in the purpose/goals/validity of this Movement.  Many of the pressing issues faced by our districts are related to high stakes testing and the accountability measures by which we are judged.  The passage of the Receivership legislation sounds a clarion alarm for a closer examination of the impact of high-stakes testing on our schools.  The question should be asked about the validity of the 2015 ELA and Math scores when one-fifth of students opted out of these tests.  Even though there were fewer urban students refusing the tests, the State must look at the implications for the entire system.  Local school districts are having serious conversations about the Opt Out Movement and its impact on their students and their school system.  It’s time that Buffalo join in the conversation.  I’ll propose that the Buffalo Board begin a dialogue about the impact of high stakes testing and resultant policies that impact our District.   Our students deserve to have their educational leaders educate themselves about such a momentous and timely movement.

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