By Tessa Raebeck
Spring break is traditionally used for some much needed relaxation and time in the sun before the final sprint to the end of the school year, but a group of East End parents, teachers, and community members had a loftier goal for last week’s vacation: Taking back public education.
About 50 people filled a meeting room in Sag Harbor’s Old Whalers’ Church on Thursday, April 9, for an informational dialogue on test refusal hosted by the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). The “refuse the test” movement has gained steam across New York State in recent weeks, in reaction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to increase privatization of the state’s education system and put mounting emphasis on state tests by tying teachers’ jobs and basing schools’ effectiveness on students’ performances on standardized tests written by for-profit companies. The governor threatened to hold out on providing aid to schools if the State Legislature did not pass his reforms as part of the state budget earlier this month.
The picture painted at the forum is one that has been repeated across the country increasingly since the implementation of the past two major federal educational reforms, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top: public schools in which art and history classes and recess, gym and lunch periods have been eliminated and replaced with test prep.
The Sag Harbor School District has made many efforts to resist pulling the plug on the creativity administrators say is fundamental to a strong, engaging education, but the new state regulations will force school districts to fire teachers and administrators and relinquish local control of schools should students not perform up to par. Sag Harbor’s schools, which perform well on state tests, will be subject to the same guidelines as the state’s lowest performing schools.
As a means of resistance, unions and some administrators have urged parents to “refuse the test” by not having their child sit for them. From an academic standpoint, a test becomes invalid if 17 percent or more of the students across the state refuse to take it.
On Tuesday, April 14, the first day the state tests were administered, Superintendent Katy Graves said 25 percent of Sag Harbor students had not taken the ELA test that day. Many of the students who refused the tests are the same students who do the best on them, and Sag Harbor’s scores will likely suffer as a result.
Ms. Graves said Thursday that she does not support refusing the test because the district has invested so much in the scores and analyzing the data they provide, but that “watching this has been heartbreaking.”
“The majority of the districts in the state—especially upstate—are so aid dependent,” she said. Never before, she added, had a governor inserted language into the budget linking school aid to how schools operate.
She added that tenure, which the governor wants to make more difficult to obtain, had been brought in for a reason, so, for example, if a teacher decided to teach a topic like evolution, which was once highly controversial, he wouldn’t have to fear losing his job.
“There’s some reasons we deal with things very slowly in education, so we’ve never dealt with this embedding of this kind of language—I as governor am deciding how you locally evaluate your teachers…so you’re living in a new world,” she told the crowd of parents.
TASH President Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson, said he and Ms. Graves are on the same team, however, they “disagree upon what pitch to throw.”
The governor has issued a gag order on teachers forbidding them from encouraging their students and parents to refuse the test.
Mr. Kinnier, under that gag order, said he hosted Thursday’s forum to “bring forth some facts [and] allow folks to voice their opinions.”
“From my perspective, we’re out of strategies. There’s only one strategy left that I see,” he said. “In my view, to let your children take the test is to endorse the governor’s efforts to make public schools be like charter schools…I don’t want to have this opinion, but I only see two possibilities—either sit here and take it or do this.”
Mr. Kinnier said he is not opposed to tests, but said the current state tests are not age or ability appropriate and are far too long. Elementary school students take the tests over six days, for a total of anywhere from nine to 18 hours depending on whether they receive extra time. He said if the scores were a smaller part of teachers’ evaluations the teacher could reflect on the results, but it wouldn’t drive their instruction.
This is the third time in four years that the legislature has addressed the issue of teachers’ evaluations.
“This is called education reform—in my opinion, it’s anything but,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor said when voting against the governor’s budget. “What we’re doing tonight is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; this isn’t reform at all. The fact of the matter is that the only solace I have tonight is that I know that we will be back here again at some point dealing with this issue.”
Administered by private for-profit companies and not written by educators, the tests are graded by hired temp workers who are paid per test. The only requirement to be hired as a grader, which includes critiquing a writing section, is a college degree.
In addition to lamenting the arbitrary nature of the tests, many teachers and parents in attendance expressed fear that the data-driven instruction will affect students’ ability to learn and be prepared for careers in a rapidly changing global marketplace.
Sag Harbor resident Laura Leever, who teaches on Shelter Island, said while she understands Ms. Graves’s concerns over faculty and students being affected by scores lowered from high test refusal, “We have to look at this in a bigger picture…this is about taking away public education, it’s about taking away local control.”
“I think we have a very punitive governor,” Ms. Graves replied. “I think he will punish every school that doesn’t comply and I think it’s going to make things worse.”
She said she fears that, rather than acknowledging how many families refused to take the test, the governor will instead say the scores mean “our schools are failing even more.”
“I’m an AP U.S. History teacher,” said Sean Brandt, president of the Southampton teachers union, “and America is founded by a bunch of rebels—and I think now is the time to stand up. My son’s in the third grade and he’s not taking the test. As far as what’s the outcome, we don’t know, but this is the loss of local control, this is the privatization of public education and this is as criminal as it gets—and this is our opportunity to take a stand.”
Chase Mallia, a Pierson math teacher, said teachers who have a lot of students refuse the test would likely have worse results, because those students are often the same ones who would perform the best.
“There’s a possibility for me that I’ll be rated ineffective,” he said. “That’s a risk I’m willing to take, because I see the direction the state’s going, because I’m in it for the kids.”