Alan Singer – The Opt Out Campaign Must Continue

Dec 22, 2015 by

An Interview with Alan Singer – The Opt Out Campaign Must Continue

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Alan, you have recently published a piece calling for the opt-out campaign against all of this testing should continue. Can you briefly give us a history of this movement?

There is a useful chronology of the opt-out movement on the website Educational Alchemy. The first organized protests against high-stakes testing may have been in in Scarsdale, New York as early as 2001 when middle school student boycotted a state-mandated exam. By 2010 opt-out protesters were a presence at educational forums across the United States. In July 2011 I joined with thousands of parents and teachers at an anti- Common Core anti-high stakes testing rally in Washington DC where the surprise speaker was Matt Damon, whose mother was one of the rally organizers. Teacher unions became an important part of the opt-out coalition when teacher evaluations were tied to student performance on the high-stakes tests. But a lot of the credit for transforming opt-out from a small isolated reaction to testing into a large-scale protest movement goes to former federal Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan for insulting parents. In 2013 he told a meeting of state school superintendents that complaints about Common Core were coming from “white suburban moms” who suddenly discovered “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” Duncan’s demeaning statement had the opposite affect than he intended. By April 2015, opt-out had grown to the point that 20% of the students scheduled to take Common Core aligned exams in New York State refused to sit for the tests. Politicians finally seem to have gotten the message and in the last month local and national politicians including President Obama have endorsed pulling back on some of the testing.

2) On the one hand, parents do need to know if their kids are learning, and if principals and teachers are doing their jobs. On the other hand it seems that a gargantuan amount of time is spent on all this testing, and I am not sure if all of it is REALLY needed. Your thoughts?

Students in the large urban school districts currently take over 100 mandatory standardized tests between prekindergarten and high school graduation or an average of about eight tests a year and this does not include advanced placement tests. Eighth grade seems to be the biggest test year. The tests themselves take up about 25 hours or approximately 2.3% of school time. Basically there is no evidence that this amount of testing improves education. Remember that students are also taking teacher designed and school and district mandated tests. President Obama is calling for limiting high-stakes testing to about 2% of school time but he misses the point. When you have schools and students constantly being measured by the tests, even when there is a moratorium on evaluating teachers based on student test scores, you transform schools into test prep academies instead of places of learning, excitement, and enrichment.

As a parent and teacher I don’t oppose testing on principle. Tests help me assess what students are learning so I can better prepare and support learning. But useful tests measure student understanding of curriculum, not direct what is taught. I was always a fan of the New York State social studies Regents exams in Global and United States history because they set a standard about what students should know and be able to do and helped me measure the level of knowledge and skills my students had to reach without telling me how and what to teach.

Today there is a lot of talk about coming down from the federal level on students being prepared in high school for college and 21st century careers without commensurate discussion of what 21st century careers will be. If we do not know what we are preparing students to do, how can there been a meaningful path and meaningful assessment along the way?

3) We hear about anxiety and tears and kids being sick to their stomach about the testing. What would Horace Mann say about this? And what would Ted Sizer say about it if he were with us today?

I can’t speak for Horace and Ted. Horace was about making education available to a broader population. In his day in the first half of the 19th century students wrote with quill and ink or on slate boards, not I-Pads and laptops and standardized tests were not invented. Ted championed authentic assessment and project-based learning, ideas I strongly support.

How many high-stakes standardized tests do people actually take after they leave school? I think Horace and Ted would both agree with me that we need to prepare young people for a world of work and democratic citizenship, not a world of test taking.

A different approach to assessing student learning is closely related to what John Dewey called developing “habits of mind.” In Dewey’s view, assessing (comparing, analyzing, sorting, organizing, exploring, experimenting) is how human beings learn. What teachers need to assess is not the information that students know, but how effectively students are assessing and integrating the information into their worldview. Ted Sizer’s Coalition for Essential Schools has tried to incorporate this view of assessment into programs at its affiliated schools. In these schools, teachers and students both learn and assess learning by trying to answer five basic questions:

How do you know what you know? (Evidence)

From what viewpoint is this being presented? (Perspective)

How is this event or work connected to others? (Connections)

What if things were different? (Suppositions)

Why is this important? (Relevance)

I do not believe teachers can effectively measure Deweyan “habits of mind” by using standard social studies assessment devices: short answer tests, essays, written reports, and classroom presentations.

4) Another inane thing is that teacher performance is often largely based on students making progress. But when students are absent, when students are ill (kids do get sick) and when students either learning disabilities or emotional problems – should teachers be held to such high standards?

One of the useful things about No Child Left Behind, perhaps the only useful thing, was the requirement that school districts disaggregate data. Before NCLB a school or district reported average student scores and this allowed them to ignore under-performing student populations. Sometimes students being left behind were members of minority groups or English language learners and with directed support they could perform better. Schools and districts now had to account for performance by these students. But once you say “No Child” you no longer take into account human difference. There are students with special needs and special learning problems and instead of educating these students to their greatest potential, these students were expected to succeed on standardize tests. It is ridiculous to measure teacher value based on the performance by these students on the high-stakes standardized tests. But the real victims here were students whose learning and social needs were being shunted aside in the name of higher standards. Advocates for students with special needs remain concern that the learning and emotional needs of these students will continue to be ignored under the new law.

5) Often teachers tell me they never took a course in motivating students to learn.  Do teachers need some more in-services or professional growth and development scenarios?

Politicians pretend that if we raise standards for admission to Schools of Education and force applicants to take a battery of tests before entering and during their programs, we will have better teachers. They want to put the cost of teacher development on the applicants. But every teacher I know will tell you that at the end of student teaching you are a certified beginner and it takes three to five years of hard work in the classroom and a lot of preparation at home to learn how to be an effective teacher.

In my teacher education classes and during student teaching we spend a lot of time on generating student excitement about the curriculum and motivating students on a daily basis. But teacher learning cannot stop when you get your degree. Teachers need professional development throughout their careers. I encourage teachers I work with to attend and present at local, state, and national conferences where they can also attend workshops and I have been part of a number of Teaching American history grants. But professional growth and development programs take money and politicians would rather pretend that they can somehow inoculate teachers with life-time learning genes when they are still students and paying the bills.

6) Here I go being politically incorrect, but if we have a large wave of immigrants that do not speak English, should teachers be held accountable for their test scores?

Teachers should be held accountable for their education, not their tests scores, and every student should have the support they need to learn as much as they are able. I want to tell two stories that illustrate the fallacy of the testing regime. Immigrants come to the United States from different places with different expectations and different educational experiences. At one high school I taught at in the 1980s we had a large number of recent teenage immigrants from Guyana whose families brought them to the United States to work. In the United States these young people were legally required to attend school, but although they were admitted to high school, many had never attended school on a regular basis before, and remained until they were old enough to leave or got full-time jobs. None of these “students” ever performed well on standardized tests. In the 1990s I was at a different high school in New York City with a large number of Russian immigrants who were literate in their own language and who had strong educations before arriving in the United States. One young woman who was in my class for part of the year began 11th grade in a bilingual class, quickly shifted to an inclusion class, then moved to an academic program where I was her teacher, and ended the year in all advanced placement classes. Either I had become a really great teacher, or more likely, she was a gifted student who was the female age-group chess champion in the former Soviet Union. While these are extremes, I think they underscore the need to address immigrant students where they are and not pretend that they are all the same.

7) What have I neglected to ask?  

Where do we go from here? In my Huffington Post column I called on organizers of the opt-out campaign to continue the fight against high-stakes testing that transforms schools into test prep academies.

In her blog, Mercedes Schneider points out that the new Every Student Succeeds Act recently signed by President Obama largely keeps the high-stakes testing regime in place and poses a new threat to parents and communities that want to opt-out of the testing. According to Schneider “ESSA pushes for that 95-percent-test-taker-completion as a condition of Title I funding and leaves states at the mercy of the US secretary of education to not cut Title I funding in the face of parents choosing to refuse the tests.”

In addition, ESSA, as did No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, avoids any discussion of meaningful content so as not “offend” rightwing ideologues and religious fundamentalist. The biggest criticism of American education may be the gaggle of Republican Presidential candidates who do not believe in science, reject global climate change, and argue positions on economic policy, immigration, and war without any apparent need for supporting evidence. But an even bigger criticism may be that people actually plan to vote for them.

“Let’s be clear,” a catchphrase frequently used by President Obama, ESSA is not a law that will improve education in the United States. It is a mishmash of compromises between political parties that agree on almost nothing. It rewrites bad laws that made things worse, but offers little that will make education better and hidden in the recesses of the 1061-page law are new toxic arrangements, some that may take years to completely emerge.

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