Testing and the Re-Segregation of Public Ed

Today, I was part of a full house at the New Jersey Senate Education Committee as it considered bills and a resolution relating to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) tests.  Along with many other grassroots parent activists, I am frustrated by the Senate Committee Chair’s unwillingness to set down all of the much stronger PARCC bills passed by the New Jersey State Assembly for a vote in her committee.  Rather, only one of the four bills, prohibiting PARCC-style testing for grades K-2, was set down for a vote by her Committee.  Senator Ruiz also offered a substantially watered down replacement bill for the Assembly bill to notify parents of standardized testing.  Senator Ruiz’s version of the bill, for example, fails to require that parents be notified of information as basic as what use local districts will make of standardized tests administered to their children (e.g., will the tests factor into student placement into gifted and talent programs or remedial education, etc.).  

So instead, I focused my efforts on the two bills introduced by my terrific local state senator, Senator Nia Gill.  Senator Gill introduced two bills: one to require local districts to publish their PARCC opt-out numbers within 10 days of completing test administration, and the other to explicitly prohibit New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe from withholding state aid from districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  

The text of my full testimony is below.  In it, I address the elephant in the room: the use of standardized test scores as a proxy to encourage resegregation of school districts by class and, to the extent that class and race are unfortunately still correlated in this country, race.

My testimony:

My name is Sarah Blaine.  I am here today to in particular support Senator Nia Gill’s bills, S2884 and S2881.  No one is paying me to be here today: in fact, I took a day off work to attend this hearing.  I have two children, a kindergartener and a fourth grader, in the Montclair Public Schools. Both of them only get one shot at their educations.

When I saw changes in my older daughter’s curriculum as a result of Common Core, I sat down to read the standards.  I’m an attorney now, but before law school I taught high school English.  Given that I would have loved some standards (or, heck, books) as a new teacher in a rural community with few resources, I started out on the assumption that national standards were probably a good idea.

But then I watched what was happening in my daughter’s classroom change.  As PARCC loomed, homework became more test-prep focused, with multiple choice questions and written paragraphs that had to follow strict formulas.  I learned that my older daughter’s school had reduced the number of elective periods.  Social studies education virtually disappeared.  Science became reading the textbook and filling in blanks, instead of labs and hands on experimentation.  My 4th grader has not had a single field trip this year — and as far as I know, none are scheduled.  I realized that I was seeing a predictable result of high-stakes testing in action: my daughter’s school was narrowing the curriculum to increase the time available for test prep. 

In Montclair, as across the country, test scores are closely correlated with the socio-economics of the populations tested. Although Montclair is consistently characterized in the press as “affluent,” according to NJDOE statistics, over 20% of our total school population is economically disadvantaged. Montclair has two NCLB focus schools not because those schools are lousy — they’re not — but because we are one of the few NJ towns with an economically and racially diverse enough school population to demonstrate an achievement gap.  This has driven an increased emphasis on test prep, which benefits no one.

Last December my spunky 4th grader testified directly to our Board about why “PARCC stinks” based on how test-prep was taking over her classroom.  I can tell you this much: after that speech, which went viral and led to her live appearance on national television, I have no doubt, without any need for PARCC results, that when the time comes my child will be college and career ready. Of course, I already knew that: her parents’ advanced degrees, race, and socio-economic status make that a virtual certainty. If you policymakers want more children to succeed, you need to spend your time implementing equitable economic and housing policies to ensure that all citizens have the chance to join a robust and secure middle class.  

The Montclair Public Schools administration worked hard to implement — and, indeed, cheerlead for — PARCC.  However, locally I wasn’t alone in my concerns about the effect that PARCC was having on our schools: more than 42% of Montclair children refused PARCC.  However, we Montclair taxpayers were not even able to obtain that statistic from the school district without a fight.  That is why I support Senator Gill’s bill to ensure that taxpayers are afforded access to the testing numbers.

Recently, Education Commissioner Hespe — and Governor Christie — began explicitly threatening to withhold state funding from school districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  That threat is unacceptable, as the school district has no way to compel me or any other parent to allow our children to sit for these tests.  To be clear, I don’t say no because my child is anxious or scared. 

Rather, I say no to PARCC because I see, as a parent, the destructive effect that annual testing and high-stakes uses of annual results are having on the quality of education offered in our state’s traditionally high-quality public schools.  I see that aggregate test scores are used — be it by real estate agents or home buyers — as proxies for socio-economic status, with the effect of further re-segregating our communities.  I see it, and I get it, because I, too, looked at those test scores and school rankings when we were choosing the New Jersey community in which we wanted to raise our children.  But then I realized that I didn’t want my children growing up in the same narrow bubble that characterized my childhood in Short Hills — and instead of moving to the town with the highest test scores, we moved to Montclair.

If more New Jersey towns were integrated like Montclair, all of our children would learn a little more compassion, a little more wisdom, a little more humility, a little more sense of what’s possible, a little less fear of those not like them, and a little more awareness of how the accidents of birth can and do affect children’s futures.  But politically, that will never fly, so you continue to test children and communities into submission, instead of choosing the tough — and admittedly expensive — policies that might actually work.  Then, when parents like me say no, Commissioner Hespe tries to threaten us into submission.  And so I support Senator Gill’s bill to prevent Commissioner Hespe from withholding funds from districts like Montclair, where the parents have had the courage to say no to the destructive effects of high-stakes annual tests.

I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on failure to inform the citizenry of what is happening in our public schools.  I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on empty threats from state-level bureaucrats meant to intimidate parents and communities.  Our children deserve better.  Thank you.

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