It’s 2016, and PARCC Still Sucks

Here we are again.  It’s the spring of 2016, and the PARCC tests are once again looming for our children.  If you will recall, last year, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Dave Hespe’s initial response to the opt-out movement was dismissive: at last year’s NJEA convention, his take on the opt-out movement was: 

“We’re not seeing an opt-out movement across the state of New Jersey. The best I can tell, it’s one-tenth of one percent of tests returned to us that were not filled in.” 

To be honest, last year I thought the New Jersey opt-out movement would be doing great if 1% of New Jersey kids refused, as this would have been a ten-fold increase from prior years.  But of course, I was happily wrong, and instead approximately 13.5% of New Jersey students in testing grades refused the test, a more than one hundred-fold increase.   

This year, there is no question that Dave Hespe and the New Jersey Department of Education are taking us seriously.  They’re forcing schools that had more than 5% of students refuse PARCC to submit Corrective Action Plans; they’re apparently accepting the Chamber of Commerce’s/We Raise New Jersey’s offensive pro-PARCC presentation as a way of implementing a Corrective Action Plan; and they’re doing a public relations offensive, including today’s Star Ledger article, which points out five ways in which this year’s PARCC is allegedly slightly less onerous than last year’s version (spoiler: none of the ways include throwing out the high-stakes uses of the PARCC test).

But the impact of high-stakes standardized tests like PARCC on our public schools has not changed, and as someone commented on the Star Ledger article, all the superficial changes NJDOE and the PARCC consortium have made so far have had no more effect than painting some some lipstick on the PARCC pig.  So yes, Dave Hespe and his minions at NJDOE are taking us seriously, but their solution is to bully parents, students, and community leaders into submission, not to respond to our concerns.

So I still refuse.  And I encourage you to do so as well.

I still refuse because my 5th grader’s math homework is largely multiple choice questions rather than open-ended problems that allow her to show her work and her teacher to address her problems with reasoning or application of algorithms.

I still refuse because night after night, my 5th grader’s English Language Arts homework is still to read and answer multiple-choice questions about poorly-written, often out-of-context non-fiction passages from free test prep sites like ReadWorks.org.  

I still refuse because my 5th grader is spending tons of in-school “Response to Intervention” time answering MobyMax test-prep questions instead of taking an extra arts or music or social studies elective.  

I still refuse because my 1st grader is literally biting her arm with boredom in class due to developmentally inappropriate curriculum paired with the unimaginative teaching it encourages.

I still refuse because aggregate test-results continue to be used to castigate and punish the few economically and racially integrated schools in our state (like those in my town) for the results of the opportunity gaps highlighted by the disparate scores of in-school subgroups on standardized tests.

I still refuse because across our state, test-prep is causing kids to lose out, in far more egregious ways than what my kids lose, on the arts, the music, the social studies, the hands-on science, and the community building that make public school a refuge for so many kids with few other options.

I still refuse because our leaders refuse to listen to parents, teachers, and community activists who are demonstrating that we can and should be doing better by our kids.  

I still refuse because despite their Study Commissions and State Board of Education hearings, our leaders in Washington and Trenton refuse to listen to the concerns of real parents, real teachers, real local Board of Education members, and real students, even though they pay lip-service to the notion of democratic control of (at least suburban) public schools.

I still refuse because too many of our state education bureaucrats and our local superintendents, principals, and board of education members are ignoring the fact that New Jersey passed a law on November 9, 2015 that specifically and explicitly prohibited Dave Hespe and his minions from withholding funds from our districts based on low PARCC participation rates.

I still refuse because my kids deserve better for their education — and so do yours.  I still refuse, and I hope you will too. 

Google Docs Opt Out!

Oh what a difference a year makes!  We’ve got a new superintendent and a majority of our school board members have finally now been appointed by our pro-public education mayor.  

Today, emails and snail mails were sent to parents of all affected students in the district containing PARCC opt out procedures.  

The best part?  

OPT OUT VIA GOOGLE DOCS!

But also be sure to check out the letter to parents of students who refused testing last year.  It confirms that PARCC scores won’t be used for placement into any academic programs.  

Today is a happy day.

Opt Out: COMPLETE!

I love the reassurance that PARCC scores won’t be used in any way.

 

 

Civics Lessons

The Study Commission Recommended That Our Kids Be Stuck Testing Into Eternity: Now What?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey issued its long-awaited final report.  To the surprise of no one, the Governor’s minions Commission concluded that the PARCC test is wonderful, and that not only should New Jersey keep using it, we should require all high school students to take it to qualify to graduate starting with the Class of 2020, and require them to earn passing scores on the 10th grade English and Algebra I tests starting with the Class of 2021.  My older daughter is in the Class of 2023 (and my younger daughter is in the Class of 2027), so this has a direct impact on my family and me.  For the record, this year 36% of NJ students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts test receiving scores demonstrating that they met or exceeded expectations, and again, 36% of Algebra I test takers received scores reflecting that they’d met or exceeded expectations.

Here are the initial thoughts I shared on Facebook about the result:

Over a hundred people came out to the 3 public comment sessions. All but maybe ONE of them spoke against PARCC testing in NJ. Parents and educators everywhere — from teachers to my daughter’s recently retired building principal to our town’s superintendent — are opposed to this sham of a test. But the pre-determined outcome is in fact the actual outcome. Public comment had no impact whatsoever. 

The game is rigged, and it’s our children who are losing. But this outcome can be laid solidly at Chris Christie’s door, and the national media should hold him accountable for it. After all: he appointed the “independent” study commission; he appointed New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe; and he appoints all of the members of the New Jersey State Board of Education. So the buck stops with Christie. 

But on a structural level, the fact that ALL public education policy makers are ultimately accountable to one person demonstrates how broken and easily manipulated our state education policy truly is. 

We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, and We the People need to step in. It is time to demand change — an amendment to the NJ state constitution, if necessary, to get elected representation on the State Board of Education.  Rule making bodies like NJSBOE and NJDOE have tremendous power to interpret state education statutes however they see fit. They must be accountable to the people and not just to a governor dreaming of the White House. 

In NJ, our local school boards have abdicated policy making responsibility saying that they’re hamstrung by state mandates. And those state mandates come from entities that are all accountable only to our governor. Structural change is necessary if we want to preserve public education for our children and the future.

And here are my expanded thoughts (very expanded, I’m sorry, I’m a lawyer, I’m nerdy, and since I was reading through the enabling legislation myself for my own edification, I figured that at least a few of you policy nerds might want to follow along at home as well.  For the rest of you, don’t say I didn’t warn you…) about where we go from here.  I think I will do a separate post looking at the actual report itself to see if it measures up to the Common Core standards PARCC claims to measure.  Look for that tonight or tomorrow.  In the meantime, here goes…

A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control

Wednesday night I plan to attend my local district’s Board of Education meeting.  For me, at least, the hot topic will be school tours, which are a big deal for parents of incoming kindergarteners and incoming middle schoolers in our all-magnet suburban school system.

Last weekend, a local micro-news blog created a brouhaha when it reported a scuffle between the district PTA council president and the superintendent over whether the district had decided to replace school tours with online videos. For a whole lot of reasons, I think school tours are important, so Wednesday night I plan to attend our local Board of Education’s next meeting to express my opinion during public comment.

Why does this matter? What is unusual about this vignette is how rare it is for our local Board of Education to actually have the authority to set policy about a school-related issue, so for once my comment might actually make a difference.  The only reason our local board has sole authority over this issue is that this is such a unique local issue that Trenton has not bothered to dictate tour procedures to our town.  But on virtually every other topic these days, most New Jersey education policy decisions emanate from Trenton, where the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey State Board of Education issue implementing regulations for state education statutes, and issue policy guidance and bulletins to New Jersey school districts.

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members Demonstrates State Usurpation of Local Control 

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), requires local school board members to make this pledge even before they pledge to look out for the educational welfare of children:

“I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.”

Although the local tide has turned and our local BOE seems slightly more independent now, for the past few years, our local school board interpreted this pledge as requiring it to slavishly follow Trenton’s mandates, regardless of whether the local board of education thought that such mandates might be harming our children.  Whether deliberately or not, they seemed to ignore the second sentence of that pledge, and nobody but nobody was willing to utter a peep against Trenton. Especially given that the Christie administration decided to ignore the legislatively enacted state aid funding formula (“SFRA”), I think they were all terrified to open their mouths and bring the wrath of Trenton down upon them in dollars of aid magically not allotted to our district.

So for the first couple of years in which I attended local Board of Education meetings, when the public spoke out – and speak out it did – about the harm that many of these state mandates were doing to children, our local BOE copped out by saying that these were decisions made in Trenton, and its hands were tied.  I urged it to take action to influence and change state policy, but was largely ignored, presumably as a naive gadfly, which I undoubtedly am.

From my talks with friends, colleagues, and fellow activists throughout the state, my understanding is that Montclair’s school board was far from alone in taking this position. This 2001 Code of Ethics for School Board Members seems to have served to hamstring many local school boards, depriving them of local control on any and all topics on which the State Board of Education and/or the New Jersey Department of Education have decided to opine.  The ethics rule, which sounds reasonable on the surface, has functioned to make our school boards little more than powerless rubber stamps for whatever state policies the NJDOE and the NJ State Board of Education decide to impose on New Jersey’s public school children.

NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers

So the real questions are – who are the members of the State Board of Education, and how does our Commissioner of Education get appointed?  Those are the true power brokers of education policy in the state, so let’s figure out how they get into office.  Here’s the answer:

The members of the NJ State Board of Education are appointed by the governor – currently, Governor Chris Christie, of course.  This is mandated by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 at Article 5, Section 4, Paragraph 4, which reads:

“Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law.  [irrelevant for our purposes section about the Lieutenant Governor’s appointment process]  Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor.  Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-4 implements this constitutional requirement in the statute setting out how the New Jersey State Board of Education is chosen.  It reads, in relevant part:

“The members of the state board shall be appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, for terms of six years commencing on July 1.”

What this tells us is that by now, given that we are in the seventh year of Governor Christie’s tenure, all of the New Jersey State Board of Education members were appointed, re-appointed or allowed to continue in office by Gov. Christie, and are beholden to him – and only to him – for their positions.

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-1 confirms that Art. 5, Sec. 4, Para. 4 of the Constitution applies to the state department of education, and that therefore the provisions about the appointment of a principal executive officer apply.  It reads:

“The state department of education is hereby continued as a principal department in the executive branch of the state government, and it shall consist of a state board of education, which shall be head of the department, a commissioner of education, and such divisions, bureaus, branches, committees, officers and employees as are specifically referred to in this title and as may be constituted or employed by virtue of the authority conferred by this title and by any other law.”

So again – who is responsible for appointing not just the members of the State Board of Education, but also the Commissioner of the Board of Education?  Chris Christie’s State Board of Education, subject to the governor’s approval, of course.  In fact, Dave Hespe can be removed by Chris Christie whenever Christie feels like it, so long as he gives his buddy Dave notice of his removal and an opportunity to plead his case first.

The long and the short of it is – New Jersey’s governor has a LOT of power over state education policy, especially since the 2001 local school board code of ethics hamstrung any local Board of Ed members who wanted to push back hard against asinine state mandates.  I have no idea of the backstory that led to the 2001 ethics law, but I do find it curious that the timing coincides with the federal government centralizing some control over education policy through the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

Now, the legislature can, of course, override the State Board of Education by passing legislation abrogating Department guidance and/or Board-issued regulations.  However, to do so, it must pass such legislation through both houses of the legislature and, of course, get those bills signed by… you guessed it… the Governor.  And, of course, the implementing regulations for any such legislation passed by the legislature will be created and approved by… you guessed it… the State Board of Education.  So any way you parse it, the NJ governor has enormous control over what happens in our public schools, and among other negatives to this lack of checks and balances is the fact that governors with different policy prescriptions can wildly swing education policy from one election to the next.

The Study Commission 

Yesterday, as I mentioned at the top, the Governor’s “independent” Study Commission released its report on state testing in New Jersey, which concluded, unsurprisingly, despite around 200 in person or emailed public comments in opposition and virtually none in support, that the PARCC is super awesome.  But, of course, it’s absurd on its face to think that a Study Commission appointed by the same governor who is responsible for appointing the State Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education would reach a different conclusion than whatever the governor’s office (or his presidential campaign) wanted it to reach.  All three of these entities are answerable only to Chris Christie, and as newspapers have reported throughout Governor Christie’s tenure, he is not hesitant to bully those who disagree with him into submission.  And when those who disagree with him are people he thinks should be loyal to him, the gloves truly come off.

So the Study Commission’s conclusion:

“However, one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC).  Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students.  High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information”

was pre-ordained.  Ironically, the Study Commission’s entire report would earn a big fat F under the Common Core Standards if it were graded according to PARCC scoring rubrics.  The reason for this, of course, is that paragraphs like the one I just quoted cite to absolutely no evidence to support their conclusions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my takeaways from this sham of a process (and don’t even get me started on the Common Core Review Commission, which also issued recommendations yesterday, and which was, perhaps, even worse in terms of process, if that’s even possible) is that there is way too much power over education policy consolidated in the hands of one person in this state: our Governor.

There is no question that Governor Christie’s minions appointees on the State Board of Education and at NJDOE will gleefully embrace the Study Commission recommendations, and that so long as this governor or a successor who shares his education policy prescriptions remains in office, the people will have little to no ability to shape more student-friendly education policy.

It seems to me that from an education policymaking process standpoint, there are two takeaways to move New Jersey education policy in a productive direction:

(1) We need to amend the New Jersey State Constitution so that at least some of the members of the State Board of Education are elected officials, accountable directly to voters rather than to the Governor.  The governor’s control over the rule making process is way too all-encompassing, and at least some elected State Board of Education members would provide needed checks and balances for educational policy making in New Jersey.  Especially now, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESEA reauthorization”; i.e., No Child Left Behind’s replacement) has moved a great deal of education policy making authority from the federal government back to the states, we need to ensure that state level education policy cannot be so easily held captive by special interest groups who’ve courted the governor, but no one else.

(2) We need to introduce and pass legislation that makes it explicitly ethical for local Board of Education members to push back against state mandates that harm students.  It seems to me Paragraph (b) of the Code Ethics should be strengthened and replace Paragraph (a) as the first duty of local school board members. Paragraph (b) currently reads:

“I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.”

Our kids deserve local leaders with the authority to actually put the children’s best interests first.  As the Study Commision report hammers home, this administration can never be trusted to do that.

Who’s with me?

Updated to Add (1/13/2016): Apparently New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe agrees with me.  Here he is, quoted in yesterday’s Star Ledger:

image

New Jersey, let’s take our cue from New Jersey Education Commissioner and make a really good change to the New Jersey State Constitution.  It is time for We the People to reclaim our power over our children’s futures, instead of leaving that power consolidated in the hands of the New Jersey governor, currently Chris Christie; the unelected New Jersey State Board of Education, each of whom owes his current tenure in the job to Chris Christie; and Christie appointee, New Jersey Education Commission David Hespe.

Color Me Apathetic

For those who haven’t heard, New Jersey finally announced its average PARCC scores today.   

This is my obligatory post-PARCC score announcement blog post.

Because I should write one.

I guess.

The PARCC scores are just as anti-climatic as I expected.

Boring.

Lame.

It is hard to muster outrage.

I’m tired today.

And annoyed.

I just don’t have it in me to react strongly.

And, frankly, these test scores don’t deserve much of a reaction.

Aggregate New Jersey test scores don’t tell us much at all.  

Frankly, the broken-out scores won’t tell us much either.  As Chris Tienken noted, we already know the results. They’re predicted by socio-economics and zip code.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the spin-game will begin.  Has begun. *SIGH*

I will laugh about one thing. Our high school students didn’t do nearly as badly in math as the high school students in Illinois. After all, 2%-3% of NJ students taking high school math courses (Algebra I, Algebra II, or Geometry) exceeded expectations, but 0% of Illinois high school math students exceeded expectations.  So IN YOUR FACE, Cubs fans. Go Mets!  

Ok, I don’t really care (about either the Mets/Cubs game or the Illinois/New Jersey high school math comparisons).  Sorry, Hubby. For your sake, I hope the Mets win.  For my Chicago cousins, I hope the Cubs win.

My energy is low tonight.

I looked at the sample tests.  I read about the sample tests.  I saw how these tests set out to trick students by intentionally making all of the distractor answers plausible or even correct, but varying in supposed degrees of correctness.  

The only way to ace these tests will be to prep, prep, prep for them all year long.

The tests will tell us nothing about real student achievement.

The tests will tell us nothing about which teachers are successful.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired to read a novel for the first time.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired to structure their persuasive writing more effectively after learning to master the logic necessary to write formal geometry proofs.

The tests will tell us nothing about which high school juniors sat up watching the presidential debates, out of the sense of responsibility that comes from knowing that they’d be voting for the first time.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired by a science project, or want to be astronauts because of Andy Weir’s book, The Martian.

So what is the point of getting worked up?

We all know what these tests measure.

They measure exactly what the politicians want them to measure.

They’ll be spun exactly how the media and the politicians feel like spinning them. And that spin will likely bear little to no relation to what is actually happening in our children’s classrooms and minds.

The only ways to know what is actually happening in our classrooms and our children’s minds is to ask our children, visit their classrooms, talk to their teachers, and review their homework.

The only way to hold our teachers and schools accountable is to involve ourselves in what is happening in our schools, and in the democratic process.  We need to ask questions, not review aggregate answers.  We need to visit classrooms, not sift through bureaucrats’ PowerPoint presentations.

And when there are problems we need to speak up, mobilize, and demand more of our schools.  That’s what I did today — in a case of unfortunate coincidence on top of mishap on top of unfortunate coincidence, today my first grader had a sub for a sub for a sub.  I kid you not.  But the schools that succeed are the schools in which the parents can mobilize parent pressure to address those issues, at least with a demand for explicit and coherent communication from the administration, and proposals for reasonable solutions to address the underlying personnel issues that got us to this place. Our kids will be okay, because in one form or another, I’ve heard from half the parents in the class today on how we are going to address this issue (and I’m not even the class parent).

If we want to know how our schools are doing, we can start by looking at how parents are able to react to issues like the one my daughter’s class is currently facing.  In communities where parents have resources and the democractic process is relatively intact, these issues will be addressed and the children will succeed.  

Of course, all of our children deserve communities where parents have the bandwidth and social capital to put pressure on school administrations. Test scores will never make that happen.  Instead, we should spend our energy on improving housing policy, inspiring diversity, and ensuring that all students have parents who are economically secure enough to be able to address what’s going on in their children’s classrooms. Those are the real fights. In a fair system, we wouldn’t have highly segregated public schools. We need to get rid of these tests so we can fight the real battles, like the battles against segregation and increasing inequality.

But just as our children’s educations are derailed each spring by testing, we parents and citizens and teachers and community members are also distracted by the testing, and the pernicious effects high-stakes tests have on our public schools.

Our children, our communities, our schools, and our teachers deserve more than an obsessive focus on these tests, tests, tests.  

Our children, our communities, our schools, and our teachers deserve parents whose attention and commitment to their schools isn’t undermined by concerns that test scores indicate that their schools are failing.

But the only way to stop that obsessive focus on testing is to refuse to test.

The only way to stop test-prep curriculum is to make it unnecessary.

So I will continue to refuse these tests.  

They tell us nothing about children, and nothing about teachers. 

But in the meantime, there is no point in getting worked up about the results, when the results are meaningless.

Opt out.   

And one day parent energy can be directed where it belongs, and not distracted by the testing sideshow created by our asinine national requirement that our children take annual high stakes standardized tests (and that teachers be fired and schools closed based on the outcomes of such tests).

Refuse.

Our kids deserve more than us spending our time on this nonsense.

We have better things to do. We have children to raise. We have a country to steer back onto the right track.

* * *

Lukewarm off the presses (sorry, it’s been a busy day, and really, who cares) check out the  NJ PARCC scores yourself:  

New Jersey’s Unsurprising PARCC Math Results, Grades 3-11

 

New Jersey’s Unsurprising PARCC English-Language Arts Results, Grades 3-11

 

Refuse Early So Teachers Can Teach

I know this is shocking elsewhere in the country, but here in New Jersey, we just finished our second week of school.  As the school year begins, I’m reflecting on what this year’s goals for my pro-public education advocacy should be.  I know this much: my first goal is to engage, encourage, and support parents to not just refuse standardized tests like PARCC, but to refuse early and supportively (rather than confrontationally).  In particular, I think we can best support our teachers, our children, and our schools by refusing early enough in the year to empower our children’s teachers to build curriculum and lesson plans around children’s needs rather than around the dictates of the testing industry.  

To that end, I encourage you to submit your refusal letters early, as this strategy will only work if there are mass refusals.  I sent mine yesterday, as one concrete action I could take to support the #ParentStrike movement across the country.  Here is my letter, which you should feel free to copy and modify to fit your needs:

Dear Teachers:

I am Sarah Blaine, the mother of _________ in Mrs. ________’s homeroom.  I write to let you know that in accordance with Montclair Board of Education policy regarding test refusals, _________ will not be taking the PARCC test in 2016.  I write now, at the beginning of the academic year, with the hope that enough of my fellow parents will do the same so that you, my child’s teachers, will hopefully not feel constrained to teach to the PARCC or any other standardized test.  Instead, my hope is that a high number of early refusals will allow you to feel free to use your professional judgment to provide our children with the most developmentally appropriate and engaging lessons you have the power to create, instead of wasting time preparing for educationally irrelevant state-mandated tests.  

__________ is thrilled so far with both of you, and I look forward to a constructive, engaging, and challenging school year for her.  Please know that I am always open to conversation and suggestions as to how to best support __________’s learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Our family has not made this decision to refuse testing lightly, but rather as an attempt to express our support for a public education system in which teachers will once again be treated as the knowledgeable professionals we know that they are (I am a former public school teacher myself, and earned my M.A.T. before I began teaching in a rural community).

I am, of course, happy to speak with you further about this issue, but I trust that my wishes for ____________ will be respected, and that she will of course be, in accordance with district policy, provided with non-punitive alternatives.

Best regards,

 Sarah Blaine

Let our teachers focus on REAL education

Amazing graphic by Beth O’Donnell-Fisher


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.

David Hespe & The Immersive Logic of Test Prep

Studying for the bar exam requires stepping into a bizarre alternate reality. After three years of law school, my classmates and I celebrated our graduation and pretty much immediately began our bar studies.

I began with the PMBR prep course. The PMBR course is a supplemental bar course that focuses specifically on test taking strategies — and, to a lesser extent, content — for the Multi-state Bar Exam (“MBE”). All states other than Louisiana require aspiring attorneys to take the MBE, in which you have 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon to answer 200 multiple choice questions. The questions are tricky, confusingly worded, and have multiple right answers: your job is to figure out which answer the test makers think is the “best” right answer. Depending on your state, your MBE score is somewhere around half of your total bar exam grade. The bar exam is high stakes: no one wants to risk failing the bar exam.

To be honest, ten years later I can’t remember whether I took PMBR’s 3 day course or its 7 day course. What I do remember is this: on the first day of the course, they gave us a sample MBE exam. After a lifetime of acing standardized multiple-choice achievement tests, I got maybe — maybe — a third of the sample PMBR MBE questions correct. Now, that might have been slick marketing strategy to convince me that the course was worth my new law firm’s money, but my take is that it was legit: I did poorly because I hadn’t yet immersed myself in the MBE’s bizarre logic.

The test prep worked. After a week of PMBR, I was scoring significantly better. I don’t recall details, but I do recall hours of analyzing individual exam questions, discussions of strategies for identifying and discarding tricky wrong answer choices, and of immersing my brain in the test maker’s logic. After PMBR ended, BAR/BRI (the comprehensive bar preparation course) began. For BAR/BRI, we packed into a large lecture hall to watch videotaped cram lectures in the bar subjects in the mornings (I still recall Seton Hall professor Paula Franzese’s Property songs, and especially her promise that when the bar exam was over, there would be ponies). In the afternoon, I sat in my house or my local library reducing my morning notes into easily memorized flashcards for cramming “black letter law” into my head.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I picked up my then eight or nine month old from day care and played with her for awhile (yes, my first child was born in the fall semester of my third year of law school; in case you’re wondering, I graduated with high honors). Then I’d spend my evening studying more. About halfway through the BAR/BRI course, BAR/BRI had us spend a day taking a practice MBE. Because of my responsibilities as a mom, I’d been front loading my studies, and unlike many of my peers, I discovered at that point that I’d successfully immersed myself in the test-makers’ multiple-choice logic. As a result, I kicked the practice exam’s butt, and felt that I could focus the rest of my bar prep focused on the essay writing, with only a bit of continued MBE practice to keep my head in the game.

Bar exam essay writing was, again, its own unique genre. We were highly encouraged to write strictly according to the IRAC formula, in which we started with an Issue (e.g., “An Issue raised by this fact pattern is whether Fred is guilty of involuntary manslaughter”), then set out the Rule (“The elements of involuntary manslaughter are…”), then Analyzed the facts presented (“Fred’s actions meet the first element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…; Fred’s actions meet the second element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…”), and then stated our Conclusion (“Because Fred’s actions satisfy each of the four elements of involuntary manslaughter, he will be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter”). Bar exam essay writing makes for some scintillating prose.

When the bar exam arrived, my reaction was “Bring it on!” And four months later, I was gratified to learn that I’d passed. But the bar exam was a bizarrely arbitrary rite of passage. It was strange to realize that after three years of law school, I was unprepared to pass my chosen profession’s licensing exam without two months of intensive commercial test preparation. It was also strange to spend so much time learning “black letter law” (i.e., specific “rules” of law that would lead us to a particular correct answer). Even for the essays, analysis must lead you to a “correct” answer. This has nothing to do with the reality of legal practice, but it makes perfect sense to bar examiners because formulaic essays are far easier to grade. The same is even more true of the bar exam’s multiple-choice questions. Never mind that as a practicing lawyer your job is to see nuance, and to craft the best arguments you can (within the limits of your ethical responsibilities, of course) to support your client’s position. In ten years of practice, I’ve written a lot of briefs, but no judge has given me a multiple-choice test.

Compared to the bar exam, law school exams are a far closer approximation of what practicing attorneys actually do out in the real world. Many are open book, and whether open or closed book, the point of professor-written law school exams is to demonstrate that you’ve learned how to “think like a lawyer,” that is, that you’ve learned to apply legal principles to analyze and dissect the nuances presented by complex fact patterns. A typical law school issue spotter will say something like, “Read the following fact pattern [anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a page or two]. Identify the legal issues.” And then you’ll discuss the facts, apply the legal principles you’ve learned to those facts, and analyze the interplay of facts and legal principles. The point is to figure out whether you can see the areas of concern, so that when you enter practice someday, you’ll be able to listen to your client and figure out where to start researching whether he has a case. On a law school issue spotter, there generally isn’t a right answer: the professors care more about whether your analysis makes sense than whether you’ve correctly memorized the legal principles, as they know that any lawyer worth her fees (and who values her license) will do research before making recommendations to her client.

The strangest part of the bar, however, was getting my bar results two months into my new job as a baby lawyer at a large law firm. It wasn’t strange because I’d passed: I’d worked hard and I knew I had a decent head on my shoulders. What was strange was getting that score and realizing how little bar exam study had done to prepare me for the actual job of being a baby lawyer.

When I started in private practice, I didn’t know how to do anything:

I didn’t know how to file a motion.

I didn’t know what a motion was.

I didn’t know how to draft a certificate of service.

I didn’t know that you needed to submit a proposed form of order along with your motion.

I didn’t know what a case management conference was.

I didn’t know what a discovery plan looked like.

I hadn’t participated in a large-scale document review.

I didn’t know how to mark exhibits or move them into evidence.

I certainly didn’t know how to write a deposition outline.

I had no experience taking depositions, and didn’t know the first thing about how to manage a witness.

I didn’t know what an in limine motion was.

I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a trial brief.

I knew nothing about recruiting and working with expert witnesses.

In short, like every other baby lawyer, I didn’t know squat about how to actually succeed in my chosen career (other than what I’d learned the prior summer when I’d worked as a summer associate at my new law firm). If I’d started out as a solo practitioner, I would have committed malpractice. Thankfully, however, all that issue-spotting had earned me a position at a law firm with the resources to provide me with intelligent supervision and strong on-the-job training.

Ten years on, I find that I do use the skills tested on those law school issue spotter exams. In particular, I can read the file on a new case, and use the analytical skills I honed in law school to analyze the issues in light of the law, do (or assign) research where needed, determine what additional facts I need to learn, and make recommendations to my colleagues or my clients. When we learn new facts, I can adjust our initial analysis as needed to account for the changes and to craft new strategy. Those are skills evolved from prepping for those convoluted issue spotter law school exams.

However, ten years into private practice, I don’t draw on my two months of intensive bar test prep to advise my clients or manage my work. I don’t rely on essay formulas to craft my briefs, and of course I have never encountered an MBE-style multiple choice question. But the thing is… PMBR and BAR/BRI worked. Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score. In the past ten years, I’ve occasionally encountered some pretty crappy lawyers, but they all have one thing in common: they passed the bar exam.

The fact that test prep works is what scares me as a public school parent, because as a parent I know that my child’s standardized test scores tell me virtually nothing about whether she’s actually mastered the academic skills she needs for a successful future.

My two months of bar test prep taught me that mass-produced bar prep can successfully raise scores: my MBE score skyrocketed when I left my inquisitiveness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness at the door, and instead immersed myself completely in the test-makers’ logic. I was willing to engage in two months of intensive test-prep because the stakes were so high: I could have lost my new job for failing the bar. Test prep was a means to an end, and it was an end I wanted (passing the bar so I could begin my career as a litigator at a large law firm), so I was willing to spend (my firm’s) money and my time on the commercial test prep courses. Thankfully, though, our (generally tenured) law school professors focused on preparing us for the practice of law, and not on preparing us for a soon-to-be-forgotten standardized test.

But what will my child gain from devoting 9 of her 13 years of public education to test prep? She might become a genius at immersing herself in the logic of the test makers, but will she learn to write purposefully and well? Will she learn to creatively attack a problem? Will she learn empathy and art appreciation and history and how to work as a member of a team? I fear that the answer is no, or at least not nearly as much as she would have if testing wasn’t driving curriculum.

Thankfully, my older child attends a school where the bulk of the teachers have tried hard to minimize the encroachment of test prep on the “real” curriculum, but even so, it seems to me that my 4th grader is bringing home fewer challenging projects that engage her as a learner. Tonight she complained that her teacher has been racing through math curriculum so that they’ll have “covered” all of the topics they need for the PARCC End of Year testing. Fortunately, my kindergartener attends a K-2 public school that is relatively insulated from the test-taking pressures. Her class is making daily observations of their tadpoles’ development. Tonight at dinner the little one flummoxed the older one by explaining the functions of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the pre-frontal cortex.

I am thrilled that our local district’s test-focused superintendent (with her district-wide quarterly assessments to determine whether our kids were on track to succeed on the statewide annual assessments) recently resigned, and her interim replacement is a career educator who seems interested in putting exactly as much focus on standardized test scores as they’re worth. But not all children are in a district where progressive education seems to be making a resurgence.

Test prep — defined as taking concrete steps to get children into the heads of the test-makers — works. It really does, even on a test that’s allegedly of critical thinking, such as the bar exam (and, presumably, the PARCC). So as the stakes continue to grow, teachers will understandably be more and more tempted to engage in intensive test-prep (although bills to change this are in progress, under current New Jersey law, this year’s PARCC scores are worth 10% of teachers’ evaluations, but next year’s scores will be 20% of teachers’ evaluations, and the year after that PARCC scores will be 30% of teachers’ evaluations). Even where the teachers are not tempted, their principals or superintendents or even New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe may put unbearable pressure on them to raise scores — and coerce parents to allow their children to test — by any means necessary. For instance, just today (now, technically, yesterday) in an interview with the Newark Star Ledger, David Hespe threatened

“We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we have a comfort level moving forward that we are going to hit that 95 percent,” Hespe said. “This is not a no harm, no foul situation here.”

Under Hespe’s vision, public schools will become publicly-funded versions of BAR/BRI and PMBR courses, and a child-centered, holistic public education will become rarer and rarer. Parents will be threatened and coerced to let their children test or risk further state intervention and loss of funds for their local districts (which already experienced drastic cuts in state aid under the Christie administration). The privatization movement will rejoice, as public school parents with the means will opt-out completely by sending their children to private school. Fewer parents of privilege will be left to speak out, and public education will instead continue its march to the test-prep driven bottom as it serves a higher and higher percentage of students whose parents can’t offer them other options.

I’ve refused to allow my test-aged child to test, because I believe in public education. My children attend public school in Montclair, New Jersey because I know that all children do better when they attend high-quality, integrated public schools with children whose life experiences differ from their own. It’s that vision of diversity and equitable opportunity that I want for my children, and that I, for one, believe is critical to keeping the American dream alive. Yet state bureaucrat David Hespe threatens local districts — and tries to sow division — in integrated local districts like ours because so many of us Montclair parents from all walks of life have joined together to protest PARCC’s destructive effects.

As I watched our local schools narrow curriculum and move toward a test-prep focus for two years under the reins of our test-driven (now former) superintendent, I toyed with the idea of pulling my kids out of their integrated public schools and sending them to private school (knowing that doing this would have required us to sell our house in our beloved neighborhood), but doing so would be a defeat. Instead, I elected to fight for our public schools by writing, speaking, and ultimately refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC tests. I will continue to do so.

The scary thing is: test prep works. That’s why it’s so tempting to teachers, principals, and school district officials whose careers are on the line. And that’s why we parents are the last line of defense. David Hespe might want to, but no one can fire us. That’s why we parents must stand firm against pressure such as that exerted today by David Hespe. It is up to We The Parents to ensure that our nation’s public schools in all neighborhoods remain — or become — more than test-prep factories. Our kids deserve no less.

The last time David Hespe threatened us public school parents, it backfired on him. In fact, I, for one, give him (through his October 30, 2014 memo threatening sanctions for opting out) credit for single-handedly sparking New Jersey’s until then minuscule PARCC refusal movement. Now, instead of learning from his mistake, David Hespe has doubled-down on his punitive approach to public education. Today, Hespe announced his strategy of trying to ensure public school parent capitulation to PARCC by threatening to further interfere in our local school districts and perhaps even withhold state funding.

One would almost be tempted to think that Hespe has bought into (or been bought by) the immersive logic of the test-makers. Hespe’s reasoning skills might get him a passing score on a standardized test, but reasoning his reasoning will get him nowhere in the court of public opinion. We New Jerseyeans are contrarian by nature. David Hespe, please take note: threats to inflict collective punishment on entire communities because New Jersey parents have refused the PARCC tests as an act of conscience and courage are far more likely to infuriate than subdue us. We New Jersey taxpayers — and our kids — deserve a state education policy maker with real world — and not test prep — reasoning skills. I don’t need to wait five months for his score: Hespe failed the test.

GUEST VOICES: Opting Out in the Jersey Suburbs, Or, White Like Me by Belinda Edmondson

The latest attacks by the education reformers and standardized testing advocates against the test-refusal movement have focused on the issue of race.  For example, on March 25, 2015, Robert Pondiscio of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote a piece titled “Opting out, race and reform.”  Dependably divisive Laura Waters then jumped on the bandwagon. As a white, suburban mom who is part of the test-refusal movement, I know from personal experience that this latest reformer narrative is deeply flawed, but I recognize that a privileged white woman arguing with other privileged white people about the experiences of people of color is an effective silencing of people of colors’ own voices.  So instead I reached out to friends of color who refused to allow their children to take the PARCC.  Below is a guest voice piece by my friend and neighbor, Belinda Edmondson, who has two children in the Montclair Public Schools.  Her words speak for themselves. Thank you for reading. — Sarah

Opting Out in the Jersey Suburbs: Or, White Like Me

by Belinda Edmondson

I live in Montclair, an affluent town in New Jersey, and I opted my children out of the PARCC.

According to the education reformers, that makes me one of those rich white soccer moms throwing a hissy fit because  “their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought they were, their schools aren’t quite as good as they thought they were.” New Jersey is a flashpoint for the opt-out debate because, they argue, as a state with poor cities full of minorities and wealthy suburbs full of whites, “it puts the state’s affluent white progressives potentially at odds with low-income and heavily Democratic families of color, since there is little evidence that such families are opting out in significant numbers.”

In other words, if the numbers are to be believed, I’m a wealthy white liberal hypocrite. I spout platitudes about racial inequality while opposing reforms that would help children of color. Apparently I and my fellow black-and-brown opt-outers are in denial about how badly these awful Montclair schools are failing our kids. Who knew?

Certainly not me.  I thought Montclair was full of black people. Active, vocal, black people. Brown people too. I thought I was black. So did my children, who had no idea they are white—or rich (yay!). But these are the facts about New Jersey, according to the reformers: only wealthy white liberals are opting out of PARCC.

The reformers should have notified the large multiracial group of opting-out students who crowded into Montclair school auditoriums during PARCC testing that opting-out is a whites-only privilege. They should have informed the protesting black and brown students who took over the Newark schools superintendent’s office that they are the wrong color. They should take aside those outspoken black parents at the Newark Board of Education meetings and minority anti-reform groups like the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, and let them know: these are not the actions of black people. Stay in your lane, already.

Yes, it’s true that majority-black-and-brown districts in NJ are less likely than well-off districts to have students who oppose PARCC and other reforms. Camden, a high-poverty, majority-black city, is an example. There the state has hijacked the school system and children of color are being forced into charter schools. Groups like Save Camden Schools are fighting back, but it looks like a losing battle. Silly me, I thought that was due to class, and social capital: you know, the fact that educated, well-connected families of any color are more likely to be able to challenge the reform mandates and not be punished for it precisely because of their intimate knowledge of how the system works. The more educated professionals in a town, the better able its residents are to challenge the corporate raiding of their schools. Negative repercussions are far less likely: if their kids don’t take the PARCC, so what? Professionals who know the system know their kids will still graduate from high school, still get into college. Not so with poor families in poor districts. Reforms are presented to them as the gateway to a good education and the social mobility that comes with it. Even if those families don’t buy the reform mantra, what choice do they have? Poor families don’t control their own schools.

The reformers understand this, and care. The compassion they exhibit for poor minority families is touching. From Newark to Trenton, poor children of color are the focus of philanthropic millionaires and billionaires rushing into NJ to help them faster than you can say “Pass Go and collect $200!”  Reformers constantly raise the specter of the achievement gap as justification for pushing more standardized testing. They argue that black and brown kids are the chief beneficiaries of all these reforms. Precisely how our kids benefit is unclear when their school curriculum is narrowed to focus on test prep, their test scores are used to tell them they’re ignorant, and their teachers are under threat of being fired. But the reformers have done their homework and know what’s best. Of course none of this has anything to do with the fact that there’s lots of money to be made in reforming the schools. Or that the pesky teacher’s union is getting in the way of profits.

And, unlike the opt-outers, the reformers are a multiracial bunch. If you have any doubts about that, there are all those ubiquitous reform images featuring black kids or concerned brown parents to remind you. The education reform movement surely represents the face of multicultural America.

Yet, somehow, even with all the black-and-brown faces fronting the movement, I sometimes wonder if it’s just corporate America seeing dollar signs in the education crisis facing poor black-and-brown children. I’m happy to report, however, that any doubts I’ve had on who’s pushing Montclair’s reform agenda were put to rest when I heard about the two corporate lawyers—both African-American—hired by a group of local parents to advocate on behalf of Montclair’s children. These concerned parents (who remain anonymous out of fear of “retribution”) are paying these lawyers to get rid of an African-American town council member on the Montclair Board of School Estimate with links to the teacher’s union. The lawyers are also filing a public records request to check the emails of Montclair’s African-American mayor for evidence of complicity with the anti-reform activists. So I shouldn’t have doubted. It’s a simple equation after all. On the reform side, concerned and fearful parents looking out for the best interests of disadvantaged minority children. On the anti-reform side, limousine liberal hypocrites and sinister union operatives.

But still. I can’t help but wonder. The possibility that wealthy white people hired expensive lawyers to sue local black leaders would be pretty bad press for the reform movement. It might look like rich white folks are having a hissy fit because they haven’t gotten their way with our schools. It might look like—dare I say it?—hypocrisy. It would certainly be bad optics. Of course that isn’t the case here in progressive Montclair. Sometimes the devil gets in me and I’m tempted to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, there may be a grain of truth in that offensive idea.

But that would be a black lie, now wouldn’t it?

 

Pearson’s Yellow Brick Road

I have never been happier that we refused to allow my fourth grader to take the PARCC. Yesterday, I asked her what she’s heard at school about the PARCC tests her peers have been taking. Although she has never sat for a PARCC test herself, she was able to tell me that some of the 4th grade PARCC reading passages were from the Wizard of Oz (apparently one passage was about the Emerald City, and another told the story of the Tin Man). So in theory, if your child has not yet sat for the 4th grade PARCC, you could embark on a Frank Baum marathon this weekend to give your child a leg up on his or her upcoming PARCC test.

This is one of the many logistics issues that has never made sense to me about the PARCC test security protocol: especially in the age of social media, how could the state departments of education and Pearson possibly have expected their testing materials to remain secret when one 4th grader might take the test as early as March 2nd, but that child’s cousin in another district might not be scheduled to take the same test until March 20th?

Well, now we know. As you have probably heard, yesterday afternoon blogger (and former Star Ledger education reporter) Bob Braun reported that Pearson is monitoring children’s social media accounts to look for Tweets and other social media posts that allegedly compromise the security of its PARCC tests. Here in New Jersey, at least, when Pearson finds what it believes to be test-security infractions, it then tracks down those students’ personal data to figure out what schools they attend. Then Pearson reports the alleged infractions to the New Jersey Department of Education (“NJDOE”). As of yet, we parents have no idea if the NJDOE stores the report of this alleged infraction in its NJSMART database. What we do know is that the NJDOE has been notifying individual districts’ test coordinators of their students’ alleged infractions. Furthermore, we know that NJDOE has requested that the individual districts punish students for writing about test questions on social media.

Today, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post (yes, the same Valerie Strauss who graciously publishes many of the pieces I’ve written for this blog) confirmed the story, and obtained additional information from both the Watchung Hills Regional High School superintendent who expressed her concerns about the practice in the email published on Braun’s blog and from a Pearson spokesperson.

So what does it all mean? Pearson thinks its monitoring (like Peter Greene, I think that Braun’s term, “spying,” misses the mark, as there is no expectation of privacy when you post a Tweet, at least) is hunky-dory:

The security of a test is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid.

We welcome debate and a variety of opinions. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level.

We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and the validity, integrity of the test results.

I think that Pearson, however, has missed the mark. First of all, what, exactly, is an “element” of a test question? Are the Pearson Police going to be at my doorstep tomorrow because I mentioned that I heard from my kid (who herself has not and will not sit for the test) that the 4th grade PARCC includes excerpts from Frank Baum’s work? And if I can’t — as I can’t — be held accountable for posting the tip above, why is it okay for Pearson, through its patsy, the NJDOE, to seek to impose disciplinary action against students who allegedly shared “test elements” (although not, according to the student’s superintendent, a tweet containing a photograph of the test itself)?

Second, what does it mean for a test to be “secure”? Does Pearson really think that kids are not talking about these tests among themselves? Does Pearson really think it can bind our kids to secrecy? The last time I checked, our kids were minors — and therefore they, unlike their teachers, cannot be bound to a non-disclosure agreement even if it could be argued that our kids receive consideration in connection with these tests (and, my lawyer friends, even if there was consideration and such a contract could bind a minor, it sounds awfully like a contract of adhesion, anyway…). Along those lines: are our kids being instructed to keep the test materials secret? As a practical matter, it strikes me as pathologically naive to think that such instructions to kids could actually work.

But more importantly, as a parent, I vehemently object to adults in our schools instructing children to keep secrets from their parents. In this day and age, we parents work hard to make sure that our kids know that they can talk to us about anything — and that openness is how we parents try to thwart possible predators and bullies, because we know that predators and bullies use children’s shame and fear to hide their abuse of children. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents, and that they should feel comfortable talking with their parent about anything — good or bad, fun or sad, easy or difficult.

So if you think I’m mad about these tests now, Education Commissioner Hespe and Pearson’s Brandon Pinette, I better not hear that our schools are sending our children mixed messages by telling kids to be open with parents  and trusted adults — except when it comes to testing.

Third, what sort of people has Pearson hired to track children’s social media presences, and what steps has Pearson taken to ensure that its employees are properly vetted before it directs them to obtain personally identifiable information about our kids? Have Pearson’s employees been required to submit to background checks? It seems an odd person who would choose to make his or her living by delving into individual children’s social media use to the extent that the person can figure out the school the child attends. How are those people vetted? What steps has Pearson taken to safeguard our children? And should a private company, which is not subject to public oversight through OPRA, really be tasked with obtaining this sort of information regarding our children?

Finally, what does it mean that the NJDOE (and also, apparently, other state education departments, such as the Maryland equivalent) has so cavalierly agreed to a scheme that encourages a for-profit corporation to hire adults to monitor children’s social media for supposed test security breaches? The twitter hashtags that have sprung up in response to this scandal seem largely on point:

#Pearsoniswatching
#PeepingPearson
#PearsonisBigBrother
#Pearson1984

Yes, it doesn’t shock me that Pearson, a for-profit corporation, is scanning our children’s social media, but it’s  disturbing that Pearson is reporting the results of its social media monitoring of children to government agencies (presumably in return for the $108 million that NJDOE is paying Pearson to administer these tests). In particular, Pearson is reporting kids’ alleged test-security infractions to a government agency — the NJDOE — that maintains a database with a personal identification number for each and every public school student in New Jersey. Assuming for the sake of argument that our children are somehow precluded from freely sharing — either in conversation or via social media — the reading passages and questions asked of them on the PARCC, are we parents really okay with the NJDOE possibly noting our children’s poor judgment on their records of our children’s academic careers? I have no idea if NJDOE is tracking this information or not, of course — but then again, until yesterday I didn’t know that NJDOE was regularly receiving reports from Pearson about New Jersey children’s social media use either.

It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984, but it really does feel like Pearson and the NJDOE expect parents to be okay with such corporate and government intrusion into their children’s lives. Maybe my opposition to this level of Orwellian intrusion is naive, but I, for one, find this level of intrusion into our children’s lives downright creepy. And I think that the New Jersey Department of Education officials who condoned this without full advance disclosure to the public should be summarily fired. David Hespe, that means you.

Parents, if, until now, you’ve let your kids take these tests, remember: you can still choose to refuse.

Millburn Graduate Takes On Millburn Superintendent’s Logic

Dear Superintendent Crisfield:

As a graduate of the Millburn Public Schools (Class of 1991) where you currently serve as Superintendent, I feel compelled to respond to your February 19, 2015 NJ Spotlight Op-Ed regarding the movement to refuse the PARCC tests. But first please indulge me in a brief digression:

My History in the Millburn Public Schools

I began kindergarten at Millburn’s Deerfield School in the fall of 1978. From kindergarten forward, school was a place where I felt valued as a human being, and where learning was something that everyone around me took seriously. Even today, as a mother of two elementary school students myself, I look back on my Millburn education as the gold-standard of what a public education can and should be. I remember each of my elementary school teachers by name, and I can still recall many of the projects I worked on in their classes.

My Millburn education is the foundation that allowed me to graduate from Millburn as a National Merit Semi-Finalist, go on to complete my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, and eventually allowed me to earn two graduate degrees: an M.A.T. from the University of Maine, and eventually a J.D. from Rutgers-Newark. My Millburn peers have been extraordinarily successful. Just look at award-winning young adult author and editor David Levithan (he was one of the editors-in-chief of The Miller when I was a staff member), or one of the co-valedictorians of the class of 1991, my close friend Debbie James, who is a terrific Harvard-educated primary care pediatrician up in Cambridge. Our graduates are successful in all walks of life, and it’s insane to think that Millburn students — then or now — leave the high school as anything other than “college and career ready.”

As a mother, my Millburn education means that I know what public education can and should be. I now live in Montclair. After months of inquiry, I joined the PARCC-refusal movement as a protest against what the high-stakes testing culture is doing to prevent my kids’ teachers from engaging them the way that my Millburn teachers engaged me.

Contrary to your mischaracterization of parents’ motivations, I did not join the opt-out movement because I am “looking out for what [I] feel is [my] child’s best interest.” You state:

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child’s best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

Frankly, my kid (like most of her contemporaries in Millburn) will be fine whether she takes the PARCC test or not. I joined the test-refusal movement because the systemic pressure placed on public schools by high-stakes standardized testing must be stopped for the sakes of all of our children. We can and must do better by our kids, and if educational leaders like yourself are unwilling to step up to the plate, then we parents have no choice but to step in to preserve our vision of what public schools can and should be.

Your Arguments

Your editorial boils down to a slippery slope argument that misses the larger point of what the high-stakes standardized test movement is about. In addition, you conflate a broader category (assessment) with a far narrower subset of that category (high-stakes standardized tests). Indeed, within that logical fallacy, you also conflate the low-stakes standardized tests of the pre-No Child Left Behind days with the high-stakes standardized tests of today. Finally, you throw in a good dose of patronizing adjectives to describe your community’s parents (the loaded word “hysterical” used to describe a largely woman-driven movement is particularly egregious).

First, your slippery slope argument relies on a few inartfully worded refusal letters to take the position that the grassroots movement against high-stakes standardized tests is “leading us down a very dangerous path” (i.e., down a classic slippery slope). You argue:

[O]pting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this “opting out” or “refusing” (or whatever it’s called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools.

Your concern stems from refusal letters penned by some of your parents that not only refuse the PARCC test itself, but also refuse “anything to do with the Common Core.” I agree: that’s a silly position for a parent to take. But you are your community’s educational leader. To a large degree I’d posit that the blame for those inartful letters lies with you, as their leader, for not leading your community through conversation and consensus-building around community reaction to the PARCC tests and how Millburn could push back against state and federal edicts, especially considering that its reliance on state and federal dollars is relatively minimal. Instead, what I’ve been hearing is that at Millburn High School, your administration has been using Common Core to enforce lock-step curriculum on your highly-skilled and professional teachers. For instance, I’ve gotten confirmation from multiple sources that your high school English department now requires all teachers of the same course to teach the same lesson plans on the same day, which, to be frank, I find anathema to everything I valued about my own Millburn education. That’s leadership by fiat, which is a far cry from leadership through consensus-building in partnership with Millburn’s highly-skilled faculty. My jaw hit the floor when I first heard that story, and despite the multiple confirmations I’ve gathered, I still have a hard time believing it’s true. What it does tell me is how scared and beaten-down even Millburn’s teachers must feel, and that’s a tragedy for everyone involved with Millburn public education — especially the students.

Next, your piece creates a straw-man argument by conflating two things that aren’t synonymous: assessment and high-stakes standardized testing. High-stakes standardized testing is indisputably one form of assessment, but not all assessment takes the form of high-stakes standardized testing. You then imply that parents who refuse PARCC are also refusing to allow their kids to be assessed by their classroom teachers. Your logic is again flawed.

In point of fact, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that we shouldn’t assess kids. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that teachers should not be allowed to test students. But as I’m sure you recall from your graduate studies (I certainly do from mine), assessment does not require testing, and certainly all tests need not be high-stakes tests used to punish schools, teachers, administrators, and students.

You imply that parents who are refusing PARCC are also refusing to allow teachers to assess their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. During my years in the Millburn Public Schools, my work on each of the projects mentioned above was assessed by my teachers. I am sure that Millburn parents continue to welcome teachers’ feedback — at conferences, on report cards, and via grades on individual assignments — on their children’s growth as students. Your argument is, frankly, sad, and I would have expected more from the leader of the talented faculty who comprise the Millburn Public Schools.

Similarly, you also conflate the low-stakes Iowas and similar norm-referenced standardized tests of yore (in my time, they were actually CTBS, not Iowas, but I digress) with the high-stakes HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC that post-date No Child Left Behind. This argument not only conflates unlike things (the Iowa and CTBS type test scores were not aggregated and published to the community at large to be touted by real estate agents), but it is also disingenuous, as Iowa and CTBS test scores weren’t used as a potential basis to fire teachers and reconstitute or close schools. Unlike the post-No Child Left Behind criterion-referenced state-wide tests, the CTBS tests of my youth were low-stakes standardized tests, and thus were functionally distinct from HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC. At most, the low-stakes standardized tests of my childhood were one factor among many used to place kids into gifted and talented programs.

Finally, you characterize test-refusing parents as “hysterical.” As I am sure you are aware, the root of the word “hysterical” is in the Greek for “uterus.” Feminist scholars have analyzed how accusations of hysteria against women-led movements are a common means of social control exerted by straight, white men against woman-led social movements. I’m sure this was not your intent, and in fact I find real irony in your use of the word “hysterical” to describe the grassroots organizers against the PARCC given the nature of your own arguments, which truly are hysterical given that they rely on propaganda techniques such as the slippery slope and conflating similar terms. Nevertheless, your linguistic choice, although presumably unintentional, is patronizing and acts as an attempt to exert patriarchal control over a largely woman-led movement. As an aside, you can thank Dr. Cullen-Bender, my 7th grade Millburn Junior High School Communication Skills teacher, for my ability to identify, analyze, and reject the types of propaganda and false-logic techniques that form the basis of your editorial.

Proposals for Collaboration and Consensus-Building:

As a Millburn graduate, I have a few suggestions:

1. You mention some of your own concerns with the effects of high-stakes testing (e.g., that they take too long to administer, that they lead to problematic comparisons between district and schools, and, worst of all, that they’re inappropriately used to evaluate teachers). Those are many of the same reasons cited by the parents in your community for refusing the PARCC. I’d guess that along with those concerns, many of your local parents are also concerned that high-stakes testing in general — and PARCC in particular — is leading toward the same narrowing of the curriculum that led me as a Montclair parent to refuse to allow my daughter to be tested.

What if, instead of fighting your parents over their legitimate concerns with the narrowing of world-class curriculum I benefited from in the Millburn Public Schools, you instead helped to lead the test-refusal movement, and in leading it, worked with your local parents to craft a test-refusal form that was limited to the specific issue at hand: high-stakes statewide standardized testing?

Test-refusal letters don’t need to be like the ones you mentioned. In a district like mine (Montclair), in the wake of our Board’s courageous decision to lead by passing a refusal policy, here’s the full-text of my refusal email to my daughter’s principal:

In accordance with the district policy passed by our Board of Education last night, I am writing to notify you that I refuse to allow Elizabeth Blaine to take the PARCC test. Please let me know that you’ve received and recorded this note. In addition, please advise (at your earliest convenience) what alternative arrangements Hillside is making for students who refuse.

As you know, our decisions is in no way a reflection on you or Hillside School. Rather, it is our attempt to stand with you and with Elizabeth’s teachers by refusing to allow student test scores to determine the fates of our teachers and our schools.

Thank you.

You’ll note that there’s no muss, no fuss, and no slippery slope to complain about. But that’s because despite our differences (and we have many over in opinionated Montclair), we were ultimately able to come together as a community to craft a refusal policy that respects our community’s legitimate concerns about the use of the PARCC tests. Millburn parents would have been far better served if you (or Millburn’s Board of Education) had done the same, rather than chastising them for the concerns that even you agree are legitimate.

2. What if, instead of drafting a poison pen op-ed criticizing your students’ parents, you instead led them in effective protest against PARCC and other high-stakes tests, as, for instance, Principal Carol Burris has done over on Long Island?

Then you’d be controlling the message and ensuring that the PARCC refusals were limited to PARCC (and perhaps NJ ASK), rather than seeking to refuse everything under the sun.

3. What if you gave your students hands-on education in the democratic process by allowing them to participate — during school hours and of course on an elective basis — in the democratic processes aimed at reducing the annual high-stakes testing requirements by, for instance, lobbying their state and federal legislators in favor of bills like A-4165, A-4190, and A-3079 and a grade-span testing version of the ESEA reauthorization; attending and commenting at local and state school board meetings; and testifying before the NJ Assembly and NJ Senate’s Education Committees?

Then your students would have the sort of real world authentic educational experience that they’d remember for the rest of their lives, even more than I remember the projects my Deerfield teachers created for me.

4. What if you had led your parents through consensus building and educating them about the issues facing public schools today (e.g., that the proper target of their anger with Common Core is activism at the state and federal levels, rather than local refusals) instead of berating them with your own “hysterical” slippery slope arguments (e.g., your “opting out will destroy public education as we know it today” argument discussed herein) against the straw-man of parents’ inartfully crafted refusal letters that include opting-out of Common Core curriculum as well as PARCC?

Then you’d be able to gather data to show that parents in a town like Millburn want more for their kids than the narrowing of curriculum forced on schools, teachers, and communities by high-stakes standardized tests that diminish instruction in social studies and the arts. Then you’d be able to educate your parents about the real problems with decisions that have ceded educational policy making to the state and federal instead of local levels, and perhaps you’d be leading a grassroots movement to effectuate a return of education decision-making to the local level, where it can be carefully tailored to meet the individual needs of individual communities.

Parting Thoughts

You yourself note that there are precedents for opting-out of limited portions of the public school curriculum. You agree that those precedents have not “destroyed public education as we know it today.” PARCC refusal won’t — and shouldn’t — destroy public education either, as it, especially if narrowly-tailored by proactive education leaders, can and should be just as limited as refusing to dissect fetal pigs. PARCC acceptance, however, along with all of the high-stakes consequences that come along with it, might be the final nail in the coffin for local control of public education. I am not sure why Millburn’s educational leader, of all people, would quietly acquiesce in a scheme to remove the autonomy of Millburn’s overall excellent public school teachers and administrators, when he could instead have the courage of his convictions to speak out against it, like brave educational leaders (such as Carol Burris out on Long Island) have done.

I think your community would have been better served if you’d met your parents halfway by responding to their concerns about, for instance, the Common Core ELA standards’ emphasis on reading texts without considering their broader literary and historical contexts. You could have assuaged parents’ legitimate concerns by assuring them that Millburn wasn’t going to stop providing its students with a broad-based public education that includes analysis of texts that draws on the reader’s response rather than only Common Core analyses that ask students to divine the “author’s intent.”

Similarly, imagine if you’d relied on the historical knowledge I know still exists over there in Millburn to tell parents that back in the early 1980’s, we were solving math problems with number lines and manipulatives too — and that such techniques are not, popular wisdom aside, specific to “Common Core.”

But you won’t build credibility unless you’re also honest about any degradation of the elementary school social studies curriculum, or other district-level choices, such as limiting electives and specials offerings, that you may have felt were no choice at all because of the pressures — especially in a town like Millburn, where test scores are a major component of identity and self-worth — to ensure that your students scored well on the test du jour.

What I as a parent don’t welcome is feedback from a computer-based high-stakes (because it will, as you noted, be used to rank teachers, principals, administrators, districts, and schools) standardized test not tailored to what my child’s teachers have used their professional judgment to teach my child. I further object to forcing our professional teachers to tailor their teaching to such high-stakes tests, rather than allowing classroom teachers to design assessments of all sorts that best measure student achievement.

If my child was offered low-stakes and norm-referenced standardized tests once or twice during her educational career as a check-in (such as the CTBS tests I recall taking in the 4th grade at Deerfield and in the 8th grade, I think, at the Junior High), I’d welcome that feedback as two data points among many. But the “feedback” from the PARCC, which will, as you note, be used inappropriately to rank teachers, schools, and districts, is not worth the price. It’s too bad that you can’t see the distinction, and that you’ve instead chosen to lead your community by going public with a slippery slope argument that fails to draw a distinction between teacher-created in-class assessment and statewide high-stakes standardized tests.

Perhaps Millburn would have been better off if you could have benefited from the critical thinking required by an old-fashioned Millburn education? As a test-refusing parent, that old-fashioned progressive Millburn-style education is all I want for my kids.