A proliferation of standardized tests, a succession of carrot-and-stick reform proposals coming down from higher levels of government, the promotion of charter schools by the state and federal government, loss of local control a constant threat, teachers forced to conform to a particular lesson plan… for an increasingly vocal group of local parents, these are all signs that public education as we have come to define it is under attack. Hence the name of a March 25 forum held in Saugerties, Reclaiming Public Education, organized by PACE Saugerties (People Actively Committed to Education), a grassroots coalition formed in 2012 by local parents to initiate dialogue about the current educational system.
Anna Shah and Bianca Tanis of New York State Allies for Public Education, Heather Roberts, the vice president of Bennett Intermediate School, and Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance of Quality Education, spoke about a range of topics, from school funding to high stakes testing.
Billy Easton spoke about the funds lost to schools through the Gap Elimination Adjustment and Foundation Aid. He says it is not enough to call only for the restitution of funds lost to the GEA, which allowed the state to take funds from schools across New York in order to balance its budget. According to Easton, $1 billion has been lost to the GEA, while $4.9 billion has been lost to New York schools because the foundation aid formula, which would distribute funds based on a district’s needs, was not fully implemented.
He pointed out that New York State has the eighth most unequal funding between rich and poor districts in the country, with $8,700 more spent per pupil in wealthy districts than in poorer districts.
He urged all those present to contact their representatives to ask for fair funding.
One of the issues presenters spoke about most passionately was the Common Core tests for grades 3–8. These tests, according to Bianca Tanis, are not appropriate for young children. First, she said, the length of time that the students must sit for these tests is not developmentally appropriate. In 2008, Tanis noted, fifth graders had to sit for 160 minutes of testing. Now, she said, they must sit for 540 minutes of testing, a total that exceeds even the medical board examinations.
Tanis said the written portion of the ELA test requires a very particular type of format. Children have to write differently on the test than they do in real life, or as she put it, code switch, something that she said is developmentally problematic for young students. Further, she said, students are asked to use only evidence from the text in their responses, not prior background knowledge. Heather Roberts echoed this concern, and said she was appalled that her son was spending time in school learning to “block knowledge” from his writing.
The presenters argued that the reading level of the questions was above that of students. Tanis said when questions from a third grade test were analyzed using a readability index, the questions were found to be at an eighth grade level.
Many of the presenters reminded parents they have the right to opt their students out of the tests. Tanis pointed out that even though there is no “opt out provision,” parents can still make the choice to refuse the tests, just as they can make the choice to not allow their children to participate in a cupcake party or a sex education lesson.
Anna Shah spoke about the Common Core Parental Refusal Act Assemblyman Jim Tedisco has introduced, which would codify into law a parent’s ability to refuse the tests. Shah said the act urges “humane treatment” for parents who make that decision and “reaffirms” their rights.
The speakers also argued that opting out would not have the dire consequences that Superintendent Seth Turner outlined in a letter posted to the district website and printed in Saugerties Times. Tanis said there is no mechanism in place for schools to lose funding. While acknowledging that schools do risk being designated for a Local Assistance Plan (LAP) if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test, she said this does not cost the district money; they only have to develop a plan for improvement. Further, she said if the district were to become a focus district, after being an LAP for three years, they still would not lose money. Instead, they would have to redirect some of their funds to remediate struggling students.
There was also a discussion about what to do with those who opt out, a sticking point in Saugerties, where parents have protested what they call a “sit and stare policy,” in which those students taking the test must remain in the room, sitting silently with test-takers for the duration of the test. Tanis pointed to quotes from the New York City chancellor of education that urged schools to “make every effort to arrange for another instructional activity” during the testing period for those students who refused the test. Anna Shah noted that the State Education Department only says schools don’t have an “obligation” to provide an alternate activity, not that they advocate against such a provision. She said the New York State Teachers’ Union (NYSUT) condemns the practice of sit and stare, and Self Advocacy Association of New York State (SANYS) strongly discourages it.