Last week was a pretty good one for parents and teachers in New York who are demanding that the state's education reforms be reformed. And it was a useful one for the editorial board, which received more than 300 responses to its survey on standards, testing, and teacher evaluations.
We wanted to know specifically why parents opted kids out of state tests or made them take them. And we wanted to know what parents thought must be done to make things better.
In 2010 the state adopted the Common Core, a set of standards meant to ensure high school graduates are college and career ready. Spurred on by federal dollars, it implemented the changes quickly and poorly. Many districts and teachers were unprepared to teach the curricula, students were unprepared to learn them and parents were furious.
Although administrators say many problems with lesson plans and teacher preparedness are resolved, the animus against the changes has increased. It all came to head this past spring when about half of Long Island's third- through eighth-graders and 20 percent of such students statewide "opted out," simply refusing to sit for mandated math and/or English exams.
Our unscientific survey was intended for parents of third- through eighth-graders. Eighty-five percent in the survey said their kids opted out, and 15 percent said theirs took the exams. That deviation from the approximately 50-50 split islandwide isn't surprising. People upset at the status quo are more likely to take time to express their feelings than those who are OK with it.
Of those whose kids skipped the tests, three-quarters said the biggest reason was not wanting the tests tied to teacher evaluations. About 17 percent said the primary reason was their child's refusal. Twelve percent said warnings on social media were the biggest factor, 10 percent said their kids were not ready for the tests and 8 percent said a teacher or principal advised them to opt out. (The total exceeds 100 percent because respondents could cite more than one answer as a top reason.)
Of the respondents whose children took the tests, 52 percent said the biggest reason was because testing is part of education and their kids were prepared, 37 percent said student test scores should be part of how teachers are evaluated, and 24 percent said their kids wanted to take the tests. Twelve percent said messages via social media and from parent groups persuaded them not to opt out, and 10 percent said a teacher or principal who encouraged taking the exams was the main impetus.
It's clear that mixed messages abounded as pro- and anti-test factions were active on social media, and educators on both sides had influence.
Even more informative were the written responses readers submitted.
"Test scores don't tell you anything about how caring or nurturing a teacher is," one said. "They don't tell you if a teacher came to the wake of a child's grandma, as my child's teacher just did."
That's true, and notable.
Another very personal note read, "My daughter is severely dyslexic. She has made progress in the past three years with a tutor and special services. I do not see the reason to stress her out and have her in tears over a test that is obviously above her reading level."
Forcing children, no matter how challenged by handicaps or language barriers, to be tested on their age-appropriate grade level is a devastating consequence of the federal No Child Left Behind law. It has to change, but in a way that doesn't allow exemptions to become an excuse to stop testing poor students and minority groups. We can't let the difficulties faced by special-needs kids sap our resolve to teach them as much as possible.
And there were strong voices in favor of testing. One parent wrote, "We do not get to opt out of things in life. I think it's a poor and confusing message to give children. I do not like the actual Common Core curriculum at all.I still believe in testing, and seeing how much a child absorbs is a good tool."
The risk that we are shielding today's children from life's challenges is a real one.
Many of the angry responses echoed this one: "Nothing can give me confidence on this issue in the current climate and curriculum. The Common Core curriculum is an illegitimate curriculum driven by corporate interests that have zero genuine interest in best practices in educating the state's children."
Suggested one parent: "Teacher evaluations should come from students and parents via survey at the end of the year." Giving parents, teachers and administrators each a role in assessments could work -- but an objective measure is still needed.
No constituency has been happy since the new testing and teacher evaluations began. Especially the teachers. Refinements thus far haven't helped. But last week, the state Board of Regents approved an appeals system for teachers who receive inexplicably low ratings, a change Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo likes.
Meanwhile, the state education commissioner announced tests for third- through eighth-graders will be shorter this year, answering a big complaint of parents and teachers. But they shouldn't be less rigorous. And Cuomo's commission to review the system begins work soon.
But for every sign there is more listening, there is an example of more shouting. Charter-school advocate and former broadcaster Campbell Brown, whose organization is representing parents suing the state over tenure policies that keep bad teachers in jobs, was protested last week by more than 100 teachers union supporters. Some even arrived in boats to the Lake George resort where Brown spoke to the Business Council of New York. Demonstrators derided her with signs that read "Campbell Brown=Billionaire Puppet=Bad4Schools."
So the battle continues, with conflict still, but it seems there is more listening than before.