EDITORIAL: Enough high-stakes doubletalk

BE GLAD YOU’RE NOT in the 3rd to 8th grade. (If you are in the 3rd to 8th grade and reading this, congratulations, you must be very smart!) Those kids in public schools around the state are now taking this year’s standardized tests. Or not. Some parents are exercising their right to have their children opt out of the exams.

Last year at this time nearly a quarter-million students did not take the tests–that’s more than a fifth of all the students in those grades. It was a massive demonstration of civil disobedience that led to a shakeup on the Board of Regents, the ouster of the commissioner of education and an about-face by Governor Andrew Cuomo, which happened so fast it would have made anyone but a politician blush.

This year’s tests have fewer questions, state “educators” have reviewed those questions, there are no time limits for completing the exams and the results will not be used for teacher evaluations. That’s progress.

MaryEllen Elia, the new state education commissioner, is urging parents to let their children take the tests this year. In a letter to the public that appears in The Columbia Paper (see Page 30) she writes that “opting out of the 2016 tests is not the answer.”

Really? This movement of parents just forced the state education bureaucracy and political leaders to change course. That’s a whole lot closer to an “answer” than the welcome but modest changes Ms. Elia is offering. Telling parents they shouldn’t use the best tool they have as a way to get the attention of the education establishment is an insult. It reinforces the disastrous disconnect between the state education establishment and the parents who spawned the opt-out movement.

This might all blow over. The number of parents who boycott the new tests might shrink, with the diehards becoming just another faction of the cranky voters found in every school district. After all, the state Education Department still provides essential services and Governor Cuomo did listen to what the public wanted, changed his policies and backed down on his attempt to use the tests as a way to punish teachers.

It’s also true that finding a quick fix for any public education problem is difficult in this state. The governor does not appoint members of the Board of Regents, which makes education policy and oversees the Education Department; the legislature picks them. The governor does have the strongest hand in determining how much money goes to support education–$24.7 billion in the new state budget–but he needs the legislature to agree to his spending plan. It’s complicated.

Opting out isn’t likely to change the structure of this system despite recent changes in personnel, including a new chancellor of the Board of Regents, who sympathizes with parents who opt out. But the protests did grab the attention of every elected state official. So even if the scale of the boycott trails off this year, officials know it could reappear suddenly and with a passion greater than anything seen so far.

And there’s the tragic flaw in the attempt this year to re-brand the high stakes tests. The state fails to recognize that opt-out protests were not just a reaction to the tests themselves; parents were upset by the bungled roll-out of new curriculums and the tests linked to them. By introducing and then defending these poorly executed programs, the state Education Department broke the bond of trust that has existed for more than a century between the Regents and the public. And until the state’s focus becomes rebuilding that trust, these small changes only invite more protests.

What should the Education Department do now? Start by listening. Ms. Elia, the commissioner, has done a lot of that. But don’t ask the parents of the 240,000 students who opted out last year to believe that one person could hear, let alone respond to, all their concerns.

In the meantime, get creative. Children aren’t lab rats. Reduce the wish-list of things be to be measured and fit the tests into a single day, including extra time for kids who need  it. We used to educate girls and boys with no three-day tests and they could send men to the moon.

Change comes slowly to public education. But that’s no excuse for halfway measures. The public will accept change if they trust the people making it happen. But opting out won’t end until the state Education Department rebuilds that trust with actions that matter.

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