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Movement Against Standardized Testing Continues to Gain Momentum

At last week’s Wednesday night Buffalo school board meeting, board member and former president Barbara Seals Nevergold shared something from her private life with the other members and the audience. Her daughter, she said, was considering keeping Nevergold’s granddaughter from taking this year’s round of state-mandated standardized tests. The context and tenor of Nevergold’s comment indicated she would not disapprove of such a decision.

The subject under discussion, early in the meeting, was the school district’s policy with regard to students opting-out of these tests, a growing cohort of students, locally and statewide. Up to last Wednesday, the district had a kind of default policy: Each school principal could decide what such students could do, whether they must submit to the “sit-and-stare” regimen, sitting silently in the test room, or elsewhere, prohibited from reading anything. Nevergold made clear she regarded this as a cruel and abusive treatment of these students, particularly the younger ones.

She had introduced a resolution calling for ending sit and stare, and permitting these students to read various materials, although not to do schoolwork. What was unusual about the meeting during discussion of her proposal was the calm, attentive, almost conciliatory tone, and the subsequent unanimous vote in favor of it, both of these rare in recent board meetings.

Nevergold later told Artvoice, in a telephone interview, that she was a little surprised by the unanimity. “I think some of the members didn’t understand what this meant,” she said, referring to the conservative, white five-member majority. This state’s increasing imposition of standardized tests and the national Common Core Curriculum has made problems like this one more prevalent, but the Buffalo school board has seemed to operate insulated from these issues. The educational measures enacted early Wednesday in Albany, at the insistence of Governor Andrew Cuomo, are virtually calculated to increase problems and discord. The board majority has concentrated on its agenda of increasing the number of city charter schools and bringing the local teachers union to heel. But for a little while last week, the larger world seemed to infiltrate the boardroom and its deliberations, as Nevergold and her minority-faction colleagues briefly discussed the difficulties and damage they said had been inflicted on students and teachers by the tests. Larry Quinn, who sometimes seems to be acting as an unacknowledged leader of the board majority, at one point asked, “If there’s something wrong with these tests, shouldn’t we be out in front on this?” After passing the resolution, the meeting proceeded to other matters, and some measure of the usual disagreements and acrimony.

But the larger, more troubling nature of the new testing regime, and the difficulties it poses to students, teachers and districts was apparent Saturday at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. library on Jefferson Avenue when the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization held a forum on standardized testing. One organizer put her cards on the table at the outset: “Our parents have been lied to about the education of our children.” The forum attracted only a modest-sized audience, but it included a much larger proportion of people of color than has been evident at a series of anti-test meetings held in Buffalo over the last two years.

The BPTO people took the position that they weren’t there to tell parents or students whether or not to take the standardized tests, but the case they made against them left little room for doubt about what they thought was the right course. That case was detailed and broad, but it’s the same one that many scholars, teachers, unions and parents have been making for several years, and it can be boiled down to a few propositions: standardized tests are invalid for evaluating public school teachers or student achievements; they’re age-inappropriate; they skew and distort school curricula reducing genuine learning; and they often have a damaging effect on student motivation and performance. Shirley Verrico, a Williamsville art historian, former college instructor, parent and “a reluctant test expert,” told the attendees that “broad, standardized tests can’t tell what one child knows and understands” about math. The tests fail as diagnostic tools. Making reference to a sort of spreadsheet of test data from one examination, projected on a screen, she attacked the “myth” of the diagnostic utility of the tests. “Nothing on this tells us what Johnny’s problem is with math, whether Johnny is good at division, but not multiplication, whether he forgets about inversion” in answering questions.

Since teachers have to sign affidavits binding them to keep test questions secret, they don’t get their classes’ results until the next academic year, and they only correct the exams of other teachers’ students, they’re not aided in their teaching but rather are only further burdened with new, unproductive duties. She referred to the work of Walter Strong at the University of Texas, who estimated that “72 percent of what these tests measure is how good one is at test taking.” Can you make a decision very quickly, or are you cautiously methodical. For his pains, Verrico said, Pearson, the company that provides this state’s exams, withdrew its financial support from his university and publicly questioned his credentials and reputation. Moreover, she noted, the tests “test specific information.” Williamsville got new test-related textbooks. Districts with less resources, like Buffalo’s, don’t get them. The cost of administering these tests, she said, drains districts’ resources. She cited a SUNY New Paltz study of cost-effectiveness that found six Rockland County districts would develop a $10 million deficit implementing Common Core tests. “Williamsville,” she went on, “received $70 thousand in federal Race to the Top money, but spent $1 million implementing,” a disparity it doesn’t like to advertise, she said.

What the tests do produce, of course, is hard, if crude, easy-to-misuse data on schools and teachers. “We’re talking about standardized teaching,” Verrico said. Co-leader Chris Caverallo told of a Common Core exam that asked second graders to describe the importance of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in the development of civilization. (At this point, a retired elementary school teacher in the audience exclaimed, “Yangtze? My kids hardly knew where Buffalo is!”) The tests, Cavarello said, regularly are age-inappropriate.

Barbara Seals Nevergold told Artvoice that she attended a meeting with the state’s deputy education commissioner last year in which he told reps from New York’s big cities that “We’re gonna have major failures.” Why was this necessary? Because, she said, state ed thinks it’s the best way to raise standards, no matter the frustrated teachers or demoralized students.

“There’s nothing,” Nevergold said, “showing that this is a valid way” to improve performance. But, she noted, “It’s a done deal to evaluate teachers and compel compliance.” She was referring to Cuomo’s budget proposals that deal with education and that passed the legislature the day after she spoke. These provide $75 million for 27 failing schools in New York, including five in Buffalo, which must show “demonstrated progress” in one year or face takeover by some kinds of “receiver.” Teacher job protections, such as promotion, class size, tenure, and hours can be overridden by an appointed receiver. In the event of a contractural conflict with a union, an arbitrator will decide. And standardized tests are the chain that links all this together.

Eric Mihelbergel, co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, a test opt-out group, and a Ken-Ton district parent, called the legislative results “an absolute diaster,” one he attributed to the governor “having been such a dictator.” Mihelberger, who consults with parent groups across the state, said “The only solution is to increase the number of test refusals and opt-outs.”

Nevergold said the widening skepticism and objections to Common Core and the standardized testing involves not just parents but also “educational leaders” around New York. “We’re becoming a district of test-takers,” rather than an educational system, she said. “This [protest] isn’t going away.”

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