If you walked past P.S. 234 in Tribeca or PS 267 on the Upper East Side, or 35 other Manhattan or Brooklyn schools, a couple of different mornings in early April, you would have seen throngs of students and grownups carrying signs and chanting. If you didn’t know what I had learned from a few CSA members beforehand, you might have thought parents and kids were ticked off about some bureaucratic NYC DOE decision and were giving Tweed a piece of their mind. The demonstrations actually had nothing to do with the NYC DOE and the protest leaders with the megaphones were school Principals.
I confess to a surge of pride in these school leaders – 37 strong – who took to the street on their own initiative to show their solidarity with kids who were being tested from here to kingdom-come. The purpose of the demonstrations was to protest the latest New York state English Language Arts test and the state’s gag order that stopped educators from explaining why they were so exasperated. The tests didn’t reflect what kids had learned, but were being used for teacher and principal evaluations and to determine admission to some middle and high schools.
The problems with the 3-day, grades 3 through 8, ELA tests were summarized by PS 321 Principal Liz Phillips in a New York Times op-ed: “In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension and many were ambiguous.”
Like most of the protesting Principals, Liz is an enthusiastic advocate of the Common Core. Last year, many likeminded Principals had let the State Education Department and Pearson know exactly what they found educationally inappropriate about the test and how it worked against the Common Core. They’d expected their professional feedback to result in a somewhat better test, but the test got worse.
The salt in the wound here is that Principals, APs and teachers can’t prove their point by going public with the test questions. Any educator involved with the test had to sign Appendix H of the Scoring Leader Handbook agreeing “that I will not use or discuss the content of secure test materials, including test questions and answers, in any classroom or other activities.” To discuss questions before or after the test had been administered would result in “disciplinary actions in accordance with Sections 3020 and 3020-a of Education Law.” In other words, they could be fired.
Some testing cheerleaders tried to say the protests had to do with cowering educators who didn’t want to be evaluated. One look at the schools involved in the protest reveals that they are among the most highly rated, popular schools around. The schools’ educators hold teaching and learning as their sacred mission. They’re certainly not part of the anti-testing crowd.
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the ban on transparency has to do with Pearson, the assessment giant that has cornered the market on nationwide testing. It makes sense to look with suspicion on this behemoth that thrives despite years of notorious snafus, including scoring errors on Florida’s FCAT, on Minnesota’s online science test, on 4,000 SAT writing tests and, recently, on NYC’s gifted and talented test.
Yet, I was inclined to believe NYS Education Dept. spokesperson Tom Dunn when he told the NY Times’ Jim Dwyer, “Pearson did not do it. It’s our policy that does not allow teachers to talk about test questions.” He says the state is trying to preserve the test for reuse in later years and to discourage schools from using it as test prep. That noble sentiment against “drill and kill” would be refreshing if it weren’t so ironic.
What a gag order on educators does, intentionally or not, is protect companies like Pearson from exposure for blatant errors and plain old stupid questions. Principal Mark Federman of East Side Community High School told Jim Dwyer “We’re having a conversation about a document that is under lock and key.” That kind of prohibition on dialogue can’t help children and it could be a violation of educators’ First Amendment rights. CSA is currently doing legal research to determine if that’s the case.
Congratulations to these 37 Principals for knowing when to raise their voices as a group. Principals don’t do that often and when they do, they can’t be ignored. “It’s increasingly obvious to me that people need some leadership,” PS 234 Principal Lisa Ripperger told Chalkbeat. “And they’re looking to school leaders to voice that.”
They will keep it up as long as necessary and they will be heard.
This column will be printed in the June 2014 CSA News.