Monday, May 25, 2015

Jumping Into the Fray

It's taken me a long time to get to this point. There were a few editorial incidents that almost got me here earlier this year. A very generous friend with a well-established following has allowed me space on her blog over the years. So, here I am because the issues of special education, testing, and the claim that without high-stakes standardized testing, students with disabilities -- along with economically disadvantaged and students of color --couldn't receive a good education, know how they are doing versus their peers, and are having their civil rights violated. Let's also throw in that white suburban moms were ruining their chance at equal educational opportunities just because they didn't want their own precious children stressed.

Yeah, time to call bullshit. I am one of those (mostly) white suburban moms. I am also the mom of teenaged daughter with traumatic brain injury. During our K-10 experience, the annual standardized testing, brought to us by No Child Left Behind, has been a disaster. I've been asking child study teams for years what the purpose of testing a student who is not educationally operating anywhere near grade level is. What exactly does anyone expect to get out of that that her teachers don't already know? The answer, in grades 3 through 7 were all the same. Let me know if any of  these sound familiar. "NJASK provides valuable data." "NJASK is required by law. Everyone has to take it." "NJASK is an excellent test and your daughter should try her best." "Don't worry, NJASK doesn't count for anything." "We will make sure your daughter is in a separate testing room and will be given lots of breaks." And so on. Anyone with a child with an IEP has heard some version of one or all of those. Anyone not living under a rock in NJ this past testing season will recognize the same arguments made for the PARCC exam.

Let me tell you the truth. Are your ready? A report that says "not proficient at grade level" is not helpful in any way, shape, or form -- either for you or for your child's teachers. It does not reflect the hard work done by both your child and their teachers. It does not reflect actual progress made throughout the year. And, just for good measure, if your child is like mine and fully understands her disabilities vs. her friends' abilities, it is the ultimate slap in the face. So, once again, what exactly is the purpose of giving this test to someone like my daughter and the thousands like her?

Thanks to a friend I finally figured out that I could opt my daughter out of NJASK. And that's exactly what I did. No semantic games of "refusing." Just relieved teachers and administrators who had all seen years of demoralized students and were powerless to do anything to help them.

Fast forward a couple of years and parents are catching on in droves. The entire education "reform" movement and the crazy testing that goes with it has finally woken them up. The landscape they have found is "reformers" who are incredibly well funded and have been carefully crafting and controlling the message of US education policy.

When I see a press release from The Leadership Conference, like the one from 5 May 2015, condemning "anti-testing efforts," I have to wonder why. Why do they and the members who signed (some organizations I have belonged to) believe that giving unproven tests to children of color, children who live in poverty, and children with disabilities, will level the proverbial playing field? If the same claims made by NCLB were true, then why didn't it work?

After the steam stopped coming our of my ears, I did what I usually do. I went to The Gates Foundation website and sure enough, The Leadership Conference had received over $1.7 million "to educate, inform, convene and communicate with its national coalition of civil rights advocates about the [Gates] US Program's Education Strategies." I find it hard to believe that money would have been taken if the leadership of The Leadership Conference didn't already buy into the testing crap. In my eyes, it sure explains the tone of the release. You can read the press release here. The signatories are an interesting mix of civil rights and special education groups.

That evening I wrote to Wade Henderson, Esq., President and CEO of The Leadership Conference. I'll post the full text of the letter below. Needless to say, I have not heard a peep from Mr. Henderson.

There have been other posts and letters to The Leadership Conference. I'll bet they did not expect any response at all. Here is the response from Jesse Hagopian and the Board of Directors of Network for Public Education. Here is the response from Julian Vasquez Heilig. And, here is a response, published in The Washington Post, from Wayne Au.

If you've made it this far, thanks for hanging in there. Here is my letter to Wade Henderson:

5 May 2015

Wade Henderson, Esq.

President and CEO

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

1629 K Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20006

Dear Mr. Henderson,

I very rarely take the time to respond to press releases by organizations such as yours. However, the release dated today, 5th May, has left me wondering who exactly you’re representing, because it certainly is not me or my disabled daughter.

Please allow me to explain why the current testing, and its abysmal 14-year track record, are not in the best interests of students with disabilities (SWD), for persons of color, or those who are economically disadvantaged.

As a parent and a parent advocate, I am in a position to see, on the ground, how the effects of NCLB, and now the implementation of Bill Gates’ vision of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the accompanying tests, have grossly underserved those LCCHR represents.

It’s easy to understand the draw of the notion that a student’s progress or a teacher’s effectiveness can be quantified. I have a corporate background. I get it. But, this is people we are talking about, and more specifically, people who for whatever reason have challenges that deserve much more than the idea that a test score will help them overcome those challenges.

NCLB did not close achievement gaps. It did not lead to better and innovative curriculum. It did not improve US scores on PISA.

What NCLB did do is create a really clear map of where the deepest pockets of poverty are in this country. It did demonstrate that attaching “high stakes” (someone’s profession, their livelihood) to a number made for a narrowing of curriculum as everyone was forced to teach to a test. Race to the Top is that program on steroids.

For the last 14 years, tax-payer money has been going to support a program that is not focused on raising up students, no matter what their situation. Special education, as I have lived it, in some of the wealthiest areas of this country, has been cut short by the insipid notion that having “higher expectations” and doing well on a test that takes none of my daughter’s disabilities into account, will somehow, magically produce better students, now called “college and career ready.” Anyone with the most basic background or exposure to SWD’s knows this is not true. We also know that all the money spent on testing and on remediation because a single test reported that students are “failing,” has not resulted in desperately needed funding reaching the populations most in need – students with disabilities, students of color, and students who are economically disadvantaged. 

Those scoring low on tests were labeled “failing” and punished with the loss of funds! Those “failing” scores translated into “failing schools” that were then closed and/or sold off to charter school companies. Imagine the very heart of your neighborhood being cut out. The effects are devastating – on the fired teachers, on the displaced school children, on loss of neighborhoods. This method is called “test and punish.”

Now, with the onset of CCSS testing -- here in New Jersey it is PARCC -- we have had to deal not only with the complete overhaul of CCSS-aligned curriculum, but also with whatever districts have had to purchase in order to administer this fully online test – infrastructure, hardware (laptops, tablets, etc.), new technology staff to manage all of this, professional development to administer the test, and so on. Districts, already strapped for money, have still had to find it somewhere. There has been no accountability for the money spent on CCSS or the testing. Do you think special ed programs didn’t suffer because of this? Do you think in areas with poverty that money could not have been spent on more meaningful things such as - textbooks, art supplies, and afterschool programs? What exactly was wrong with the grade span testing pre-NCLB? And why are you not advocating alternative assessments, such as NYC’s Performance Standards Consortium, which allow students like my daughter to show what they can do rather than simply fail a standardized test.

It is disheartening to hear organizations like yours, and the ones that comprise your membership, speak out against the one action that has actually gotten attention after years of parents being ignored. It is astonishing that your civil rights group doesn’t recognize civil disobedience when you see it, and what’s more, you condemn it!

Please, I implore you, take the time to understand what these standardized tests provide in terms of usable data. Receiving a “not proficient at grade level” designation is not even remotely helpful, especially when true diagnostic tests are available. Speak to parents. Speak to teachers.

I would be happy to have a discussion with you about testing, about special education, and how organizations like yours can help those of us living through this morass called public education.

Julie B.

 If I ever hear from Mr. Henderson I'll let you know.

P.S. If anyone wants to talk about civil rights and special education rights let's start talking about equitable funding for schools, about properly funding special education programming, about well trained teachers, about alternative routes to graduation, and let's expel the myth that everyone has to be college and career ready.


  1. Thank you!! I watch as Newark kids say fund our schools instead of closing them. I listen as NJASK says the test is available in 11point type or 72 point type, but nothing in between. I sit in IEPs where they tell me they "don't do" in class support with teachers: aides are just as good. It is all funding. Tests are important, kids are not. Bandwidth and IT personnel and CC textbooks and tablets are more worth funding than the kids in the building.
    Damn you hit a nerve. I hear you and I agree. Keep writing, please!

    1. Thank you, Sue. Needless to say, I never did hear back from Mr. Henderson.