Parents and school officials across Long Island and New York State were met with more than the typical back-to-school anxiety following spring break this year.
Tuesday marked the first test in the latest round of controversial Common Core examinations for grades three through eight, and parents who hadn’t yet made the decision to opt their children out were running out of time, while letters from parents who had were piling up across the desks of school administrators.
More than 50,000 students across the state refused to take the Common Core standardized tests last year—more than 30,000 of those on Long Island—and local education activists tell the Press they expect even more opting out this time around. Though exact figures were still rolling in as of press time, preliminary numbers on related social media sites Tuesday afternoon, such as anti-Common Core Facebook group “Long Island Opt Out,” tallied several school districts as having a more-than 50-percent opt-out rate among test-eligible students.
Yet where a good deal of opponents’ vitriol against the Obama administration’s education reform program last year was born of its botched roll-out, what parents deemed to be the detrimental effects on their children, and the testing’s accounting for a high percent of teacher evaluations, among other gripes, Common Core opponents now credit Gov. Andrew Cuomo with pouring more gasoline on the already scorching anti-Common Core inferno.
Local and regional education activists, such as the founders of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), Badass Teachers Association (BATs) and state teachers union NYSUT all kicked their anti-Common Core reform campaigns into high gear after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in January—in which he announced his plan to ramp up what many believe was already an aggressive approach to the teacher evaluation plan, calling for the controversial high-stakes test to account for 50 percent of teacher evaluations, among other caveats.
“The legislators spoke on April 1st about what their plans are for their children’s classrooms,” blasts Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt Out and a founding member of NYSAPE, referring to the state legislature’s passage of the governor’s budget bill. “The parents will answer on test day.”
In addition to the increased weight the standardized testing will have on teacher evaluations, Cuomo proposed other sweeping education reforms in his State of the State that have education activists ticked off, including extending tenure requirements, expanding charter schools and boosting state oversight of failing schools.
Opponents’ efforts to rally defiance to the tests included mobile billboards and robocalls, some from Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s formidable, though ultimately unsuccessful, former gubernatorial primary challenger and outspoken high-stakes testing opponent, which went out last week and urged parents to consider their “constitutional right to refuse them without any negative consequences to your kids or financial loss to your schools.”
“I want you to know that 70 percent of New Yorkers are opposed to these tests and that, by design, 70 percent of students will fail these tests,” Teachout’s message continued.
Teachout has become a familiar face of those who challenge the status quo, and some anti-Common Core activists tell the Press they believe Cuomo’s contentious approach to teachers and the teachers union is a direct result of their strong backing of Teachout in the Democratic primary.
“It’s a remarkable and unusual movement, grounded in three powerful motives: parents’ fierce protectiveness of their children, teachers’ drive to protect the classroom from a culture of fear and senseless unusable tests, and the public desire to protect our democracy,” Teachout tells the Press via text message. “The tests have no pedagogical value, so parents are opting out because they aren’t helping the kids. I support them because, at root, this testing seems designed to undermine public education itself. “
Despite pleas from the New York State Department of Education, local school administrators and the OpEd page of Newsday slamming the Opt Out movement, parents on Long Island have become increasingly outspoken about opting their children out of the standardized tests, citing staunch objections to the test-based curriculums they will undoubtedly inspire. They complain about recess and art programs being cut to make way for test preparation. They fear the loss of local control of their children’s public education.
“The most dangerous place on Earth is between a mother and her child. Cuomo has crossed the line,” declares GiGi Guiliano of East Islip, a mother of three who will refuse the test. “We want our classrooms back. We want our teachers to be able to teach again. I want my kids to enjoy the love of learning, not how to fill in bubbles. I want them to be lifelong learners.”
Parents have formed groups in many pockets across Long Island to share their concerns and educate their neighbors.
Allison White is a parent in Port Washington. Although her own children have graduated, she became active in her community as an advocate for public education two years ago by focusing on the student-data privacy issue. But, as she educated herself on the broader issues surrounding Common Core and its high-stakes testing, she was inspired to help form the Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, an ally of NYSAPE. She also acts as a liaison to Long Island Opt Out.
“I’m concerned as a citizen,” she tells the Press. “I’m concerned about what’s happening to an entire generation of students. I’ve also been concerned about attempts to limit the information that gets out there, and that school districts have not been so open about sharing what is going on.”
Stacy Leckler co-founded Mineola Concerned Parents for Public Education. In a community forum on April 9 at the Portuguese Heritage Society, she and approximately 50 parents participated in an educational forum in which they participated in taking sample ELA (English Language Arts) tests. They were allotted 12 minutes to complete a reading assignment and answer questions.
“Some wouldn’t take it,” she explains. “Others were flipping back and forth trying to figure out the answers. When the reading maturity was later revealed, it was shocking.”
Kathi Heggers’ seventh grader opted out of the state tests this year and last in Rocky Point.
“The tests are completely flawed,” she bashes. “They’re used for the wrong purposes.”
Heggers, a school board member who became critical of the Common Core standards when they were first introduced in 2010, has only grown stauncher in her objections to the reforms.
“They’re reading passages that are two to three grade levels above what they are capable of comprehending,” she laments. “There’s embedded field test questions in the exam so that the children don’t even know the question that they’re trying so desperately to answer and have never been taught, which is all taking time away from the time they need to take the real test. Most of them don’t finish because they’re spending so much time on a question they don’t know the answer to because they can’t know the answer to it. They change the cut score constantly to manipulate their own self-serving needs.”
Those “self-serving” needs, according to Common Core opponents, include the dismantling of public education and the rise of private and charter schools. The education tax credits written into the governor’s budget supports this tactic, they argue, contending that it grants dollar-for-dollar tax incentives for private and religious school spending.
“While NYSAPE supports a parent’s choice of private education, one of the core values of our nation is separation of church and state,” slams Lisa Rudley, Westchester County public school parent and founding member of NYSAPE, in a statement. “Enabling public dollars to pay for private and religious education is an affront to New Yorkers and Americans. The education tax credit creates a back door for Cuomo’s wealthy backers to drive their privatization agenda, attempting to sneak a voucher system past a public that rejects their attempts to destabilize our public schools.
“This scheme is an outrage and simply unacceptable,” she continues.
Deutermann says the governor’s combative approach to teacher evaluations backfired and served as a catalyst for parents all across Long Island, strengthening their resolve to learn more about what is going on in their children’s classrooms.
“Rarely will you have a parent who has taken the time to become informed—[and when they are,] rarely do they choose to have their children sit for the test,” she says.
The total number of students opting out Tuesday, she believes, will support this.