Jia Lee, who is a special education teacher at the Earth School in Manhattan, testified at a senate hearing on No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on January 21st. As an act of conscience, Jia joined two other teachers last year in refusing to administer high-stakes standardized tests, citing their negative impacts on students. She is a parent who has opted her own child out of testing, joining thousands of parents around the nation. Jia is a leader of MORE, UFT Chapter Leader, and an active member of our sister organization Change the Stakes.
Hearing on the Impact of NCLB’s Testing and Accountability
The Earth School, NYC
January 21, 2015
Thank you Chairman Alexander and Senator Murray for this opportunity to offer my remarks
regarding the impact of No Child Left Behind’s testing and accountability provisions on our
public school children. I thank you for your vision and for this opportunity. I have an eleven
year-old son in sixth grade, so I speak to you as both a public school parent and a teacher.
Business practices are informing education policy, so I would like to start there. The use of
competitive, performance based practices have long been assumed to motivate workers.
Microsoft, Expedia and Adobe Systems are just some of the companies who adopted stack
ranking, the now infamous practice of applying rewards, consequences and rankings based
on performance. These same business advisors informed many of our nation’s biggest
school districts, including mine. In the past few years, businesses have abandoned this
practice because they have proven to have disastrous affects on collaboration, problem
solving, and innovation. The high exodus of workers seen in these businesses are attributed
to stack ranking (Oremus, 2013). Studies, including those sponsored by the Federal
Reserve Bank , find that incentive-based practices only work for the most menial tasks that
do not require critical thinking (Ariely, et. al., 2005). What was bad for business has been
disastrous for public education, a field already plagued with recruitment and retention
challenges. Educators with valuable experience are leaving the profession in droves and
enrollment in teacher preparation programs is abysmal.
Furthermore, multiple choice, high-stakes tests have reliably padded the profits of education
corporations, draining public tax dollars but have been unreliable in measuring the diversity
of students’ capabilities and learning. The use of those same tests in evaluating teachers is,
simply put, statistically invalid. The American Statistical Association has warned “The VAM
scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of
data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios
for modeling.” In New York State, the tests change every year, and the cut scores shift. The
results are norm-referenced, ensuring a stack ranking of students with approximately 50%
below the curve. We are playing a dangerous game with our children’s futures and public
education, cornerstones of our democracy. As a special and general education teacher, I
have seen these tests incite anxiety and can provide numerous examples of times when
students stated that all they accomplished throughout the year meant nothing.
I have worked in different schools, some of which, through no fault of their own, have
become increasingly data driven as opposed to student driven. I am fortunate to currently
work in a public school that was founded on the principles of whole child education, where
we, the teachers, collaborate to develop curriculum and create relevant assessments. It is
the antithesis of stack ranking.
This year, our 4th and 5th graders are immersed in a study we call Rights and
Responsibilities. Students develop questions around the origins of the United States, the
Constitution, and discuss the complex struggles and progress we have made as a nation.
My class decided to divide themselves into groups to study three different perspectives from
the colonial era – the Native people, European colonists and the African slaves. They are
the researchers, using primary and secondary sources to learn about key events, figures,
and cultural and political ideas. My integrated co-teaching class consists of students with
disabilities, or I should say, all abilities, and they work in heterogeneous groups to present
their understandings through a variety of mediums: creating art pieces, choreographing
original dance pieces, presenting timelines, developing maps, conducting process dramas,
and giving oral reports. They are learning “how” to learn, developing lifelong skills:
researching, analyzing information from multiple sources, collaborating with others and
sharing what they’ve learned in creative and thought-provoking ways. They are the
stewards of their own learning, guided by their interests and passions. I share this not as a
best practice but to emphasize the importance of fostering learning environments that value
a culture of trust, diversity, and teacher autonomy not a focus on test preparation. Teachers’
working conditions are inextricably linked to students’ learning conditions.
When parents and educators voice concerns, they have been accused of coddling. I want to
challenge that assumption. The great crime is that the focus on testing has taken valuable
resources and time away from programming in social studies, the arts and physical
education. At my school, we no longer have a librarian and our parent association works full
time to fund needed arts programs that are not provided for in our budget. We are one of
the lucky schools. What about schools where parents must work just to survive? I know
schools that no longer have money for basics such as soap for the bathrooms. There is
nothing more painful to watch or forced to be complicit to than the minimalizing that is
happening in our schools. Teachers, students and parents find themselves in a position of whether or not to push back or leave. Who is left to receive these tests and accompanying
sanctions? Who are the children receiving scripted curricula while losing recess, physical
education, music and civics lessons? It is our students from the most marginalized
communities. A current study by the Southern Education Foundation finds that more than
50% of our public school children are living in poverty, an all time high in fifty years (Layton,
2015). Black and Latino students live disproportionately at or below the poverty line, and it
is no accident that we are faced with the most segregated school system in history, with a
disproportionate number of school closures happening in the poorest communities- all at the
hands of using invalid metrics. It is what pushes me past my comfort zone and to speak out.
Last year, over 50% of the parents at our school refused to allow their children to take the
NYS Common Core aligned ELA and Math tests and we were not alone. The Latin root of
assessment is to “sit alongside.” Until we have teachers and policymakers “sitting
alongside” and getting to know our students and our classrooms in deep and meaningful
ways, we cannot fully understand the state of public education. (I sit here as the sole female in a field dominated by women-from verbal testimony) No corporate made multiple-choice test will give you that data. Last year, I decided that I am obligated and accountable
to my students and families, and that is why, as a conscientious objector, I will not
administer tests that reduce my students to a single metric and will continue to take this
position until the role of standardized assessments are put in their proper place. Along with
two other teachers at my school, we formed Teachers of Conscience, a position paper and
call to action at local levels.
We just celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail,
King affirms that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He quotes St. Augustine who said “an unjust law is no law at all.” So long as education policy continues to
be shaped by the interests of corporate profiteering and not the interests of our public
school children, we will resist these unjust testing laws. It is time to abandon faulty business
assumptions in public education. We are experiencing a historic resistance to high stakes
testing. Chicago Public Schools just voted to back away from PARCC assessments and
another state joins the nine who have already withdrawn from the assessment consortium.
Let us abandon stack ranking of our children and schools. We need future generations to
explore problems that have far more complex solutions than a multiple choice test. Let us
do the work of teaching and help us hold our state officials accountable for delivering on
funding, as promised through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
I am hopeful that we can sit alongside each other and do the hard work of answering the
questions most central to our democracy: What is the purpose of public education in a
democratic society? How can we ensure that all children receive an enriching and equitable
education? How do we support teachers and schools in carrying out their missions to
educate all? Thank you.