Dear Commons Community,
As school districts prepare for the New York State standardized testing season in April, it appears that teachers in some schools are being warned not to speak out against the tests. Last year, about 20 percent of the students opted out of taking these tests. As reported in the New York Times:
“Since the revolt by parents against New York State’s reading and math tests last year, education officials at the state level have been bending over backward to try to show that they are listening to parents’ and educators’ concerns.
The tests, which are given to third through eighth graders and will begin this year on April 5, were shortened, time limits were removed, and the results will not be a factor in teacher evaluations, among other changes.
On Monday, Betty A. Rosa, the newly elected chancellor of the Board of Regents and the state’s highest education official, even said that if she had children of testing age, she would have them sit out the exams.
The message, clearly, is: We hear you.
But in New York City, the Education Department seems to be sending a different message to some teachers and principals: Watch what you say.
At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.
On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.
But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”
Several principals said they had been told that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.
Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that teachers were free to express themselves on matters of public concern as private citizens, but not as representatives of the department, and that if they crossed that line they could be disciplined. Asked what the disciplinary measures might be, Ms. Kaye said they were determined case by case.”
This is an interesting development and seems to be indicative of a policy directive that is being restrictive of free speech. Testing is first and foremost an educational activity and it would seem that teachers have a right to speak their minds about it.
It remains to be seen how this will play out. It is my sense that with the accommodations made by the NYS Department of Education, not as many parents will opt-out of the standardized tests compared to last year. However, the opt-out movement will still be a visible force across the state.