It’s Testing Time in NYC!

I found this card in my 5th Grade daughter’s backpack yesterday.  It’s a good luck card from her kindergarten book buddy wishing her well on the New York State standardized tests – all 6 days of them.  It’s so sweet, but also so sad to me that even the kindergarteners know that testing is happening and feel the stress in the school.

good luck card


Putting Education Reform on the Presidential Debate Agenda

Photo Credit: The petition site

Last week a petition went up, sponsored by The Mandell School in NYC, to demand that the Presidential Debate moderators ask questions about the candidates’ plans and ideas for education reform.  It seems like a pretty simple demand – after all, No Child Left Behind was a signature Bush initiative, and Race to the Top has been a major Obama initiative – both of them taking huge policy steps at the Federal level to shape education in what has traditionally been a very local issue.   If this trend continues then it makes sense that the men running for the top leadership position of the country should define where they stand on education.

It’s no longer easy to divide education ideas and programs along partisan lines.   Things like vouchers, charter schools, breaking down of the teachers’ unions, are now fair game on both sides of the aisle.  And the money is flowing from liberal-minded hedge funders as well as conservative think tanks.  Forget everything you know about public education in the 70s and 80s – those battles have been completely upended, and opposing sides may be voting for the same guy come Election Day.

But, we all know Obama’s thoughts on education reform.  You just have to look at Race to the Top and the horrible spread of standardized testing as the only measure of student progress and teacher effectiveness.  I don’t think this was the intention of  Race to the Top, but it has been the consequence.  And to be honest, I don’t think Romney will have anything interesting to say except platitudes about preparing our students for the 21st Century and how every student deserves a great teacher.  There’s not going to be any substantive talk about education either way.

Here’s what I would like to hear from the candidates – and not in a debate forum where the clock is ticking and the press is eagerly awaiting a zinger.  I would like Obama to talk about why he chose Sidwell Friends for his daughters – a private school free from testing, free to create interesting, project based curriculum, free to limit their class size, but not at all free in terms of tuition.  I would like Romney to talk about the heavily subsidized BYU, where the Mormon belief in a good education is put to work in terms of making the school very affordable thanks to the Church. And, since he  went to a very fancy private school – Cranbrook, where my husband also was lucky enough to attend – I’d like to know what he felt he got out of his education, what he valued from it, other than bullying kids with long hair.

As I usher my daughters through the  NYC Public Middle School application process this fall, I am more and more aware that our system that has too few seats, a crazy admission policy that varies from school to school, an obscene reliance on test scores that puts pressure on kids as young as 8, and no real data showing that any of this is good for kids in the long run or will produce more creative, smarter adults, I have to wonder – what could any politician tell me about education reform that I don’t already know or that I would believe?

Cheating on the SATs? I’m Shocked – NOT!

This week’s revelations that students in Long Island paid other students to take the SATs for them has the media all lathered up.  Is it a result of high stakes testing?  Is it a sign of our now hyper competitive world?  And of course they want to know how could this happen?  Well it happens pretty easily, and like all massive test cheating, it’s been happening forever.

When I was in high school – ahem, 20 some years ago – I knew kids that took the SATs for other kids.  At one private school in Brooklyn it was well-known that one boy took the SAT for his friend – for free because he was terrified of not doing well.  His dad figured it out and turned him in.  Nothing happened.  Cheating on the SATs was and is easy because you’re dealing with kids who don’t necessarily have real government issued IDs.  In NYC so few kids get a driver’s license by 17 that you end up using a school ID.  Getting a fake school ID was easy back then before Photoshop, I can only imagine how easy it would be now.  Then the kids sign up to take the SAT at a different high school where no one would know them anyway and that’s it.  There’s no way the College Board hasn’t known this has been going on for years and years.

There were a lot of cheating scandals when I was in high school in NYC in the late 80’s.  I had a friend whose mother was a guidance counselor at another high school and rumor was she used to give her daughter the science Regents exams beforehand to study and learn.  The more infamous of the Regent Exam cheating was the local Yeshiva where teachers gave the students the tests and answers beforehand since they put little stock in state exams, and then those kids sold them to the public school kids.  Really.  The year of my Chemistry Regents Exam in 1989 the New York Post published the answers on the front page to expose the scandal.  Imagine walking on to the subway at 6:45 am to go to school and take the test you’ve been studying for five weeks and see the answers staring you in the face as people read the morning paper.  And they still made us sit and take the test, while pulling kids out one by one for suspected cheating.  So bizarre.

We can all pretend we’re shocked by these new allegations of cheating, or we can admit that as long as these tests matter while at the same time not mattering much at all, kids will find a way around it and chances are there will be adults helping them along the way.  Don’t you wonder how the kids with fake scores fared at the college they attended under false pretenses?  Isn’t the whole joke about Harvard that the hardest part is just getting in?

I don’t condone cheating at all, but I also detest the hypocrisy around this latest scandal.  Until they figure out a way to really measure a student’s abilities and academic promise – and stop putting so much importance on these giant one-off exams, kids and grown-ups will be looking for a way to game the system.  If this puts focus on the College Board and why they are allowed to wield such power in the this space all the better.  Our testing culture is only going to get worse as standardized tests become more prevalent and cover more and more subjects all in the name of “measuring” teacher effectiveness and ranking schools.  And more and more parents and school districts will pour money into test prep classes and workshops.  How many times have you heard that kids need to not just learn the material for the test but learn how to take the test in the first place.  It’s what the Princeton Review started 20 years ago and they fostered an entire industry around it.

Ideally, parents, teachers, administrators and students will stand up and say this one day of sitting at a desk with a number 2 pencil is just a tiny piece of the puzzle instead of 90%.  Until then, we will have to live with these tests and teach our kids that while the results may not accurately reflect their abilities and potential by cheating they are doing more damage to their character than any score ever could.

Mom Congress Day 1: How Many DC Cupcakes Can I Eat?

I guess this doesn’t really qualify as a first day since the Mom Congress started at 4:00pm with the opening remarks and an icebreaker session.  We were talking advocacy – the most effective ways to rally your cause, present your case and influence policy.  It was a reminder on how powerful data can be and how important a consistent, well-crafted message is to making yourself heard.  Something I am fortunately well acquainted with in our hyper political school.  I am more thankful than ever for the incredible parent advocates at my school who routinely spearhead petitions, rallies and letter and phone campaigns to politicians.  We are an obnoxious bunch and better off for it.

I’ve met some dynamic and incredibly engaged women so far.  The passions are varied – from gifted education to class size, school nutrition to speaking out against the standardized testing mania, these moms are vocal, organized and smart.  It gives me hope that there truly is a national force out there ready to fight the budget cuts and maddening discourse.  Tonight at dinner Marguerite Roza from the Gates Foundation spoke to the delegates about the exciting technology emerging to help change education as we know it, about teacher evaluation systems, about reallocating resources (i.e. raising class size) and about measuring teacher effectiveness and creating best practices.  I don’t think she won over the crowd.  She is undeniably smart, incredibly knowledgeable and striving to make education better.  But, the questions and concerns from the audience were real.  Class size increasing?  Not something parents want.  Standardized testing?  Not something parents want.

There is no doubt we are looking at big financial decisions and a need to rethink how our resources are spent but right now is really a giant experiment at the expense of our kids.  It’s not OK to say someday we’ll have much better feedback about student achievement because of coming technology so hey, then we won’t have big standardized yearly tests.   If those tests are the ultimate measure of a teacher’s effectiveness  – whether or not that is fair to anyone – then kids will be taught to the test.  These tests are much cheaper than having a real curriculum overhaul, professional development and personalized technology.

These are the debates and discussions we’ll be having over the next few days and hopefully some real plans and advocacy will come out from all of these smart, dedicated, energized delegates.  It would be incredibly to pool together all of these local advocates and know how and create a real, organized national parent voice.