Sunday, April 12, 2015

School Committee Comment April 13th: MEA and Opting Out in Lewiston

Super small font is for large chunks I chose to edit out for time constraints.  I am emailing the full piece to the school committee.  

In August, I spoke to this committee about Lewiston Public Schools' lack of communication and transparency, and tonight I speak about those concerns regarding testing. 

While I don't personally value standardized tests, I was skeptical these exams harmed children, especially in Lewiston.  That changed a year ago when I asked McMahon a ridiculous question: Do you use standardized tests in Kindergarten?  Learning the district expected my four year old to complete the NWEA three weeks into Kindergarten -- that was the moment I knew Lewiston didn't put students first, didn't put educational research first, didn't put educators' professional opinions first.  As a teacher, I knew to ask, but, if I hadn't, my child would have taken two exams without my notification.  How can parents make judgements or choices if they aren't informed?  They can't. 

More than once, district employees (but never my daughter's teacher) encouraged her taking NWEA to prove she'd do just fine.  She would be just fine as she's had access to computers and a wide variety of other educational advantages.  That doesn't change that a computerized test for four and five year olds is developmentally inappropriate and unreliable, nor does it change that my daughter's teacher can determine strengths and weakness without a standardized exam.  And it certainly doesn't change that some Kindergarteners don't do just fine. 

The community expects education leaders to inform them.  As a teacher, I'm an exception to the norm.  My husband, however, is not.  On multiple occasions I've asked, "Hun, if I didn't tell you this, would you ever know?"  He always replies, "No, I assume the schools tells me anything important.  Isn't that their job?"  Most Americans, like my husband, highly regard their local schools and trust their relationships with staff.

We expect our children's teachers to object when the district or DOE requests practices wrong for students.  Teachers should object because their obligation to students proceeds politics.  They should object out of respect to their professional education, training, and experience.  Administrators should ask teachers to critically examine reforms and mandates.  Instead, Lewiston expects silent compliance.  Some teachers were stopped from informing parents, while others fear speaking based on the district climate.  The state doesn't employee teachers; Lewiston does.  And thus, this is a Lewiston problem.

LPS chose the direction for the district conversation on testing and opting out.  As my experience with the Kindergarten testing exemplifies, the go-to strategy is silence.  The district didn't lead balanced public dialog, and thus insinuated parents cannot handle a full discussion and dismissed their criticism.  The district didn't informed parents how to channel their concerns into the federal re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or Maine bill LD695.  When pressed, the district cowered behind a federal threat, while also blindly promoting the exam's benefits and guilting families for putting their children's needs first. 

The district should informed parents of their legal right to opt out, and also of the related law regrading 95% participation rates and Gov LePage's report card grading system.  Both were used as scare tactics, yet either resulting in consequences for Lewiston this year is highly unlikely.  Parents want information to make the best choices, but the district withheld information to prevent parents making decisions one group found unfavorable. Information such as: families can opt out; no NCLB waiver state nationally has lost flexibility in a percentage of Title I funds due to participation; and the Govenor's suspended A-F system is seriously flawed.  A parent shouldn't have to fight to get this information.  My husband would say demanding and distributing this information is what Lewiston taxpayers pay their hired and elected education leaders to do. 

Because parents feel they aren't heard, they are left with few options.  First, they can opt out, which both removes their children from the issues of the exam and makes a political statement.  And, parents can inform others -- from the parents they interact with daily, to readers of the Sun Journal, to their local, state, and national elected officials.  Inaction is not an option because it results in no change.  While Mr Handy and Mr Webster expressed concerns with testing, they didn't acted.  On February 23rd, I was excited the school committee decided to inform parents of the right to opt out because it was action.  A fellow activist referred Abigial Curtis of the BDN to me on Feb 24th, and I referred her to Mr Handy to confirm what I heard at the meeting.  The Washington Post then picked up the information from the BND that LPS was informing parents they can opt out.  However, LPS received national recognition for respecting their parents, when ultimately parents were left uninformed of their right or the debate around the exam.

This year, I heard Lewiston referred to as a leader in Maine.  We missed that opportunity here despite our receiving the credit.  One line in a letter stating, "You have the right to opt out of the exam," would accomplish so much.  Parents won't accept the manipulation of their children as the district has done.  Parents are acting through refusal.  They say, No, the test is developmentally inappropriate, rushed, and erroneous.  No, my child's teacher can provide this data.  No, my child is not a cog in a political or corporate scheme.  It disgusts me that the educational leadership in Lewiston cannot muster the courage to speak for students as parents have.