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Media: Seven Big Mistakes In NY Mag's Recent Testing Article

Flickr roeyahramLooking over New York Magazine's recent article on protests against testing (The Movement Against Testing in Schools), by Robert Kolker, I can find at least a half-dozen glaring journalistic mistakes.

However, there are also at least two big strengths in the piece -- areas that Kolker sheds new light on that I wish weren't overshadowed by the omissions and misdescriptions that mar the piece (in my opinion).

Take a look below, see what you think, and let me know what I got wrong or missed.

1 -- The article provides no context about the numbers it cites showing an increase of opting out on the state tests. Is 300 parents opting out a lot, or a very very little?  

2 --The DOE might have shot itself in the foot by not making principals readily available to talk about the need for/benefits of testing and reasonable amounts of test prep, but it doesn't seem like Kolker made much effort to get any responses from the schools that might have shed some light on the issue.  Phone calls? Texts? Hanging out near the school? At least tell us how hard you tried.

3 -- The possibilities of ineffectiveness of opting out and unintended results (lowering school test scores and teacher evaluations) are raised very late in the article, when NYS DOE's Ken Wagner is quoted.  Why are they presented as an afterthought here, when they're a primary consideration for parents considering opting out? 

4 -- Anecdotal complaints (from teachers, parents) should be used to illustrate a larger trend or dynamic, not to substitute for a broader sample -- especially when at least some of the parents have an axe to grind with their children's schools and/or the system's treatment. How widespread is test prep, and what constitutes "excessive"?  Is there any independent verification of what the complaining parents are describing?

5 -- Where are the parents and teachers who are OK with, understand the need for, or even think testing is a good idea, or are concerned but taking different action? In the world of this article, they do not exist. In the real world, they're not that hard to find.

 6 -- Parents who say that testing has "made" their kids hate school seem like they might be overstating or oversimplifying the situation, or their children may face special challenges.  School generally gets harder as you get older, and some kids go in and out of liking it.  Ditto with tests. Some perspective from an independent expert might have been useful here. 

7 -- Parents who are so opposed to standardized testing that they'd risk their son not passing a grade (or might consider moving out of the country) are probably not a typical or representative example of parents who opt out (most of whom seem to be in no academic risk at all).

To be sure, there are some strong point to the piece, including the description of the dynamics going on within the groups GEM, Time Out from Testing, and Change the Stakes (who didn't always agree about opting out as a strategy).  That's very interesting stuff, the internal workings of allied groups.

Ditto for the details and drama surrounding what happens when parents opt out.  The whole BLM process has been missing or murky in media accounts I've seen thus far.  The example used may be extreme -- and we don't get much sense of how many kids go through the process -- but the information is very helpful.


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I've never met an inner city student or parent who didn't agree that testing is completely out of control and causing damage. Frankly, I don't think I know an OKC educator, including the administrators who have to mandate it, who doesn't privately believe this testing mania is wrong.

But, I never met an educator who would treat students and parents that way. How would parents anticipate the inhumane behavior of the principals in the artcile?

As a veteran journalist, I have to point out that it's not valid to describe any of these criticisms as "big mistakes." All of them are "I wouldn't have done it this way" -- coming from someone with a very strong bias in favor of "reform" interests and policies, and an equally strong inclination to contemptuously dismiss the concerns of parents and teachers.

"Big mistakes" in journalism are a synonym for inaccuracies, or possibly glaring holes in the story. Since this critique was unable to cite a single inaccuracy or a single glaring hole, despite an obviously aggressive attempt to discredit the story, that actually constitutes a pretty warm endorsement of the New York Magazine article.

Caroline, you can't seriously argue that the failure to put 300 kids into some kind of context isn't a glaring hole. There are approximately 400,000 kids in New York City public schools in the testing grades.

I agree that nothing else on Alexander's list constitutes a serious journalistic offense, but I do think it would have made for a better piece if Kolker had pursued some of these angles. Item #5 really sticks out; there are many, many families who would never in a million years consider opting out.

There's a huge difference between "would have made a better piece" and "big mistake." None of the so-called flaws Alexander cites constitutes a "big mistake," period. And mainstream reporting regularly fails to put whatever the subject is into any kind of context, so it's not even valid to call that out. This is especially true of the the puffy, lazy, unquestioning press-release-parroting so-called "reporting" that regularly benefits the so-called "reform" sector (which often IS laden with actual inaccuracies and actual gaping holes).

To repeat, failing to point out that there are 400,000 kids in the testing grades in a >5000-word piece is a big mistake, and let's be honest, if a similar quantitative omission were made in a piece with what you perceived as a pro-reform slant, you'd be all over it.

In response to the comment John makes that"I've never met an inner city student or parent who didn't agree that testing is completely out of control and causing damage."

I have found that those who make these kind of statements are the same parents who either send their kids to one of the city's uber progressive choice schools, i.e. Castle Bridge or have bought their way into a zone that ensures they have little or no contact with our neediest students.

Perhaps the problem with the article is that the "journalist" was too afraid of walking into a school that did not have a high concentration of these like minded parents, who think accountability is out of control. Those parents at Castle Bridge also think it is a crime to give there child a letter grade, so lets get real.

Actually, Bryan's comment reminds me that there's another significant flaw: there's no explanation that many of the schools mentioned are unzoned progressive schools with an application/lottery process identical to those used at charter schools. It's also problematic that these types of schools are hugely over-represented in the piece: they make up a tiny fraction of the NYC DOE's portfolio of K-8 schools, but about half of the schools in the article.

There aren't enough hours in the day to be all over the omissions in pro-"reform" journalism (whether deliberately pro-"reform" or cluelessly), let alone the slippery deceptions, misrepresentations and flat-out inaccuracies. But that said, I agree that the article should have given the total number of students -- though it's self-evident to anyone interested enough to read the article that there are hundreds of thousands of students in NYC schools.

Two points of clarification I would like to make, as someone very familiar with the range of parent perspectives on this topic. #1: Many parents, and groups that support them, do not uniformly oppose "testing" or even "standardized testing". It is the inappropirate and educationally unsound use of test scores (AKA, the "high stakes") and the damaging educational practices that high stakes testing policies incentivize that drive many of us to such extreme actions. #2: The press itself is the entity that has chosen in many instances to label this the "opt out" movement. Parents and educators involved in this organizing participate in a broad range of engagement in the work to challenge these policies and practices that we see limiting our children's educational opportunities each and every day. This article chose to focus on "opt out" as one form of resistance, but the people highlighted in the article (I am one of them) are engaged in many other forms of organizing, in close collaboration with educators who have seen the dramatic impact of the shift towards test prep-based education on a day-to-day level more than most other adults (including those of us writing these comments) AND with other parents who do not consider opt out a viable option for their families. Finally, I would like to comment that many of us have questions and comments about the numbers provided in the story, but the undeniable trend is that more families - and families from a broad range of schools, backgrounds, and neighborhoods - are considering this action. And that will continue to happen until real policy change occurs.

And thanks to Mr. Russo for his closing comments on the "murky" intrigue around the BLM process. Anyone interested in learning more about current NYC DOE policies around grade 3-8 student promotions can find links to resources here: http://changethestakes.wordpress.com/opt-into-portfolios/promotion-in-doubt-what-parents-need-to-know/

It is important to keep in mind this student promotions assessment is not just conducted for opt out students, but also for students who (for a range of reasons) do not score at least a "2" on state exams. This process has lacked transparency, accountability, and consistency across districts for years, and it is important to note that in order to be promoted via BLM in June students must not just "meet" but "exceed" standards. This is one of the policies incoming mayor DeBlasio and his yet-to-be-named DOE leadership team have the direct authority to change.

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