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P.S. 321 High-Stakes Testing Foes Hope for a Win After Years of Battle

By Leslie Albrecht | January 13, 2014 7:20am
 Park Slope's P.S. 321 has long been a leader in the movement against high-stakes testing.
P.S. 321 High-Stakes Testing Foes Hope for Win After Years of Struggle
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PARK SLOPE — It's been a long, hard battle, but P.S. 321 parents, teachers and administrators could soon get a taste of victory in their quest to end high-stakes testing.

The school's Teachers Talk Testing group is gathering signatures on a petition that will be presented to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Jan. 15. Unlike past signature drives against high-stakes testing, this one could actually see its wish come true.

The petition demands an end to linking grade promotion, middle school admissions and school report cards to standardized tests. De Blasio and schools chancellor Carmen Fariña have both indicated support for those ideas.

The possibility of triumph after years of struggle feels "fantastic," said P.S. 321 dad Michael Ravitch.

P.S. 321 Principal Liz Phillips at a Teachers Talk Testing Forum
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YouTube/Teachers Talk Testing

"About a year and half ago, it seemed bleak, it seemed hopeless," said Ravitch, who's also a member of advocacy group Parent Voices NY. At the time, Christine Quinn seemed destined to continue Michael Bloomberg's education policies as the next mayor.

"The election of de Blasio was incredible from our point of view," Ravitch said. "It feels like little things have started to change."

If the Teachers Talk Testing petition succeeds, it will be a long-sought win for P.S. 321, an early leader in the movement against high-stakes testing.

The school first rallied around the issue about six or seven years ago, when there was talk — ultimately abandoned — of giving standardized tests to children in kindergarten, first and second grades, said Principal Liz Phillips. In response, P.S. 321 launched a testing task force made up of parents and teachers who wanted to raise awareness about the impacts of high-stakes testing.

Their movement got a major boost in 2012, during the release of teacher performance data that was tied heavily to student performance on standardized tests. P.S. 321 parents were outraged when some of the school's most highly regarded educators got poor ratings.

"That was a really important moment," Phillips said. "The idea that these formulas that were completely wrong were being used to humiliate teachers was just so appalling."

Momentum has been building since then.

Phillips and P.S. 321 parents have marched at Department of Education headquarters, lobbied local elected officials, spoken out at public forums, and organized testing boycotts. To keep the topic fresh in parents' minds, the testing task force sends out a "testing fact of the week" in P.S. 321's email bulletin to families.

At the heart of the effort is Phillips, an educator with close to 30 years of experience who has turned P.S. 321 into one of the top performing schools in the city. She points out that ironically, despite its strong anti-testing stance, the school recently ranked among the top 25 schools in the state on Common Core exam scores.

Though some administrators have been reluctant to criticize the testing status quo for fear of retribution, Phillips said she couldn't stand by as other schools faced the threat of closure over their test scores — a practice she expects to end under de Blasio.

"It's much harder for newer principals," Phillips said. "If anybody can speak out, I can. I feel like experienced, respected principals should be leading this in New York State." Last fall, Phillips joined seven other principals from across the state in writing an "open letter to parents" about the "harm" created by high-stakes testing.

Ravitch said Phillips has been "instrumental in awakening people to this evaluation system and how it affects people, students and parents."

Teachers Talk Testing seeks to broaden the movement beyond parents and principals, by asking teachers to share personal stories of how high-stakes testing has affected them.

Until now, teachers have been fearful about publicly opposing high-stakes testing, and giving them a higher profile in the movement could be a "major contribution," according to Nancy Cauthen, a parent member of Change the Stakes. Even if the de Blasio administration shifts the focus away from standardized tests, change is also needed at the state and federal levels, Cauthen said, and that will require even more advocacy.

"If P.S. 321's effort could encourage more teachers to take a stand, that could be really helpful," Cauthen said. "Some of us, parents and teachers alike, have come to the conclusion that until teachers speak out, none of this will change."