Monthly Archives: March 2017

Parents of Special Education Students Protest Minnesota’s Neo-Voucher Proposal

March 27, 2017

Minneapolis-based attorney Sarah McLaren should be forgiven for dissolving into tears while testifying at a Minnesota Education Policy Committee hearing in early February, since she had not planned on speaking out that day. Instead, she was on her way to work on February 9 when she heard a brief news report on public radio, detailing a new tax credit scholarship, or neo-voucher,” education bill that was moving through the state legislature.

“Right away,” she recalled over coffee recently, “I turned my car around, drove to the Senate Office Building and testified that day.” In a video recording of McLaren’s testimony, she can be seen dressed in a black and white speckled suit jacket, clutching a framed picture of her six-year old daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor, McLaren’s only child, has autism spectrum disorder; because of that, McLaren says, “it will always be more expensive to educate my daughter.” 

This realization is what compelled McLaren to make a detour to the Senate Office Building on February 9. Once there, McLaren says she “surprised everyone in the room” by delivering an unscripted, at times tearful rebuke of Republican representative Ron Kresha’s tax credit scholarship bill. Kresha’s bill, whose roots can be traced to similar, “cookie cutter” ALEC bills being proposed around the country, seeks to give wealthy individuals and corporations in Minnesota a tax break–up to $35 million, statewide–for donations to private school scholarship funds. These funds are then supposed to help lower (and middle) income students afford tuition payments. 

Proponents of this approach bristle at any obvious comparison to school voucher plans, which drain money directly out of a state’s general education fund–after tax funds have been collected. Vouchers have proven to be both unpopular and unsuccessful, leading school choice advocates to instead propose Kresha-like tax breaks that divert money from the general education fund before it is collected. Such schemes can then be considered voluntary “tax incentive plans,” rather than outright, distasteful voucher programs.

Either way, the public school funding pool would take a hit, while religious and private schools stand to benefit. While observing a January rally for the tax credit bill, I spoke with a rural Minnesotan who helps run a small Lutheran school. One reason he is so in favor of Kresha’s bill is competition from charter schools. Because charters are free, he explained to me, they are siphoning students from the Lutheran school’s already limited enrollment base. This taps into one reason religious schools tend to favor these tax credit scholarship schemes: survival.

Catholic schools in particular have been out front about how such diversions of public tax dollars could benefit their schools:

Enrollment in US Catholic schools peaked in the 1960s with more than 5 million students, and in the last 20 years, more than 1,500 Catholic schools have shuttered. Supporters say that without an infusion of funds – either in the form of vouchers or tax credit scholarship programs – the very future of Catholic education in this country is at risk.

“Catholic schools look to tax credits to save them,”  The Crux, 2015

But McLaren wasn’t drawn to the neo voucher issue because she is opposed to religious or private schools. Instead, she insists that expanding school choice schemes will leave children like hers behind. As an infant and toddler, McLaren’s daughter attended a private center near her home–a “well-regarded program,” McLaren recalls, that billed itself as being “experts in early childhood care and education.” Along the way, Eleanor’s as yet undiagnosed autism began to surface, through biting incidents and other behavior issues.

Around age three, Eleanor’s autism was identified, and it soon became clear that the private program was neither equipped, nor particularly interested, in adapting to her needs. McLaren remembers being called to an “urgent” meeting about Eleanor’s behavior, where she was told that the school “had to think of the other children.” Eleanor was biting other students and parents were not happy about it.

“It was distressing,” McLaren notes. “The focus was immediately on Eleanor as the problem, and nothing about the environment” at the school. The school did not seem invested in supporting Eleanor, and staff were perhaps puzzled by the girl’s behavior. “She seems to repeat our questions a lot,” they told McLaren–with little apparent awareness of how to work with a child with autism. The expectation seemed to be that it was up to Eleanor’s parents to “fix” her behavior. (McLaren believes these messages stigmatize special education, and may make families reluctant to speak out.)

McLaren then describes an up and down journey, of first getting Eleanor placed with a preschool teacher who had some autism experience. When that teacher left the school, it became clear that Eleanor was struggling. “She was overwhelmed,” McLaren says, and responded by “removing herself from the group and spending the whole day alone.” Soon, McLaren and her husband moved Eleanor to Fraser, a Richfield preschool and childcare center that provides services and support–including access to “typical” peers–for special needs children. (Chicago teacher and activist, Xian Franzinger Barrett, has written about how low-income students of color–without access to extra resources–stand to lose the most when public schools are underfunded.)

From there, Eleanor graduated to kindergarten and has been attending a public school in her suburban neighborhood. McLaren quickly asserts that, at both Fraser and Eleanor’s public school, the message has always been, “How can we support her?” In response, Eleanor is thriving. She is at or near grade level, thanks to what McLaren says is “generous support for mainstreaming.” 

That support, though, is expensive. Eleanor’s school provides her with extra personnel, skilled at working with special education students, and Eleanor has access to a variety of strategies that make her school day possible. McLaren says these strategies include “access to sensory tools (headphones, chewy, weighted vest), and breaks as needed. For example, at group time, Eleanor can sit in a child-sized rocking chair instead of on the floor with peers since that is difficult for her.” Eleanor is also allowed regular breaks from the classroom, including “trampoline jumps” in the school’s special education resource room.

Rather than an indulgence, McLaren calls these breaks “essential.” And seeing how Eleanor has benefitted from an inclusive, supportive environment has turned McLaren into a fighter. In January, McLaren watched Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s cringeworthy confirmation hearing, and was appalled by DeVos’s “stunning lack of knowledge about educating kids with different needs.” (DeVos infamously displayed little awareness of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects the needs of special education students.)

McLaren then knew she had to “get more public” with her concerns because private schools do not Image result for individualized education planhave to educate students like Eleanor. “Choice sounds good,” McLaren acknowledges, “but I don’t think people realize that private schools do the choosing.” She maintains that religious schools, for example, do not have to follow Minnesota’s Human Rights law, while private schools do not have to adhere to federal special education mandates. The fallout, McLaren fears, will be more segregation in education, with “high needs kids left behind” and public schools left with even fewer resources.

McLaren returned to the Capitol one week after her first, spontaneous shot at testifying against Kresha’s bill, and came armed with–again–Eleanor’s framed picture, as well as some support of her own. Flanking McLaren on February 16, when she spoke before the House Tax Committee, was a cohort of fellow parents of students with special needs, as well as representatives from special education advocacy groups like PACER.

If you’ve got a few minutes, and a handkerchief nearby, watch these parents and special education advocates stumble through their testimony, doing their best to be civil and resilient while pointing out what seems painfully obvious:

The children that need the resources most desperately in special education are those that will pay the price if you divert money away from public school resources. That’s why we speak against this.

–Don McNeil, PACER Center representative and parent of special needs students

Minnesota’s tax credit scholarship bill is currently in limbo. It sailed through various policy and finance committees, thanks to party-line votes, and may be included in an end of session omnibus bill. Governor Mark Dayton, however, has remained opposed to such “voucher-light” proposals.

*Some perspective from Texas, where similar bills have been proposed:

Proponents claim donations will help families pay their private school tuition and that will relieve the enrollment burden on public schools or provide access to good schools for disadvantaged students. That’s the sales pitch. In reality, the result is to hand tax dollars over to private schools, increasing the financial strain on public schools and possibly increasing local property taxes in the process to make up for lost funding.

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Opt Out Numbers in Minnesota High Schools Skyrocket

March 11, 2017

As testing season begins in full force across Minnesota, publicly available data from the state Department of Education indicates a striking trend: the number of high school juniors refusing to sit for the state and federally mandated MCA tests is growing–rapidly.

Sidebar: In order to qualify for federal Title funding, Minnesota is required to give annual, standardized tests (MCAs) to public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, for reading; grades 3-8 and 11 in math, and science in grades 5, 8 and once in high school (English Language Learners are given many additional ACCESS tests each year, K-12). Although the state is required to give the tests, parents and students in Minnesota have the right to refuse to participate in them.

The Monticello, MN schools recently canceled science in favor of MCA test prep

In 2016, 2,227 high school juniors opted out of the MCA tests statewide. That’s just a drop in the bucket, compared to the 55,975 students who did take it. But it is more than three times the number of eleventh grade students–694–who opted out of the MCAs in 2015. 

This is a startling jump, taking place in schools and cities as diverse as suburban St. Louis Park, rural Pine City and Minneapolis. (The examples below pertain only to the Math MCA tests for high school juniors.)

In 2016, ten Pine City juniors refused the MCA tests; that’s a small but significant bump up from the three students who refused the tests in 2015. At St. Louis Park High School in 2016, 66 juniors opted out. But in 2015, just one student refused the MCAs.

An eye-popping 209 juniors at Minneapolis’s Henry High School opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. That’s a huge leap from 2015, when just eleven students refused the tests. Only seven percent of Henry’s 1,100 students identify as white and eighty percent live in poverty, according to federal standards. This might help poke holes in the story that onlysuburban momsand white, wealthier kids are pushing the opt out movement. And, across town at Roosevelt High School, 98 juniors opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. Like Henry, Roosevelt is not a majority white school and almost seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over at South High School–Minneapolis’s largest and most diverse–so few students took the MCAs in 2016 that there are simply blank spaces on the Department of Education’s spreadsheet for the school. That’s because, when fewer than ten students take the tests, the data has to be blocked out for privacy reasons. In 2015, 306 students–or nearly ninety percent of eligible juniors–at South did not take the tests. (The city’s Washburn High also had 81 MCA math test refusals in 2016; in 2015, there were eleven.)

Minneapolis’s two smaller high schools–Edison and North High schools–had very few opt outs in 2016 and 2015 (0 at North, both years), while Southwest High School has had large and growing numbers of opt outs–191 in 2015 and 251 in 2016. High schools in St. Paul are also reporting an increase–often from zero up to double digits–in the numbers of students refusing the tests, but the opt out movement appears to have more legs in Minneapolis.

Point of confusion: In Minnesota, districts can set their own graduation requirements, and, reportedly, some are putting MCA scores on high school transcripts to indicate whether or not a student is “college and career ready.” A student’s MCA scores can also be used, per Minnesota statute, as part of a course grade or as a way to try to avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Students, however, still do not have to take the MCA tests (test refusal can be noted on a transcript as well). Most college-bound high school students undoubtedly choose to focus their energies on either the ACT or SAT test, even as more and more colleges are becoming “test optional.”

Districts in the metro area and beyond also reported large numbers of opt outs among eleventh graders in 2016. Examples: last year, Hopkins High School had 158 refusals, up from zero in 2015; Wayzata High School had a tiny number of opt outs in 2016–just 12, out of 786 eligible juniors–but that’s up from zero opt outs the year before. Blaine High School, a large, suburban school north of the Twin Cities, saw 100 MCA refusals in 2016; Burnsville High School, south of the Twin Cities, had 30.

Not much of a crowd–except when you consider that zero Burnsville students and only three Blaine juniors refused the MCAs in 2015.

This week, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on standardized testing in Minnesota. The report noted that the state spent $19.2 million on testing in 2016, with one-third of that paid for with federal dollars. Ninety percent of this tab went to the companies such as Pearson that produce the tests and help the state assess test score data. 

The auditor’s report revealed a number of problems with standardized testing in Minnesota, including the conclusion that the legislature has piled too many tasks and expectations on the MCA tests in particular. MCA scores are now expected to show proficiency on the state standards, as well as growth (through the addition of test questions that push students above or below grade level) and a student’s “college and career readiness.”

From the state report on standardized testing (page S-4):

The Legislature has required MDE to develop tests and report test scores in certain ways. Some of these requirements are ill-advised.

State law requires that the MCAs include questions above and below a student’s grade level. However, due to federal requirements, MDE has been unable to use these questions in calculating most of the test scores it reports. As a result, statewide tests have been lengthened for all students without much benefit.

Dolores Ramos, 16, right, joins dozens of Highland High School students in Albuquerque, N.M., as students staged a walkout Monday March 2, 2015, to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Albuquerque, New Mexico high school students; AP photo

State law also requires MDE to report a score based on the MCA describing each student’s progress toward career and college readiness. But such scores for elementary and middle school students are methodologically problematic. Projections extending far into the future have a high level of uncertainty, and some of them are likely to be wrong.

MCA tests scores are also used in teacher evaluations (per state requirement) and, in some districts, to evaluate principals, too. Another key finding from this report? Across the state, “Many principals and teachers do not feel prepared to interpret much of the testing data reported by MDE.”

In response to this, at a March 5 presentation of the auditor’s report, Republican state representative Sondra Erickson (who has served on ALEC’s education task force) suggested that perhaps teachers need more training in how to interpret test data.

If more students continue to refuse the tests, perhaps such further training will not be necessary. 

The level of testing nonparticipation among high school students in Minneapolis Public Schools has reached the point where it is no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of districtwide student learning.

–Office of the Legislative Auditor’s 2017 report on standardized testing in Minnesota (79)

Meanwhile in Minnesota: Lack of school counselors have experts worried,” as the state has no mandate to fund counselors or maintain a certain number per student.

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It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

With Betsy DeVos in the background, whitewashing segregation and the Jim Crow era, the annual standardized testing season is here, ready to do its part to keep our schools separate and unequal. 

How’s that? Consider two local lessons in how the testing regime is propped up in our public schools on some pretty shaky ethics.

First, parents in the Becker, Minnesota school district recently received a jaw-dropping letter in their kids’ backpacks. The letter announced that the district would shortly be “adjusting (its) academic schedule,” by dropping–temporarily!–science and social studies classes in favor of an extra “Power Hour” of math and reading for each kid.

“Grade level teachers will work during this time to teach skills in the area of reading and math at your child’s instructional level,” the letter states, before assuring parents that district staff are “committed to working together to best meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Hmm. What theory of education or child development would suggest that the best needs of all kids would involve doubling down on math and reading test prep, to gin up scores on outsourced standardized tests made by for-profit corporations?

Here is the letter that was sent home:

Becker is a majority white, middle class, exurban district. Research shows that students in districts such as this often rake in the highest scores on standardized tests, and state education data for Becker backs this up. In 2015-2016, the Becker schools “surpassed the state average in every grade level for every test,” crowed a statement on the district’s website. What’s more, “most grade levels improved the number of students proficient in comparison to last year.” (That means they achieved “growth,” but don’t ask DeVos to explain any of this.)

But at what price? Replacing science and social studies with a super, extra fun Power Hour of reading and math does not seem like an ethical way to ensure dominance on top of the standardized test heap.

Parents in the Becker schools didn’t like it, either. A source tells me that as soon as the Power Hour letter hit home, parents loudly informed the district that they did not approve of their kids being given concentrated doses of test prep. In response, the district reinstated science and social studies (even though data showed there “would be a benefit to incorporating a ‘Power Hour’ of intensive instruction to our day”), and sent the following chagrined letter home:

 

I don’t know the opt out rates in Becker–the data does not appear to be easily available–but in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, a growing number of students are choosing not to take the annual MCA tests. This has been building for years, especially for high school students who are–surprisingly!–savvy enough to realize that the MCA tests are of little consequence to their lives and their futures. MCA test scores are not required for graduation, nor are they part of college admission decisions. In other words, they don’t really matter.

And that’s partly because everything else matters so much. In 2015, I interviewed a handful of students from Southwest High School about their decision to blow off the MCAs, and their answers were very revealing:

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

Here’s the ethics connection. In a February message sent to teachers at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, the school’s testing coordinator informed them that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) had recently added “encouraging parents or students to refuse the test” to its list of “unethical” test administration practices. This is the email sent to Southwest teachers:

Hello All,

The MCA testing window opens March 6th (overlapping with ACCESS, ACT & Make-up ACT administration) through May 5th.

Additional information will be provided in the next week or so with specifics on student testing dates, locations, proctor assignments, and other ways we can support each other in this effort.

To whet your appetite for that additional information, below are a few points regarding Parent Refusal Forms picked up from yesterday’s training session at The District.

  • MDE has added encouraging Opt Outs to the list of unethical practices in test administration.
  • Schools are expected to have a 95% participation rate to qualify for MMR funds.
  • To underscore the point, REA sent me the following message (highlights, theirs): 

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

The testing coordinator acknowledges that this message is being sent to Southwest teachers because “in the past SW has had a lot of opt outs.” And that must be stopped by threatening to withhold funds, apparently.

It is clear that we have built a whole industry around testing, as our schools have become more racially and economically segregated–partly because test scores are made public, allowing parents to “opt out” of schools with low test scores. And who is most likely to attend a school with low test scores? In Minnesota, like most other places, it is marginalized students of color living in underserved communities.

The more we double down on trying to force students and teachers to comply with standardized testing, the more, it seems, we avoid difficult conversations about ethical concerns around segregation and the unequal (current and historic) allocation of resources, not to mention the fallacy of reducing educational achievement to multiple choice tests. 

Ceresta Smith is a Florida-based teacher and leader in the Opt Out movement (we met a few years ago at an education justice conference). On Monday morning, after Moonlight was awkwardly awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, this is what she wrote on Facebook:

Big ups to Moonlight!!!🤗These folks came through arts magnet programs in majority Black community schools with majority Black faculties composed of great teachers! Big up to the arts!!! Down with culturally biased worthless testing! Those tests do not make award winning art and artists!!! The teachers and students just put Miami in the big league for talent for writing, acting, and sharing truth about growing up poor and gay! Wow, big task for schools, Miami Northwestern High and Norland Middle, which a fraudulent grading system likes to label as less than.

In our questionably ethical pursuit of test scores, silence, secrecy and compliance, are we missing key conversations about what students, parents, teachers actually want from our schools?

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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