Thursday, November 5, 2015

NY: The Anti-Opt Out Propaganda Kit

New York, you may recall, was Ground Zero for the hugest impact of the Opt Out movement, with around one in five New York students choosing not to take last year's Big Standardized Test. But New York's ed department is ready to fight back, because reasons. And to do that, they have created a handy "toolkit," much like the handy toolkits that the American Tobacco Institute used to provide for informing the public about the benefits of smoking.

It's just an awesome piece of work, and I will hit the highlights now for those of you lacking the time or stomach to see for yourselves. It has many cool features, so this may take a while.

Video Welcome from Your Fearless Leader 

NY Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is here-- well, she's somewhere, in front of a curtain, sitting next to a small table holding a magazine and a potted plant. It is quite possibly the laziest staging of anything ever, and I shouldn't care because presentation isn't that big a deal here, except that this is Intro To Test Propaganda, which means that we ought to be aware of what we're doing. Simply shooting it in her office would have been fine. Shooting it while standing in any random setting would have been fine. But this-- somebody clearly thought that it needed some kind of staging, but then all they could come up with was a table and a potted plant, oh, and hey, hand me that catalog over there.

I mean, this whole site is a presentation about making a presentation to win hearts and minds. So either this "set" demonstrates a lack of commitment or a lack of competence, and that is not a good way to set the tone for this enterprise.

So what does she actually say? Last years 20% of students didn't take that awesome BS Tests; her response is to explain to parents and teachers "about the benefits" of high standards and ditto tests. Also, the annual test doesn't tell the entire story, but they do provide a roadmap for teachers and school leaders to focus on so they can improve.

But if students don't take the BS Test, everyone from students up through state policy makers "miss out" on crucial information, because everyone is an idiot incapable of evaluating education without the BS Test. So if you were imagining that this site was going to advocate for a frank, honest and open discussion of testing, so sorry-- we're going to stick with falsehoods and classic talking points. Good to know that going in.

The propaganda kit is broken up into four sections, each customizable and each more awesome than the last.


The state of New York can't help noticing that some of you professional educators aren't entirely on board with Testapalooza. So here are some tools.

First, a letter for Superintendents to send their teachers.

Like all materials, this is customizable, kind of in the same way that Mad Libs are customizable. Speaks well of the reformster personalization movement.

The superintendent's letter includes unsupported assertions like this:

As educators, we all have a responsibility to ensure that the greatest possible number of eligible students take the state assessments.

And odd non sequitors like this:

While this has been a period of transition for [DISTRICT], tests have always served an important role in educating our students. 

The letter also notes that the BS Tests "provide an objective measure of progress" (no), and "Without widespread participation in tests, we can’t accurately identify achievement gaps or make sure that all students receive the support they need to be successful" (because we don't know how to do our jobs?)

The letter, in short, has no arguments to make that have not been made, repeatedly, before. Perhaps Elia thinks that hearing them for the sixty-gazzillionth time will make the difference, but I have to say that I'm completely unimpressed.

Now Superintendents Tell Teachers What To Tell Parents

This is a handy guide to the lies that educators should tell parents. Tell them that without the test, we have no way of identifying student strengths and weaknesses. Tell them that the new Questar test will be better without admitting that the old one sucked. Say that double the number of NY teachers will be "involved" in developing the new test, but do not let them ask how you can know anything about the new test if it isn't developed yet. Tell them that student rating of 1, 2 or 3 is really loaded with rich nuanced data. If they ask why their child's grades don't match test results, or why student scores went down this year, say "Argle bargle bargle."


Since our primary goal is informing parents enough that they will knock off the opt out stuff. So here are some mad libs aimed directly at them.

Superintendent Letter To Parents

Surprisingly weak. We have this test we give. It's important and tests big deal stuff. No single test blah blah blah. Helps us compare your kid. The test is real fair and made just for New York and actual teachers worked on it (this is a recurring theme-- the department is determined to make this look as teachery as possible without actually letting teacher have any real power). We'll make sure your kid has time to get ready for this. And visit our mind-numbing website to give feedback on every single standard.

Parent FAQ List

There are ten questions, and zero real answers. Why should my kid take the test? Because the feds require it, NY students have always done so, oneofseveralmeasures, and it will measure college and career readiness and thereby guide instruction. So baloney, baloney, partial truth but so what, and baldfaced untruth.

Scores will tell you soooo many things. Like the ELA score can be broken into reading and writing! So granular! You can use the score to have discussions with your child's teacher! The tests are IMPORTANT! Because reasons. And only 1% of school year to take them! Scores will be used to measure school performance, but not to affect your child's promotion (or not). Teachers gave feedback on test questions! Questar is new and improved!

Parent's Guide to Higher Learning Standards

Can you guess which phrase does not appear in this section, or any other section? If you guessed "Core" and also "Common," you win! This portion does however discuss the college and career ready standards adopted in 2010, and puts the same old baloney in a pretty new chart without any evidence that any of these standards are a good idea. Also not included? Evidence that the BS Tests measure any of this stuff.


The department suggests that you have a meeting with your parents in which they can be led to see the error of their ways. Start with some discussion, throw in some power point, and end with an altar call.

Sample Flyer

Whether they want to go to college or straight into the workplace, our students need to be able to think critically and solve complex problems.

That is roughly one third of the copy on the entire page. If you actually needed the state's help to design this invitation to "An Evening with Superintendent [NAME]" you should not be responsible for children.

Meeting Format

There's a handy outline for a meeting. Figure an hour, with 45 minutes to present and 15 for questions. The Superintendent should "address key issues" (it's the same stuff we've been hammering) and then a teacher or principal should speak about "his/her experience with the assessments." There's a handy list of questions to be prepared for in the Q&A, which basically match the FAQ list, though you should expect to be asked about how these figure in teacher evals, too.

Again-- the superintendent who needs this level of assistance to plan a meeting with the public should not be employed as a superintendent.

The Power Point

Here's a handy thirty-slide presentation about standards and testing. Well, actually, five of the slides are about testing. The rest are the same tired unsupported arguments for the standards. These include the same bogus claims (they will measure critical thinking!) and the same curiously repeated talking points (twice as many NY teachers will help develop them-- why is this not presented as a number? unless, of course, the number is really small, but hey, two is twice as many as one).

But you will be happy to know that the new testing whizz-bangery is "moving toward" the following;

Shorter, more effective tests
Reducing the need for stand-alone field tests
Releasing more test questions
Releasing results before the end of the school year

So they are definitely planning to move in the direction of almost doing what they actually should do. This month, try telling your landlord that you are moving toward writing a check for a portion of your rent money.

Talking Points for District 

Here's a handy list of sales points for the BS Testing! And what fine points they are. "All students must be prepared for success in college and careers." Which is a true thing! And nobody in the world disagrees with it. So I am trying to imagine the moment when a superintendent tells a parent, "You know, Mr. Wallflanger, all students need to be ready to succeed in college and/or careers," and Mr. Wallflanger says, "Why, you know, I never thought about it that way, but I guess you're right. My son does need to succeed in college or a career. I guess I want him to take that big test after all! Thanks for setting me straight."

I mean, what movie is playing in the heads of the people who write this stuff? Have they told themselves these talking point so many times that they have come to believe they're compelling or convincing?

But here are all the usuals. Rigorous standards. Oneofseveralindicators. Objective coparison of students across state (because parents really want that). Very little time spent on testing (don't believe your eyes-- believe what we tell you). [INSERT BRIGHT SPOT IN STUDENT DATA THAT IS SPECIFIC TO DISTRICT]. Commissioner Elia is committed to making tests better and shorter.

Also-- and I am not making this up-- in the midst of all this test cheerleading, we find "Teachers are the experts about what is happening in their classrooms and are an invaluable resource for parents. Parents are encouraged to reach out to their child's teacher with any questions they have about their child's test results or academic progress." Mind you, we at the state department will not be reaching out to them because we're pretty sure they don't know what the hell they're doing-- that's why we've created a system to root out the many, many terrible ones that we're certain exist. Also, you can ask them about test results, but since they aren't allowed to see the questions your child answered or the answers your child gave, don't expect them to have any idea what might have caused your child to earn her vague and non-granular "2."


Yup. The NY Ed Department heard that people are out there a-twittering away and posting stuff on that Book of Face, so they have included some handy materials that you can use to whip up the interwebs with your social mediums.

They offer some handy tips (most adults are more likely to engage via Facebook; twitter is more effective before 8:15 AM or between 5-10 at night). And a whole list of sample tweets that sound exactly like the kind of tweets that a state department of anything would write (Learn how assessment results provide important info for educators: There are even some sample Facebook posts that also manage to replicate the writing style of a low-grade marketing bot.

It's just silly. Peter Cunningham, a seasoned PR professional, took $12 milion to establish Education Post and hasn't made a dent. Campbell Brown's $4 million site sits languishing in irrelevance. Jeb Bush once launched four real teachers on a twit-quest to gin up Common Core support, and it ended with neither a bang nor a whimper.

The evidence is strong that a handful of generic social media posts will not stem the tide of Opt Out.

In Fact

If I were among the parents of the New York Opt Out movement, I'd be insulted that this was all the effort the state was going to make to win me over.

This is just a bland casserole of reheated rhetoric that every opt out parent has already heard a hundred times, with a thin crushed topping of weirdly repeated talking points (New York really really REALLY wants you to know that double the teachers are going to be developing the new tests).

This package of propaganda indicates that either the New York ed department still doesn't understand what the big fuss is about, or they just don't care whether opt out picks up steam or not. I suppose there's an alternative view in which Elia is an evil genius who is seeking to soothe the federal test-meisters while subtly goading the opt out movement to beat the previous years record of refusals. But that seems unlikely. I'm leaning towards the clueless option, that the state really doesn't get that parents really do understand what's going on, and that their rejection of the test is an informed, deliberate, angry decision.

In her video intro, Elia says that in her 45-year history in education, she's found that the more parents understand about the test, the more they comply. I'd respectfully suggest that her 45 years of experience don't offer insights into what's been going on in New York since the new BS Tests landed in 2013. She needs to re-examine her assumption that parents just don't understand. I think New York opt out parents understand pretty well; it's the state education department that just doesn't get it.


  1. "...double the number of NY teachers will be "involved" in developing the new test...."

    Why not say that 100 times more teachers will be involved? Or 1000 times? Or a million times? When you're multiplying by zero, you can pick any number you want.

  2. "Start with some discussion, throw in some power point, and end with an altar call."

    *Belly laugh*. Thanks.

  3. I mean, what movie is playing in the heads of the people who right this stuff? Shouldn't that be write?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Maybe Elia can get an interview with Zach Galafanakis on "Between Two Ferns" to extoll the virtues of Common Core

  6. Love this and sharing! There is no way I am communicating any of that to parents. Elia has to be kidding herself. She appears to be digging in deeper and deeper.

  7. So, read the sample questions for teachers. Almost as hysterical as this blog post!

  8. Boom! Thank you, Peter! The disconnect between state ed and the real word is double face palm, bang your head against the desk incredible.

    (Btw, thanks for the linking Clemsy's Corner!)