Press-Republican

June 16, 2013

Locals join Albany rally against testing, data collection

By KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

---- — SARANAC LAKE — The outcry against high-stakes testing drew thousands to a recent rally in Albany.

Among buses that poured into the capital were three from the North Country.

Saranac Lake Middle School teacher Don Carlisto went with 12 others from that community, joining a busload from Plattsburgh. Other buses traveled from Canton and Watertown.

“It was a festival atmosphere,” he described the scene on the Plaza. “There were thousands of people there. The estimate going in was 10,000. I would say they easily exceeded 10,000.”

State assessment testing — also called high-stakes testing — was implemented to align with federal Common Core standards this year.

The exams are also deigned for use as teaching assessment tools, despite indications that, this year, many students were given questions about subjects three or more grade levels above their current curriculum.

A LOT OF KIDS

Speakers at the rally, organized by the New York State United Teachers, included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Wiengarten, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.

“There was also a performance by (singer/songwriter) Tom Chapin. He wrote a song called ‘Not on the Test,’ and that was really good,” Carlisto said.

Dr. Margarita Garcia-Notario, a SUNY Plattsburgh professor, has children in the Plattsburgh City School District. She also attended the rally in Albany.

“I thought it was very well organized, very peaceful,” she said. “People brought a lot of kids. And the signs were very funny —there was a 1-year-old holding a sign that said: ‘I’m not a test score.’”

THREE ISSUES

The rally focused on information in a civilized way, Dr. Garcia-Notario said, “primarily criticizing aspects of the situation that are not acceptable: that state education is using public money in a way that is hurting the public.”

Nuts-and-bolts issues for parents and teachers come down to three pervasive concerns, Carlisto said. 

First, he said, is excessive use of testing in schools, and second, that tests usurp a teacher’s individual ability to teach. Third, he said, is the corporate advance into education with the mining of personal student data from every district in New York.

“Leonie Haimson, chairperson of the nonprofit group Class Size Matters, has led the way in pushing back against the data-sharing being implemented by an organization called InBloom,” he said.

Haimson spoke at the rally.

DATA PARKING GARAGE

“InBloom, funded by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, is a not-for-profit group set to become a for-profit corporation in five years,” Carlisto said.

“They are collecting confidential student information and storing it — information like birth dates, names, discipline records, even the socio-economic status of parents,” Carlisto said.

“They are going to store it in a Cloud (online). It’s like a ‘parking garage’ for all this data.

“You see, the federal privacy laws have been changed so that third-party corporate/commercial vendors can act as agents of a school district to get access to this data for the purpose of selling school districts tailor-made software and educational products, like textbooks,” he said.

Does the motivation for student data mining go beyond profiteering and a corporate agenda?

“You can see the path toward ‘common core’ standards in this,” Carlisto answered. “How far of a leap is it to say we want everyone to think the same way?”

‘UNETHICAL’

The same argument has been raised by area parents and students who challenge state assessment tests.

Garcia-Notario believes data collection without parental knowledge or consent is unethical. And setting a corporate agenda for education is dangerous, she said.

“In many ways, we can be hurt so bad by identity theft, and our children could be, too, in the future with this type of data mining. Why would put our kids at such great risk? 

“Also, why would we want private businesses to know so much? I think this is unethical, and we are right now at that moment where even more personal space is being invaded without our permission.”

As far as mining student information, Garcia-Notario wondered who would determine the appropriate track for success when every child is unique and different?

“This could create labels for kids. People shine when the right moment gets to them. We should be the first to advocate for our students.”

PARENTS PROTEST

Federal testing, some believe, is driven by corporate data-collection. 

“There’s a real awakening,” Carlisto said.

Already, state lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru), have sponsored bills that would prevent schools from releasing personally identifiable student information without parental consent.

Haimson’s website, Class Size Matters, tracks the progress of InBloom’s pilot program.

“As of May 2013, only three states are still committed to going forward: New York, Illinois (Bloomington), and Colorado (Jefferson Co.),” Haimson said in a recent update.

And by June 1, New York remained the only state sharing data, involving the personal information of 2.6 million students.

“New York … has reportedly already uploaded this information on the inBloom cloud.”

CONSOLIDATED RECORDS

Reuters reported recently that “the system is set up to identify millions of children by name, race, economic status and other metrics and is constructed in a way that makes it easy for school districts to share some or all of that information with private companies developing education software.

“The idea is that consolidated records make it easier for teachers to use software that mines data to identify academic weaknesses. Games, videos or lesson plans would then be precisely targeted to engage specific children or promote specific skills.”

InBloom has defended the safety of its data-collection method in comments to the press. 

THREE BILLS PENDING

Along with the legislation on the release of personally identifiable student information, two other “Truth About Testing” bills are pending — one that would audit costs of school testing in each district and another that would limit exams for children in kindergarten through second grade to diagnostic evaluation only.

“The fact that you saw those bills introduced in this session speaks to the interest for getting a legislative fix for next school year,” Carlisto said.

“Hopefully, we get these bills done, and we’ll start to see some adjustments made that will be better for everyone.”

GETTING TOGETHER

A collective is forming among parents from area school districts to address the issues.

A Parent Teachers Alliance was formed at Saranac Lake Central School this winter. Plattsburgh schools have a similar group meeting regularly.

Garcia-Notoria said the Plattsburgh membership plans to meet in the first week of July to determine how much city schools spend on testing.

And AuSable Valley Central School parents and teachers are also working to address testing and data-mining issues.

“We’ve had a lot of good conversations among concerned groups about going forward. This is about, can we restore some balance, please?” Carlisto said.

“Can we make sure accountability doesn’t crowd out every other initiative that schools want to pursue?”

PARENTS SUMMIT EYED

The local coalition is looking to organize a parent alliance summit, likely in the fall.

As for his role as a teacher, Carlisto sees it as part of all teachers’ obligation to speak about issues that impact their occupation.

“Fortunately, I work in a district where teachers’ viewpoints are respected.”

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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TO LEARN MORE

Learn more about the nonprofit group Class Size Matters: http://tinyurl.com/mz8h6pw.

Read the Reuters article "School database loses backers as parents balk over privacy": http://tinyurl.com/q28pv9r.

InBloom's security policy and descriptions of who will be able to access the database is online: http://tinyurl.com/pnkplmo. See Assembly Bill A06059A: http://tinyurl.com/nbh5tnk.