An Open Letter to Commissioner Mills

 

By Jane Weinkrantz   

 

Dear Commissioner Mills,

    I am writing because I believe you owe my son, Jacob, an apology. Because of your unconscionable bullying, Jacob came home from school in tears for the first ever last Thursday. And there was no way I could get you called down to the principalís office. In fact, even the principal is afraid of you.

    Jacobís crying was due to the fourth grade ELA test, a test you insist all fourth graders, even those with disabilities, take, in order for you to assess our schools. Jacob has a severe auditory processing problem and taking a language arts assessment that had every adult in his school quaking in their boots was too much for him. The ELAís listening section which requires a fourth grader to take notes on a passage and then write about it as though he or she is a budding journalist, proved too much for him---even with his testing modifications in place. When I picked him up from school that day, he was a puddle of tears.

    "Donít worry," I said. "Itís just a stupid test. A very stupid test." I was not kidding. I do think it is a stupid test. Jacob, however, wasnít having it. "Itís not stupid," he wept. "Donít say Ďstupid,í Mom!" I realized that for the last month or so before the test all the administrators and teachers in Jacobís school had been preparing for The Big Event as though it meant a lot to them. Jacob had taken several mock ELAs and both the principal and the teacherís union had sent home letters reminding me to make sure Jacob had a good nightís sleep and a healthy breakfast every morning during the week of the test, as though he normally stays up all night watching David Letterman and Charlie Rose and then has a breakfast of black coffee, Doritos and menthol cigarettes. His teacher had even sent home a little prescription bag for "good test taking skills", including a penny so he would "have good sense" and a toothpick to "pick" the right answers. I donít blame her; I know my kidsí Regents scores are a reflection on me and her ELA scores must be a reflection on her. Still, with all the hoopla, it would have been nearly impossible for Jacob to think the test was unimportant or routine. So how could he believe me when I told him not worry? At school, all the adults he had learned to like and trust clearly felt otherwise.

    The awful thing was I knew this was going to happen. Jacob has been diagnosed since he was three. He is treated by a highly respected developmental pediatrician in Manhattan. Last summer, she recommended Jacob be excused from the ELA and wrote a letter to that effect. I sent the letter to our districtís director of special education, who said she couldnít honor it. According to the state guidelines, Jacobís disability wasnít severe enough to excuse him from the test. "O.K.", I said," heíll take it, but Iíll write to Richard Mills to protest." She thought I was kidding.

    As a teacher in the collaborative model, I have said for years that if there must be state testing, there ought to be a different test for classified kids that does not tease out their disabilities so thoroughly or just an outright exemption. As a parent, this first experience with state mandated standardized tests emphatically confirms this. I feel for every parent who has to see their child feeling so needlessly inadequate, frustrated and sad.

    Jacob scored a 2 on each of the practice ELAs he took and I imagine he scored a 2 again on the real thing. My question is what does his 2 mean? Does it mean that his school is not doing its job? No, theyíre doing a great job. His teachers have done everything they can to strengthen all of Jacobís skills. On a math or science assessment, Jacob would be a credit to them. Just as he is atypically weak in language, he is atypically strong in math and science. Does a 2 on the ELA mean Jacob is below average in language? Yes, but at this point, did anyone need a test to find out what has been thoroughly documented for nearly seven years? Does the test show that Jacob needs more academic assistance? Tell me what else you can give him after the two occupational therapy sessions, four school based speech sessions, two private speech sessions and placement in a collaborative classroom with a classroom aide and push in special education teacher he already has? In short, the test proves nothing, Mr. Mills, except that the state of New York can bully a fourth grader into doing something he shouldnít have to do. I hold you personally responsible for that.

    I know what youíre thinking. You feel just terrible and want to apologize.  An apology would be too late; kids across the state have already taken the test. Instead, why donít you revise your testing guidelines so that children with disabilities can take a modified version of the state exams or be excused entirely (without putting the burden of alternate assessment on special ed. teachers.) Do it. Youíll feel better.

Sincerely,

Jane Weinkrantz

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