How should reporters write about testing protests and parents opting out this year? Carefully, in a word.Contextually. Skeptically. With much greater balance and insight.Better than they did last year (and so far this year, too).*
What last year's coverage often lacked, however, was care and context. Test proliferation claims thrown out by testing critics weren't verified (often it seemed as if no attempts at verification had been made). Claims that weren't in dispute -- say the number of parents who opted out -- often weren't presented in context (ie, as a percentage of parents in the school or district). The emphasis was on confrontation and consequences that were often overblown and/or speculative -- most of which didn't actually happen and were never likely to.
Parents and teachers who support testing are rarely found and presented to readers, resulting in grossly imbalanced coverage (especially since the vast majority of parents and teachers aren't actively involved in testing advocacy).
Let's not do that again. Or at least let's stop before it becomes a habit.
Two recent stories from Chicago illustrate the challenges:
The latest story from Chicago public radio (Teachers at 2nd school boycott ISAT) illustrates the dangers of covering the testing issue.It focuses on the addition of a second school where teachers say they're going to refuse to administer the test, and on the possible consequences (for teachers and for the schools) that are unlikely to actually occur.
Sentences like this one -- "Teachers at both schools have said they feel emboldened by large percentages of parents who have opted their children out of this year’s test." -- make it unclear whether the large percentages of parents are at those two schools or in citywide (it's the former). That sentence is followed by a claim from a test critic about the number of parents who are opting their kids out of the tests that is both unverified and presented without context. Has the district received opt out forms from anywhere near 1,000 parents? What percentage of parents would that be, assuming it actually took place?
Where the story does a decent job verifying claims is when it comes to those being made by the district that schools could lose federal funding if not enough kids participate in the state exam. Student or parent voices in support of testing to go along with several critical perspectives? Zero.
Another story from Chicago, Catalyst's More teachers to boycott ISAT, as parents rally behind them, does a somewhat better job. It admits to a certain amount of uncertainty regarding how many teachers want to refuse to administer the tests (or will actually follow through). It notes that just 16 teachers have had their certification revoked in 25 years statewide -- none of them for refusing to administer a test.It explains that the test being protested is being phased out, and how that plays into the testing protest dynamics. That being said, it repeats testing critics' unverified claims about parents opting out and neglects to tell readers that the organization spearhading the protest is run in part by the teachers union.
There's lots more, and of course these are just two stories cobbled together over recent days. I know that there's nothing easier than criticizing others' work. My own recent piece on testing protests is full of flaws. But I worry about the habits that get set early, and the misperceptions that readers may get if those habits take hold again.
Whatever happens -- a reasonable reconsideration (as I've recommended) of legacy testing programs or a worldwide testing ban -- I want the public to have a decent chance of understanding the realities.
*Cross-posted from yesterday's This Week In Education (though I really should really have posted it here first). Agree or disagree? Let me know.
Previous posts: National Audit Of Testing Proposed By Senate; Tests: Have They *Really* Proliferated (& Will Protests Matter)?; Unsolicited Suggestions: A National Testing Audit; 6 Things You Need To Know About Duncan's "Suburban Moms" Remarks; Testing Opt-Out Effort Falls Flat In Chicago; Test/Test Prep Time Lowest In Chicago, Highest In Cleveland.
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