February 29, 2016; Delaware PTA and Huffington Post

A recently enacted position statement on assessement places the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) strongly in support of the testing programs that have become a main component of current school improvement strategies—and strongly in opposition to the parent movement that has grown to protest the testing abuse.

“National PTA believes that high-quality assessments provide valuable information to parents, teachers and school leaders about the growth and achievement of their students.”

“National PTA does not believe that full scale assessment opt-out is an effective strategy to address the frustration over testing or that opting-out helps to improve a given assessment instrument. Mass opt-out comes at a real cost to the goals of educational equity and individual student achievement while leaving the question of assessment quality unanswered.”

Last year, the parents of an estimated 650,000 students refused to allow their children to sit for standardized tests. Last May, Dr. Terri Hodges, president of the Delaware PTA, and Yvonne Johnson, Delaware PTA VP of Advocacy, explained what was moving parents to act:

Parents are not opting out because the test is “too hard.” Parents are opting out because this overly subjective assessment provides no value to the student or teacher. The test results are not available until after the academic year has ended and students are losing valuable instruction time. Parents want meaningful assessments that produce accurate and valid data on how their student is performing. They want feedback that allows them to work with the teachers to support student learning and growth. Parents…want teachers to teach and students to learn.

The voices of these parents helped make testing a national issue. As Congress debated how to renew federal education policy, testing was front and center as what became the Every Student Succeeds Act was crafted. The attention drawn by parents opting their children out resulted in a law that returned responsibility for effective assessment strategies, set a goal for participation in annual assessments, and eliminated penalties for not reaching those goals. Clearly, these parents’ voices had had an impact on policymakers, setting the stage for continued advocacy at the state level for changes and improvements these parents desire.

So why is NPTA not supporting these parents and students? With so much concern from so many parents, it would seem that the national organization that says it represents public school children would be standing with their parents, or at least would be supporting the right of parents to make a decision they think was in their child’s best interests. But that’s not how the NPTA has chosen to respond. The Opt-Out movement is an effort to empower parents as responsible stewards of our public education system. It is doing what apparently NPTA will not: provide a way for individual parents to act collectively to ensure that badly designed and badly implemented assessment systems do not do further damage to public education.

In a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post, Shannon Sevier, Vice President for Advocacy at the National PTA, tried to explain her organization’s logic.

Speaking up and taking action is a critical step to improve the overall education system and ensure every child has the opportunity to reach his/her full potential. However, National PTA does not believe that full scale assessment opt-out is an effective strategy to address the frustration over testing or that opting-out helps to improve a given assessment instrument.

NPTA feels so strongly that it will not stand any dissension in its ranks. It has moved to bar their affiliates at the state and local levels from continuing their efforts for the changes they believe are needed. In late February, the Delaware PTA informed its membership that it was being forced to change its position in support of the opt-out movement and that it would have to insist that all of its local chapters do the same.

As a state association, we are obligated to comply with the National PTA Standard of Affiliations, which governs the relationship between National PTA and the state associations. Similarly, our bylaws define the relationship between the state association and our local units in that the local units may not collectively take up any position that contradicts the position of Delaware State PTA and by extension National PTA. […] The Delaware PTA is required to cease all advocacy related to parent opt out.

Is NPTA really fulfilling their mission by threatening those who disagree with sanctions? Is this just about a disagreement over the tactics of protest?

Maybe NPTA has a larger agenda, one that is about organizational funding and powerful partners. Could the answer to all of these questions be the Gates Foundation? According to a joint press release from 2009, the Foundation became a significant funder of NPTA in order to help make NPTA a key player in the school reform efforts championed by Bill and Melinda Gates:

National PTA is positioning itself as a key player at the front line of education reform. The association today announced a new three-year effort to mobilize parents to advance key education priorities, beginning with common core state standards—a voluntary, state-led, internationally benchmarked set of high academic standards in English language arts and mathematics. A $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help support the effort.

Diane Ravitch points out in her blog that the Gates Foundation gave National PTA $3.7 million, and another $1 million in October 2015 specifically to support Common Core assessments and the results of those assessments.

Is being on the front lines of school reform and being favored by the wealthy foundations that support those efforts seductive enough to move NPTA away from its own membership? In this case, the answer seems to be a very loud yes.—Martin Levine