Lisa Blunt-Rochester: “To Be Able To Have The Luxury To Opt Out Is A Luxury”

At the Delaware Congressional education debate last evening, a question concerning state testing led to some very offensive comments from candidate Lisa Blunt-Rochester.  Senator Bryan Townsend was asked a question by a member of the audience concerning his fights with state testing at Legislative Hall and his endorsement by DSEA (the Delaware teachers union).  The question was confusing but it alleged that since civil rights groups stand by testing as an accurate way to measure the progress of African-American students, and he fought against the state testing, how would he respond to that? The question was read by one of the moderators, Nichole Dobo.  Townsend defended his stance on testing because the testing was being used for purposes it was not meant for.

By the time candidate Lisa Blunt-Rochester answered, the subject of opt out had already come up by candidate Scott Walker.  He indicated he does not support opt out, especially for students with disabilities and feels it is illegal.  I’m assuming Walker didn’t see the very atrocious scores students with disabilities had on the Smarter Balanced Assessment this year.  But I digress.  By the time the question came back to Rochester, this was her response, as I understood it, while I typed it as I was live blogging:

The original question was about civil rights.  She understands why some folks would opt out, but as a person coming from the Civil Rights movement, to not measure anything is a problem.  Opting out isn’t the issue.  We need to measure to know where we are discriminating.  We need to put our money where our mouth is.

This is what she actually said, thanks to videos shown on the DelaCore Leaders Facebook page:

So the original question was about civil rights organizations and their positions on state testing and the concern that you can’t have it, kind of, both ways.  I understand why some folks would want to opt out, but for myself, as a parent, also as a person who comes from a Civil Rights background, you have to measure growth.  Maybe that’s part of what the challenges folks were concerned about, what we were measuring.  To not measure anything is a problem, to be able to have the luxury to opt out is a luxury.  If we need to fix the test, let’s fix the testing.  But we do have to hold ourselves accountable.  In all the conversation about discrimination, we need to be able to measure, so that we know we are being discriminated against.  So, I think, you put your money where your mouth is.

This statement could be taken a lot of ways.  I see it as the same argument as other folks defending the civil rights groups statements as “it doesn’t matter how bad the test is, we still need that measurement.”  I’m sorry, but I can’t, won’t, and never will buy that logic.  First off, there is a cultural bias with the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  It wasn’t written for African-Americans, English Language learners, or students with disabilities.  It was written for white kids.  We see this with every single score release of standardized tests.  This isn’t new.  It has been going on for decades.

If Blunt-Rochester feels opting out is a “luxury”, an option that is truly open and is not illegal under any circumstances in Delaware, then by her logic we can all enjoy that luxury.  Parents don’t opt out because it is a luxury.  They opt their kids out of the state assessment, which in Delaware’s case is the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  They don’t opt out of MAPS, or SRI, or SMI, or final exams.  They opted out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  The test is long.  Parents and teachers don’t get the scores back on time.  Students aren’t even given the exact same test.  It is a test for accountability for schools.  This was said by Jon Cohen, who runs the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which just so happens to be the testing vendor for the Smarter Balanced Assessment:

When you use a test for accountability, you’re not really using it to measure the kid.  You’re using it to measure the school, or the teacher, or the district.  And you want that school or teacher or district to have an incentive to teach the full range of curriculum.

This statement was taken from a video that used to appear in an article about AIR on this very blog, but AIR changed the settings on it so it could not be embedded outside of their reach.  It is my contention they don’t want people seeing this video.  When talking about the computer adaptability of the assessment, Cohen very frighteningly tells viewers students are not receiving the same test.  The questions aren’t the same for every student.  I wrote in greater detail about this a few weeks ago.  For all the talk about resources and funding we need for schools in Delaware, the one question many candidates aren’t asking is where is the existing funding going?  In Delaware, we have given AIR well over $40 million dollars over a five year period.  That is $8 million a year.  For results that really haven’t changed much when looking at this measurement.  I don’t know about you, but I’m sure our schools would be more than happy to be able to use that money towards lower class-room sizes or more support for students who are at-risk.

While I respect your right to choose whether or not your child takes the Smarter Balanced Assessment, what I don’t respect is you’re telling me that my choice is a luxury.  I actually found this extremely offensive.  I have a child with disabilities.  For these students, who score much lower than African-Americans, it frequently takes them two to three times longer to take this test with accommodations than their peers.  And yes, non-disabled African-Americans are their peers.  They are easily frustrated being forced to take a test for this long.  Because at the same time, their neurological disabilities are manifesting.  Whether it is high-functioning Autism, or Tourette Syndrome, or ADHD, or OCD, or in some cases (as it is with my child) a combination of co-morbidities.

I would like anyone reading this to try something.  Grab a piece of paper and start writing the Pledge of Allegiance.  While you are writing with your hand of choice, take your other hand and start swinging it out.  Keep writing.  At the same time you are doing both of these, start making humming noises.  Do all three at once.  How far did you get on the Pledge of Allegiance?  Now put that in a scenario where you are taking the state assessment on a computer.

Now, imagine you are a low-income African-American student with disabilities taking this test.

I’m sorry Lisa Blunt-Rochester, but you don’t get the luxury of telling me it is a luxury for me to opt my son out.  I respect your choice, but if you want to talk about discrimination, we can do that.  I can talk about how my son was denied an IEP at a charter school in Delaware because of a poorly-trained special education staff who were not even aware of the classification for disabilities of “other-health impaired” until my wife told them.  I can talk about how they treated his disability as behavior issues and wanted to punish him when they wouldn’t give him the accommodations he deserved under federal law.  And when things got so bad there, over a dropped cookie in the lunchroom, he ran to a confined space because he was so scared of their behavior interventionist who told him he would be suspended if he didn’t pick it up.  When they found him, he wanted to get out of that confined space.  And as my son sat there screaming to be let out of that confined space for half an hour, while I was in the school substituting that day and they never bothered to come get me knowing I was there, I found my son in a state I had never seen him in before.  I also found the behavior interventionist sitting in the hallway eating a sandwich and the head of school sitting there as well.  His face was the only face my son could see as they ignored his cries for help.  As I managed to coax my son out, who was crying, embarrassed, and afraid, the head of school and I took him to a conference room.  He explained I should take him home and talk about this the following Monday.  My son, who was in a very distraught state, said to the Head of School, “I’m going to get revenge on you.”  He didn’t specify what kind of revenge or anything he would do.  He just blurted it out.  The Head of School yelled, “That is duly noted”.

As I drove home with my son, my wife called the school.  She was unaware of what had just gone down.  She spoke with the Head of School.  When my wife asked him what he knew about Tourette Syndrome, he started making a tapping noise and said “I know there is a meeting on Concord Pike next week about it.”  He wound up yelling at my wife and hanging up on her.  When we brought my son back into school the next Monday, we were told my son was suspended for three days and when he came back he had to meet with a police officer to discuss “terroristic threats”.  That was the last time my son was in that school.  He was nine years old.

We pulled him out and took him to the local school district.  He got an IEP… after five long months.  It was the end of the school year.  The way my district is set up, he went to 5th grade in a middle school.  We were told by the new IEP team that his IEP was too complicated and we should rework it.  Over the next four months, my son was physically assaulted nine times.  The last of which gave him a severe concussion two days before Christmas.  That was the last time my son was in that school.  He was on homebound instruction for the rest of the year, along with months of physical therapy, headaches, and a very real fear that if he stepped out of the house he would get beat up.  He was ten years old.

We tried a local private school who would only take him on a probationary status because of his disabilities.  He received hours upon hours of homework each day which he had not received in the other two schools.  It was too much for him, so we pulled him out.  He was eleven years old.

We found a good school for him now, far away from Common Core and the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  He is receiving the best instruction he ever has.  He is twelve years old.

So we can sit here and talk about equity and discrimination.  But I can tell you I have lived it through my son.  So I’m sorry you see it as a luxury that I opted him out at the school where he got his concussion.  The ironic truth is that even though I opted him out, he didn’t have to take the test because he was released from the obligation by the school due to his medical issues, received at the school.  While all this was going on that year, I spent a considerable amount of time at Legislative Hall fighting for the rights of other parents to opt their child out.  In all the conversations about opt out, I never heard it referred to as a luxury.  Until last night.

The odds of your child having greater success at life are greater than mine.  This is a fact for persons with disabilities.  So if I make a choice to opt my son out of a test, that has nothing to do with your child, or someone else’s child.  It has nothing to do with civil rights.  I chose not to have my son be used as a guinea pig for results that have stated the same measurements you so vigorously defended last night.  A person can defend civil rights and be against state assessments.  They can have it both ways.  Many civil rights groups do this already, without financial backing from the Gates Foundation.  I am a staunch supporter of civil rights.  But I refuse to let my child be a part of your measuring stick for a test that is horrible to begin with so we can endlessly compare where your child is against mine.  You are a pawn to a money-making scheme that has been going on far longer than you realize.  All our children are being used.  It has nothing to do with proficiency.  The tests are rigged so there will always be winners and losers.  I don’t need my son to take a test to know he has been a victim of disability discrimination.  He didn’t even have to log onto a computer for me to realize that.

I have a very strong suspicion why Senator Townsend was asked such a specific question about state testing, civil rights, and DSEA.  It was meant to trip him up.  It was very carefully worded.  There was only one person in that audience who would have asked him a question like that.  You may or may not know who it is.  I doubt he would ever own up to it.  But he now knows I know.  I’ve seen his manipulation at play before.  But it backfired and most likely forced you to address something that may end up hurting your campaign.

As a candidate for Congress, you need to be aware of how you can be used and how other people’s agendas can backfire on you.  There were hundreds of people in that audience last night.  How is that was the only question asked by a member of the audience at an education debate?  I invite you to think about that.  But in the meantime, let’s stop talking about measurements.  When I cast my vote in the primary, I will be choosing a candidate who looks at all sides of the issues, for all Delawareans, and what is best for us as a state.  I support civil rights and equity.  But I don’t think constantly measuring students so we can hold schools, teachers, and districts accountable is moving forward.  As long as some support this mistaken belief about measuring students against each other while ignoring the individual student and their individual needs, we will continue to have this conversation while testing companies and hedge fund managers make tons of money that isn’t going into our schools.  I am unable to support you as a candidate based on what I heard tonight.  And yes, one word left a very big impression on me.  I respect your choice to put your money where your mouth is.  Please respect my choice to put my voting finger where my beliefs are.  Because the only gap I saw tonight was how far away you and a couple of other candidates are to the reality of what is truly happening with Delaware education.

Federal representatives voted for the No Child Left Behind Act.  Federal representatives stood back while Race To The Top bribed and coerced our states into accepting dubious state standards, tied to a state assessment, and put our highest needs schools into a deplorable cycle of test, label, punish and shame.  Federal representatives (from Delaware) voted no for a clause that would have honored a parent’s right to opt their children out of the state assessment.  Federal representatives (from Delaware) voted yes for the Every Student Succeeds Act which reversed the other two but essentially kept the very worst from what came before but promises vast amounts of money for other things.  We have once again, been duped.  Many of you won’t know it until it is too late.  So yes, opt out is just as much a federal issue as it is a state issue.  But one thing will not change: my unwavering belief that all parents have the constitutional, God-given, and fundamental right to decide what is best for their child.  Education is only one part of what an elected U.S. representative faces.  But education, which is the foundation for our children, is also the foundation for our democracy.  It is our way of instilling hope for the future.  It isn’t a measurement, or accountability.  It is about what is best for each child based on their own unique and beautiful mind.  When we constantly compare, there are always going to be winners and losers.  This creates an environment of discrimination.  I don’t care what any candidate looks like, the color of their skin, or their gender.  I don’t care where they come from.  I care about what they are going to do.

I’ve been hearing a lot of people say, even before it came out, that we need to fix the test.  And yet, Smarter Balanced is still here.  With no indication of it disappearing anytime soon.  Our United States Secretary of Education just okayed illegal flexibility waivers for Delaware under the condition we use the Smarter Balanced Assessment until June 30th, 2019.  We can talk about the importance of “growth”, but for students with disabilities, their “growth” requires two to three times more “growth” than their peers according to the Delaware Department of Education.  But yeah, let’s keep using a flawed test to measure students.  But you don’t have to be an elected federal Congresswoman to speak up against the Smarter Balanced Assessment and “fix the testing”.  Please put your money where your mouth is.