April 16, 2012
At least a handful of the students who are supposed to sit down Tuesday morning for the first day of state testing already know that they will be absent.
That’s because a small number of parents are boycotting this year’s state tests, choosing to keep their children home or away from class out of protest against the tests’ growing importance.
Test scores have long been used to judge students’ readiness for the next grade. And for the last several years, the city has rated each school based in large part on how students perform on state tests. But this year, the test scores could end up being used to rate teachers, too, if the city adopts new teacher evaluations as mandated by state law. This year’s tests are also longer than ever: about 300 minutes for each grade, more than twice what some students spent on testing in the past.
Last year, the Grassroots Education Movement, traditionally an outlet for activist teachers, launched a campaign to draw attention to — and, ideally, lower — those stakes. The parents who are opting out of the tests are part of GEM’s “Change the Stakes” committee, which is holding a forum on high-stakes testing Tuesday evening.
Only a few parents have committed to keeping their children out of the tests, but they say they are willing to go it alone to raise awareness about the pressure that students and schools are under.
Janine Sopp said her daughter came home from second grade at Williamsburg’s P.S. 132 last year petrified of the testing that older students had undergone. The school had seen its city grade drop precipitously and needed scores to improve in order to escape sanctions.
“They were in this incredible panic mode that put them in test prep since September,” Sopp said. “The impact on the school was not just on the children who were being tested but on everyone.”
So she transferred her daughter to the Brooklyn New School, a progressive school where test scores are not emphasized. This week, Kya will be helping out in a kindergarten classroom instead of bubbling in answers on the state reading test.
“Of course I’m nervous because it’s not the status quo,” Sopp said. “But I talked to the principal and AP and they ran it past our district testing coordinator. … We’re all walking into uncharted territory so we’re all a bit apprehensive about how this will play out.”
The consequences of skipping the test can be steep. Fourth- and seventh-grade scores factor into students’ middle and high school admissions. At a panel on high-stakes testing last month at Sopp’s school, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said students who did not have scores would be judged according to a portfolio of work instead — a far more subjective measure at a critical moment.
Plus, the state requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students — and 95 percent of various subgroups, as well, such as students with disabilities or African-American students. If too few students sit for the tests, a school would not hit its required benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind, potentially triggering consequences that could culminate in closure.
In some states, such as Pennsylvania and California, a formal procedure exists for parents who wish to opt out of state testing, according to the Change the Stakes campaign. But in New York City, decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis.
Andrea Mata said there was “anxiety” and “confusion about to even go about doing it” when she told her principal that the family wouldn’t be taking part in this year’s testing. Mata’s son is in third grade at P.S./I.S. 210, a Washington Heights school that offers instruction in two languages and enrolls many Spanish-speaking students. The school can be penalized when those students score below grade level, even when the students are so new to the country that they cannot be held back because of poor performance.
“We’re less than 24 hours away and we still don’t know whether he will attend school [or] if other arrangements will be made for him,” said Mata, who joined Change the Stakes after hearing a GEM member describe the campaign on the radio last year. ‘There’s not really any clear guidance on it.”
Robert Kulesz has decided just to keep his son home during the mornings this week: He’ll arrive at his Astoria elementary school after the day’s testing is complete. Kulesz said his main objection is not the pressure that children are under but that schools are putting test prep ahead of other important elements of a well rounded education.
“They spend more time on this test prep than they spend on art or music or any of that stuff,” Kulesz said, adding that the school had sent home test prep books that cost $13 each but solicited donations for art supplies for class projects. “There’s just something wrong with that.”
Explaining the boycott to their children has been a challenge for some of the families.
“My child feels a little strange because he knows this is something that his entire class is doing,” Mata said. “He still may end up taking the math section as a compromise because he really loves math, but he’s definitely not taking the [English language arts] and he’s okay with that.”
Some parents are taking a less dramatic approach to protest against state testing. Liz Rosenberg, a Brooklyn mother, is asking fellow parents to tell true stories about the effects of testing on her new website, NYC Public.
Lori Chajet, a parent and education researcher who recently wrote about her work around college readiness for GothamSchools, launched a petition on Change.org against the state’s “high-stakes testing madness.” The petition has more than 300 signatures and comments from dozens of parents and teachers.
“I can see that the pressure is not good for my eight-year-old,” wrote David Ricceri, the father of a third-grader, in response to the petition. “The packet of homework we got over the Easter break was crazy!! He had thirteen one-page [stories] to read and answer the questions to (about 7 questions on average). Thirteen pages of math, and 40 minutes of reading each day!
“This is a third-grader we are talking about. I believe with all the crazy pressure he’s under that it’s my job to make sure he has time to daydream, invent and play, but with all this work hanging over us it never feels like enough.”