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Opting Out Together

by Miriam Axel-Lute on April 24, 2013


This week and last week New York state students in grades 3–8 underwent hours and hours of new standardized testing as part of the state’s implementation of the new “Common Core” learning standards.

The tests marked another step in a wrong path toward education reform that began under George W. Bush with No Child Left Behind and continued under the current administration with Race to the Top. Both these programs have ostensibly noble goals—to hold all schools to the same standards, to ensure that all students are offered the same chance to learn.

But instead they’ve become a farce, with funding, autonomy, and individual teachers’ job retention and pay all pinned on an increasing number of one-size-fits-all standardized tests that measure little of what kids actually need to be able to do in our complex world. You’ve almost certainly heard the litany of complaints about the effects of this trend: Recess, art, and music cut. Teaching to the test. Teaching test-taking itself. No focus on higher-order thinking skills or creative problem solving. Teachers and administrators faking test results. Schools that were actually serving their kids fairly well by other measures, despite struggling with test scores, deemed “failing,” losing visionary principals, or shuttered.

Then if you talk to parents, you hear another angle: The terrible anxiety the testing is generating, even for those kids who are likely to do fine. Now not only do they have their own scores on their shoulders, but responsibility for effects on their teachers and their school. Teachers are reporting that the Pearson-made tests contained not only brand names, and questions for other grade levels, but verbatim passages from Pearson-published textbooks, giving a distinct advantage to those schools who buy their books. Conflict of interest anyone?

If you want to know more, both about the problems with the testing and some alternatives, I recommend looking up Diane Ravitch’s blog, FairTest, the Mother Jones article “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong,” and David Kirp’s writing on Union City, N.J.

But here’s the heartening thing: parents are fighting back. A refusal movement is growing. It may be small yet, but in some pockets of resistance—New York City (33 schools, as many as 45 kids in one school), 30 students in a suburb of Syracuse, 54 students in Saranac Lake—the numbers were substantial, and the movement has gotten mainstream media attention. School boards are starting to pass resolutions. The state education department has been moved to clamp down on teachers speaking out against the tests.

Active social media groups trade sample refusal letters, share information (students refusing are coded “999” and not counted; there’s currently three-year a waiver of federal provisions that would cost a school aid if fewer than 95 percent of kids take the test) and support each other as they took on the scary task of allowing or encouraging their kids to refuse.

Some parents sent their kids in on test day in T-shirts that said things like “Keep Calm and Refuse the Test” or “I am more than a test score.” Some refusing students with sympathetic teachers or principals were allowed to sit and read in a separate room. Others were forced to sit silent with nothing to do for 90 minutes. Some were called insubordinate and threatened with loss of privileges to prom, extracurricular activities, recess, or graduation, or with referral to unneeded academic help. Many more parents posting of wishing they could pull their kids from the testing but either wanting to support their schools or their kids not wanting to make waves.

I am particularly interested in how the opt-out movement, as it is calling itself, is uniting parents and teachers from all over the ideological spectrum. On the message boards, marriage equality profile pics float next to anti-marriage-equality profile pics, union logos and pictures of the president with devil horns. Anti-federal government rhetoric sneaks in around the edges along with the massive sentiment against the power handed to and enrichment of the private test-making corporations like Pearson. Tension between “pull your kids out entirely” and staunch public school advocates flares up occasionally.

But mostly the forums are dominated by parents whose politics you can’t actually suss out from the fact that they care about their children’s education, are fed up with direction it’s going, and are no longer willing to sit by and do nothing. And from what I’ve seen, the friction is so far minimal, with people keeping their eyes on the prize and not taking trolls’ bait.

In an environment when we so often seem divided into our little echo chambers, this gives me hope, for our education system, and maybe even for our democracy.