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“These tests are harmful. They do nothing but stress us out and take away precious learning time. They don’t make learning fun, they are all-consuming. … We do not learn from these tests. Do we not go to school to learn?”
Owen Hotaling, a freckled fifth grader in a sweatshirt and a bright red knit cap, read his open letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott in a rapid but clear voice. His highly appreciative audience: about 60 parents, educators, and activists in the auditorium of the Earth School, PS 364 in the East Village, on April 14, two days before statewide standardized tests were to begin.
There are reports of testing opt-outs at 22 public schools in all five boroughs this week. Parents cite stress on students, the diversion of instructional time and resources for weeks of test prep, poor alignment with the curriculum, what they see as inappropriate use of the test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, and most recently, New York state’s sharing of student data with the Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit startup InBloom.
“It happened almost overnight,” said Rain Lanning, the mother of a third grader and a fifth grader at the Earth School. “All of a sudden we realized it was so simple–you could just not take them.” Parents of 33 children at the Earth School, comprising 20 percent of the small student body, have submitted letters signaling their intention to legally opt out of testing this year. This is a significant number because 95 percent participation is required in order for the school to be judged on its “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind.
Small testing boycotts have cropped up across the country. The Facebook group Long Island Opt-Out has 7,500 members.
At Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, the teaching staff voted unanimously not to administer the tests. Jesse Hagopian, lead organizer of the Garfield boycott, flew out to New York City to speak at Earth School and brought the small crowd to its feet. “This happened because one teacher said, ‘I refuse to let this test label me and my students a failure,'” he said. Noting that Bill Gates attended Lakeside, a private school down the road from Garfield that does not administer the state tests, he said, “Their whole education reform system–all of it runs on these test scores! We’re denying them the lifeblood of their corporate reforms. These tests are not for their kids–these tests are for your kids.”
No matter how much parents may want to sit their children out, many worry about consequences, especially in the all-important fourth and seventh grades, when scores are considered for admission into competitive middle and high schools. But the blog New York City Public School Parents offers some reassurance. According to the Department of Education’s chief tester, Shael Polakow-Suransky, children who do not take the state tests can opt for a portfolio review, and most middle and high schools have discretion to consider applications without test scores, for example, from homeschoolers.
Whatever the ultimate size of the boycott this year, disquiet about standardized testing will remain a live political issue. MORE, the “social justice caucus” of the United Federation of Teachers, organized Sunday’s meeting and is running Julie Cavanagh as the underdog candidate to succeed Randi Weingarten as president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union. Cavanagh, a special education teacher in Red Hook and the charismatic and media-friendly director of the documentary The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, has clearly identified standardized testing as an issue that unites parents and teachers.
“The testing boycott movement is happening!” she told the audience. “The movement of social justice to take back our communities is happening! Parents and teachers are leading the way, and unions better get behind them.”