On April 17, when most third through eighth graders in New York State were taking their second day of an English language arts test, one sixth grader at the Institute for Collaborative Education on the Lower East Side, had a different task. She was working on a 1,427-word letter to her teacher explaining why she wasn’t among her peers.
“I am boycotting the test because I don’t like the way the DOE uses the test results,” wrote 11-year-old Hope K. C., whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. “The kids who take the test are being used like guinea pigs in a lab. I do NOT want to be used this way.”
What began with a handful of parents deciding to opt out, took off as a full-blown test boycott in three days.
“Our sixth grade list just caught on fire,” said Kemala Karmen, a parent at the Institute for Collaborative Education, a public 6 through 12 school for 476 students.
Half of the 60 students in Hope’s sixth grade class ended up refusing to take the test, which is given throughout the state over a two-week period in order to assess each student’s progress in English and math.
These families at Institute for Collaborative Education joined those from 40 other city schools, and many more around the state this year in a growing movement to halt the accelerated use of standardized tests in public schools for everything from closing schools to firing teachers. Organizers estimate that hundreds of students participated. Last year, only six New York City families opted out of the state standardized exams in grade three to eight. Schoolbook reported that 113 students did not take the tests statewide, though some of those students may not have been boycotting.
“It’s bigger this year because it got to the point where the parents realized that one, they have the right to opt out, and two, they were outraged,” said Jane Hirshmann, the co-founder and co-chair of an anti-testing advocacy group called Time Out from Testing.
Fueling the outrage was the amount of time taken away from instruction by the new tests. The length of the tests grew by 90 minutes–three hours for math and three hours for English language arts taken over six days.
The tests are longer this year because New York State began testing its students for the first time on new, more rigorous standards called the Common Core. In a letter dated February 2013, Chancellor Dennis Walcott warned parents that scores would plummet this year because these standards have not been fully incorporated into the curriculum. Hirshmann said that letter helped kick parents into gear.
In addition, observers believe recent revelations nationwide that test results have been both fraudulent and flawed angered many parents. Most notably, in March, Atlanta’s former superintendent Beverly Hall was indicted along with 32 of her teachers for their role in widespread cheating that was taking place on tests in that school district. Only weeks later, it was revealed that Pearson, the company that makes New York City’s tests, had miscalculated 13.2 percent of students’ scores on a test that determines eligibility for the city’s Gifted and Talented Program. Pearson also drew fire last year for questions on the eighth grade English Language Arts tests about a pineapple that had no correct answers.
“I think that at a minimum, the testing advocates and companies are probably panicked over a public relations debacle,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law and policy at Brooklyn College. “But the problem is that state, city and corporate officials all seem to regard it as a mere public relations problem and not a substantive problem with testing.”
Pearson still maintains its $5.5 million contract with New York City, though “roughly” $500,000 of that was withheld because of the errors on the gifted and talented test, according to Devon Puglia, a spokesperson for the DOE.
“I told the company’s officials in no uncertain terms that I expect this will never happen again,” wrote Chancellor Walcott in a statement.
Since 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has mandated that every third through eighth grader in the nation’s public schools take standardized tests in math and reading at the end of every school year. In the last year, a growing number of anti-testing movements have sprung up in various cities as a response. In Seattle, 19 teachers at Garfield High School refused to administer city-mandated standardized tests that would impact teacher evaluations. And in Texas, where then-Gov. George W. Bush laid the groundwork for No Child Left Behind, state Senators lambasted Pearson, which also has a contract with that state.
In New York State, what began more than a decade ago in Westchester County when two-thirds of the students at Scarsdale Middle School made headlines when they boycotted the statewide-standardized tests, has grown into a national movement.
At its core, the movement to boycott the standardized tests is an effort to hit at the heart of so-called education reformers such as former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad. Their agenda includes support of charter schools, choice and minimizing teachers’ union power.
“The high stakes tests are the central nervous system of the ed reform movement,” said Janine Sopp, a parent of a fifth grader who opted out and is an active member of Change the Stakes, one of the groups that helped organize the boycott.
“The education world has become overwrought with powerful money, primarily through efforts of the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and Walton,” Sopp said, referring to foundations that have contributed hundreds millions of dollars to boost the performance of schools by encouraging competition. “It’s big corporations dictating legislation to the United States Department of Education and then that trickles down.”
She said the message of Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 helped galvanize some parents to start Change the Stakes.
The movement gained traction last year when parents boycotted field tests, which are meant to gauge the validity of test questions. Pearson administered field tests to selected schools and students’. Though results hold no bearing for students, parents feel that this practice takes class time away from time spent teaching and learning.
This year, field questions were sprinkled throughout the statewide tests that students took last week, which city officials say is the cheapest, most effective way to insure the quality of the tests.
“They’re using our kids do to their research,” said Lauren Blankstein whose daughter is in third grade at the Ella Baker School. “We should have to opt in to those kinds of tests and allowing our kids to answer those kinds of questions.”
Parents are concerned about the increased importance of children’s test results. The scores determine whether or not a student will progress to the next grade and are often used in the middle and high school admissions process. Now, they also play a large role in determining a school’s grade on its annual progress report. Starting next year they will once again be tied to teacher evaluations.
It’s the last two factors that are most troubling to parents participating in the movement.
“To judge a teacher based on a day’s test when there are so many other factors is driving good teachers from the profession,” said Jen Nessel, who has worked with Change the Stakes. Her child is not yet old enough to be tested.
This year, 22 schools in New York City were slated to close by the Department of Education because of consistently low scores on their progress reports. Under Bloomberg’s tenure a total of 163 schools have been closed.
Not all observers see that as a negative.
Teachers College professor Eric Nadelstern said the recent push to test elementary and middle school students is really a “push toward more academic rigor and raising the bar.” He served as a deputy chancellor in Joel Klein’s administration.
“When you’re dealing with large complex systems such as the New York City Public School system, how do you actually compare performance of schools against each other?” Nadelstern said. He said he was once an opponent of standardized testing and still feels it’s not right for every school. But a need for accountability of teachers, principals and superintendents in New York City’s lower performing schools has convinced him that some form of testing is necessary.
“Part of what we’re seeing now in the push back against standardized testing is that it’s really a push back against accountability.”
Parents say that could not be further from the truth.
“The schools have to be held accountable,” said Blankstein. “But it’s not as simple as just tests.”
The most vocal parents in the movement are from high performing schools that are not on the chopping block, a fact that has drawn some criticism by reformers like New York State Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch. However, parents who are involved say they have participators from the Bronx to Brownsville and they are trying to reach out further.
In fact, some parents feel that the tests do the most disservice to the families in low-income areas, where failing schools are typically found.
“I think what people are waking up to is that these tests are being used to sort and rank students and schools in a way that perpetuates inequity,” said Kemala Karmen, a parent.
Organizations such as Time Out from Testing and Change the Stakes served as resources for parents who were intrigued by the idea, but worried about the consequences. They made generic letters available on their websites that parents could download and give to their school administrators informing them of their decision to opt out.
Time Out from Testing was formed in 1998 when a network of schools, known as the consortium schools, was at risk of losing its waiver from the statewide Regents tests. Co-chairman Jane Hirshmann has had three children attend consortium schools and has been active in the organization since its inception.
This year, Hirshmann visited parents’ associations across the city, spreading her message against high stakes testing.
Change the Stakes formed in 2011 by parents and teachers. They have about 20 members and hold meetings once a month. They’ve drawn inspiration from education activists such as historian Diane Ravitch and parent activist Leonie Haimson, according to Sopp.
Sopp said their main mission during the boycott was to squelch myths that had arisen about standardized testing. Most parents agreed that there has been a lot of confusion about how the test scores will be used and what will happen to the students who opt out.
Most of the organizing for this year’s boycott happened in the week leading up to the start of the tests.
On April 8th, parents from the Earth School, a progressive school on the Lower East Side, held a meeting to announce the boycott and spread the word to parents at other schools. The meeting was advertised by flyers posted in playgrounds and by word of mouth.
News of the boycott trickled out and took hold most firmly in schools that are known for their alternative styles education.
At Institute for Collaborative Education, an email was sent out to all of the sixth grade parents on April 10th, which turned into a class-wide dialogue. That school also has a high school that is one of the consortium schools.
At the Ella Baker School, an elementary school on the Upper East Side, momentum started in a similar way, with an email blast sent out by the Parent Teacher’s Association. Ella Baker had been part of the boycott of the field tests in 2012, so they were also ripe for this year’s boycott.
It is still unclear what effect the boycott might or might not have.
A Frequently Asked Questions sheet on the Department of Education website says that students who do not take the tests will be able to present a portfolio of their work in order to be promoted to the next grade. Fourth grade parent Cynthia Copeland said the high schools she surveyed told her she could use a portfolio instead of the test score for her son’s admissions application.
The Department’s website also says that if schools test fewer than 95 percent of their students, they will not make Adequate Yearly Progress, which means they may be subjected to some interventions by the city.
For many parents, opting out was worth the risk. All who participated reported that their schools were quick to find other tasks for their children to do during the tests. This was not the case in the Rush-Henrietta Central School district outside Rochester, where a couple is suing the school district for refusing to let their child participate in extra-curricular activities because he refused to take the tests.
While the movement succeeded in drawing attention to anti-testing arguments, it’s unclear what impact it will have on next year.
“I’m not really sure what would enable it to accelerate,” Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said of the movement. “The institutional and legal supports for the maintenance of high stakes tests are very strong.”
But advocates are determined to press on through the summer.
“Last Friday the test finished,” said Marco Battistella, a parent from the Earth School. “Now we can start today to work on next year’s boycott.”