As a parent of a child in a New York City public school, I had no idea my 7-year-old daughter would be subjected to high stakes standardized testing. After Kya came home in a panic after being informed about “The Test,” I immediately confronted her teacher and asked how and why my daughter was even remotely aware of this unreliable test. I was told this was a way to begin to prepare second graders for what they would face in third grade. What they would face? I asked. Why was her education being treated like a sentence with consequences for being a child in public school?
This was the beginning of my activism as a public school parent.
Later that year, in the spring of 2011, I helped lead parent opposition at my daughter’s school to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s threats to implement budget cuts that would cause the layoffs of thousands of teachers citywide. All the parents I spoke with agreed this was a damaging proposal. Over time we began to understand how budget cuts, high stakes testing, Annual Yearly Progress reports that slap a grade on our schools, school closures and charter school co-locations inside public school buildings were all part of an accelerating drive by corporate elites to dismantle and privatize public education.
The amount of time and money spent on test prep while average class sizes grow and classroom resources dwindle is scandalous. During third grade parent orientation, there was mention of a “test prep class” on Friday mornings which sent me into a rage. With budget cuts forcing us to lose teachers across the city, limited amounts of the arts, sciences and gym, the loss of the library and the constant PTA fundraising for anything that would enrich the curriculum, why would we dedicate an entire period each week over the next eight months to test prep?
The thought of my dyslexia-diagnosed daughter sitting through an annual battery of tests that lasts for six days made me squirm with unease. I knew how she was doing in school. Every teacher she had was able to assess her strengths and weaknesses and was more than happy to discuss ways to take on the challenges she was facing. So why should I place her in a situation that I felt was not healthy or supportive of her education?
During the second month of third grade, Kya transferred to a more progressive public school — one that did not “teach to the test” but focused on teaching to the whole child. Kya’s self confidence soared; her daily sharing was alive with enthusiasm and her desire to go back for more each day was delightful. She grew both intellectually and socially, and I watched her flourish as a human being. How she performed was not as important as how she experienced the information. I could see actual learning taking place because she was intrinsically involved with the process and not just learning how to take a test. This assessment of learning cannot be gathered on a bubble test or through a reading passage.
ACT OF CONSCIENCE
Kya’s school was still required to administer standardized Math and English Language Arts exams even if they did minimal test prep for them. I refused to have Kya participate in this and instead arranged with the school for her to have a portfolio review and a pair of 45-minute exams which would be used to assess her for promotion. We found a wonderful and enriching way for her to spend the testing hours in the school and she rejoined her class each day after the testing period, feeling a bit like a celebrity. She assisted in one of the kindergarten classrooms where her hands-on skills and desire to read aloud to the younger children proved to be a much more valuable experience. She did not come home feeling afraid or stressed and did not question her abilities or intelligence. We agreed that if these tests required an “Opt In” rather than an “Opt Out,” a whole lot more children would have been with her during those six days of testing.
Now in fourth grade, Kya faces an additional high stake as this year’s test scores will be used to place children in the city’s best middle schools. I plan to contact any of the schools we are considering applying to before the testing season to find out how they will handle her application if it does not include these scores. My hope is they would recognize the value of a portfolio review over the use of these tests, which would actually tell them much more about Kya’s true qualities. It’s a hard decision but when the tests are conducted in April she will likely sit them out as well.
The solution to the pervasive misuse of high stakes tests lies not just in individual acts of conscience but in the collective organizing and action of educators, parents and students. That is why there has been an outpouring of support for the Seattle teachers (see page 8) and why parent-led groups like Change the Stakes in New York and United Opt Out nationally have formed in the past few years to provide information and support for parents who wish to withdraw their children from high stakes standardized testing.
The corporate school “reformers” who have stoked the mania for high stakes standardized testing in the past decade have failed (and manipulated) us. In New York, where Mayor Bloomberg has been given dictatorial control over our school system since 2002, only 21 percent of high school graduates are college ready, including only 13 percent of graduates of color, according to the City University of New York.
These self-styled reformers still have tremendous resources at their disposal. But now they are up against growing ranks of outraged parents. To turn the tide against high stakes standardized testing would save the millions of dollars handed over annually to test prep companies and reclaim the possibility of a curriculum that meets the needs of the whole child. Instead of being test prep factories, our public schools can be places where we support the love of learning, socialize children and welcome differences as we prepare our children for ever-changing, expanding realities of life in a diverse and interconnected world.
For more, see changethestakes.wordpress.com or unitedoptout.com.