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As state assessments near, testing resistance builds

Issues with the computer based testing program have caused some problems with the ISTEP test.  (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

Issues with the computer based testing program have caused some problems with the ISTEP test. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

Host INTRO: In New York schools, there is no surer sign of spring than the sharpening of #2 pencils. Statewide testing is scheduled for early April and millions of students are busy getting ready. Plenty of parents dislike the tests, but a growing handful are taking a particularly bold stand: They’re refusing to let their kids take them. Last year, according to activists, as many as 10,000 students opted out of state exams. As Avi Wolfman-Arent reports, that number could rise in 2014.

Last Friday, roughly 50 teachers and parents crowded inside a conference room in midtown for a workshop run by Change the Stakes.

Bring up Ambi of people talking

The group organizes grass-roots resistance to state testing, and Friday’s meeting was a chance to talk strategy before the spring campaign.

ORGANIZER #1: “We’re talking about a citywide event, pulling together a citywide event right before the testing starts. So I think the testing starts on April…

ORGANIZER #2: Fools Day.

ORGANIZER #1: Fools Day, isn’t that interesting? April 1st… [0:09]

They’ve drafted form letters parents can give to their principals stating that their child refuses to take standardized tests. They’re also convening public forums and planning a late March rally outside the Department of Education.

Bring up Ambi of room chatter

The hope is to galvanize parents like Jenny Sheffer Stevens. Her son attends fourth-grade at P.S. 11 in Chelsea. She came to the meeting because her son experienced what she calls a full-on meltdown during a recent test prep exercise.

SHEFFER STEVENS: “I started saying to myself this is really wrong for my kid.” [0:04]

That episode encouraged Sheffer Stevens to learn more about standardized tests.

SHEFFER STEVENS: “And the more I researched the more I thought, this is not just wrong for my kid, this is wrong for every kid. This wrong, with a capital W. This is wrong.” [0:07]

Fade out Ambi of room chatter

Sheffer Stevens’s awakening is nothing new. For over a decade parents and advocates have railed against high-stakes standardized tests—tests where the results are used to punish or reward students, teachers and even schools. They argue that high-stakes tests traumatize children, stifle teacher creativity and hijack school curricula. What’s changed is the form of resistance.

MCDERMOTT: “It’s the immediate access to a mode of civil disobedience. It doesn’t take going to your state legislator. All it takes is your decision as a teacher or as a parent.” [0:15]

That’s Morna McDermott, a Maryland mom and educator who in 2011 co-founded United Opt Out, a national clearinghouse for the testing resistance movement. Opt Out began with a few hundred disgruntled parents across the country, many acting alone. Over the past two years, it’s blossomed into a small, but notable political pressure movement. The end goal, McDermott says, is simple.

MCDERMOTT: “Remove all the stakes attached to the test—the ones that attach it to teacher retention or teacher promotion. Detach it from whether or not my child will go on to the next grade. Detach it from whether or not a school gets funding. Detach it from everything.” [0:15]

Two weeks ago, McDermott’s group, Change the Stakes and 31 other groups banded together to form Testing Resistance and Reform Spring, a national alliance of anti-testing organizations. The idea is to tap into, and coordinate between, burgeoning local opt out movements like the one on Long Island. Just last year Jeanette Duetermann founded the Facebook group Long Island Opt Out Info after her son told her he’d rather die than go to school. She now has almost 15,000 members.

Duetermann estimates that 2,000 Long Island parents opted out last year, and that the number could triple in 2014.

DUETERMANN: “It grew very quickly because this is an epidemic. It’s not just a handful of kids that are experiencing these effects. It’s everywhere. And every parent feels this.” [0:10]

Many agree that coupling student tests scores with teacher or school evaluations is problematic, but testing scholar Richard Phelps says states shouldn’t abandon high-stakes tests altogether. He believes they improve learning when students have a personal incentive to do well.

PHELPS: “The tests tend to work better if there are some stakes. They can be very, very small, but it’s a signal that the students are supposed to take them seriously.” [0:09]

Phelps also objects to the Opt Out movement. He says it transforms young students into political pawns.

PHELPS: “I don’t think it’s fair for a parent to use a kid to make a political statement. To me I think they’re abusing their kids. I don’t think the kids are being harmed in any way and they might learn something new.” [0:11]

There are other potential drawbacks to opting out. In New York City, test scores factor into grade promotion, although students that opt out can take an alternative assessment. Many selective middle schools and high schools also use state test scores to help determine admission.

Those risks are what make opting out such a potent political statement. But they also make many wary. Come April, the parents who have flocked to Facebook groups and public forums over the past year will have to decide: Are they in or are they out?

Avi Wolfman-Arent, Columbia Radio News.


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