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The Opt-Outers

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Oscar Mata, 10, with his mother, Andrea, at their home in Washington Heights.  

The harshest critics of testing have argued that students learn best from a well-rounded curriculum, and that the pressure to get the correct answer on a high-stakes test leads to cheating and alienation. Every year brings new examples as proof: This fall, kindergartners at some city schools were taught to bubble in answers; in Montclair, New Jersey, new tests were canceled after the answers were posted online. “If you have a child with high anxiety, you’re just adding to their stress level,” says Kate O’Hagan, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 97 in Brooklyn, who argues that the specter of low test scores on a student’s ­permanent record leads to more pressure at home as well as at school. “Teachers aren’t initiating the conversation about testing. Parents are.”

No real anti-testing resistance movement ever gained traction until last spring, when the state introduced revamped ELA and math tests that were so much harder than what came before that a vast majority of students failed. The tests were meant to align with a new national set of standards called the Common Core, which until recently has been celebrated by both political parties as a way of bringing critical thinking and academic rigor into schools across the country. The problem was that the state changed the test without changing the curriculum first. And the results reflected that: Fewer than one third of all third- through eighth-graders across the state passed. According to the DOE, about one out of every twenty kids citywide wasn’t able to finish day two of the tests.

“There were a lot of tears,” says John O’Reilly, principal of the Academy of Arts & Letters, a K-8 school in Brooklyn. “People have already talked about how they upped the text level, and there were multiple answers to some questions. But the tests were also really long, and kids didn’t finish. And I wondered if this is what we are deciding academic rigor is.”

As anxiety about the new tests mounted, the city’s school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, tried tough love, saying, “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be challenging.” State officials did the same. “The world has changed, the economy has changed, and what our students need to know has changed,” said Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents. “It’s better to have our students challenged now—when teachers and parents are there to help—than frustrated later when they start college or try to find a job and discover they are unprepared.”

The test triggered the most widespread criticism of high-stakes testing in more than a decade. At the front lines of the movement are children like Oscar Mata, who, last spring, chose not to take the ELA at all.

Andrea Mata had been so worried about the testing issue that in August 2011, she started showing up at a monthly meeting at the CUNY Graduate Center that called itself the Grassroots Education Movement—a support group made up of public-school teachers and some parents reaching out to talk about policy problems that seemed too big to handle on their own. Mata was there to join a subcommittee focused on testing called Change the Stakes. Later on, she met a mother with a similar story, Diana Zavala, whose son Jackson also went to a Harlem elementary school. “We were always told he could express himself well, but in third grade he suddenly hated school,” Zavala says.

Other groups around the country like Fair­Test and United Opt Out National had been encouraging boycotts over the years, and, locally, Time Out From Testing had scored some small but significant victories. But as of spring 2012—still a full year before the state would revise the ELA and math tests—no local group was boycotting those exams. “We didn’t feel there was a handle for parents to understand why they were boycotting,” says Jane Hirschmann, a leader of Time Out From Testing.

Mata, Zavala, and several other parents, however, did feel that way. By early 2012, the Change the Stakes subcommittee shook off the larger entity and became its own group. But even up until March, it wasn’t clear that its members would opt out at all. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, Maybe we shouldn’t take the test,” says Mata. “But it wouldn’t make sense if I was just by myself.” She and other parents made some calls to see what would happen if they did in fact have their children opt out. “We all heard different things,” she says, which made the parents feel as if the test had become so powerful that no one had ever considered accommodating anyone with a legitimate complaint against them. “That just fueled us more.”


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