After years of drilling, assessing and scoring youth to exhaustion, more than 25,000 kids in New York have defied the educational establishment in a test of wills. The “opt out” movement has exploded in schools across the state and other regions of the country, as students, parents and teachers resist the standardized testing regime that has fueled a free-market assault on public education.
Some New York teachers have placed themselves at the vanguard of test resisters, alongside student and parent activists, and are now using their professional leverage to deepen the battle lines in the ideological conflict over education reform.
The rebellion stirring in city classrooms was presented recently to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in an open letter from a group of “Teachers of Conscience” at the Earth School, an elementary school in Manhattan. Accompanied by a philosophical position paper detailing principles of a progressive education, the teachers declared their opposition to English language exams for third-to-eight graders:
We can no longer, in good conscience, push aside months of instruction to compete in a city-wide ritual of meaningless and academically bankrupt test preparation. We have seen clearly how these reforms undermine teachers’ love for their profession and undermine students’ intrinsic love of learning.
And there’s something to hate for everyone in these standardized tests. Students become miserable and bored with constant test-prep; parents and caregivers grow frustrated with curricula that seem to be failing their children (inspiring them to organize likeminded families to facilitate their children’s test resistance); and teachers have raged against the imposition of formulaic, stress-inducing reading and math drills on their classes. The latest batch of English tests left educators and students feeling “outraged,” “defeated” and “devalued,” according to reviews on an online teacher forum. (At several schools, including the Earth School, the majority of students refused the exams.)
In economically and racially stratified school systems like New York’s, the testing blitzkrieg and the data obsession that fuels it has become a cudgel for neoliberal policymakers to pressure schools to operate more like corporate enterprises than as community institutions.
Jia Lee, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the Earth School and mother of an opt-outer, says the test-resistance in her community crystallized organically as parents began talking to each other about how testing was affecting their children. Because the exams had been imposed with “very little engagement and decision-making on the bottom,” Lee tells The Nation, families have pushed back by organizing themselves. The grassroots, parent-led opt-out initiatives build on the community mobilizations that have snowballed since the Bush administration launched No Child Left Behind. The protests and petitions recently culminated in a City Council resolution opposing high-stakes testing, backed by teacher unions and national education and civil rights groups. By putting down their pencils, students aren’t just jamming the test machinery but all it symbolizes—namely, the dominance of commercial testing protocols pushed by big brands like Pearson, and robotic curricula aimed at making kids “globally competitive.”