At a September 16 PTA meeting, Castle Bridge elementary school parents received some unwelcome news: the New York City Department of Education was imposing new standardized tests on their children in kindergarten through second grade. Kindergarteners would take a break from learning the alphabet to bubble A through D on multiple-choice exams. Images next to each problem—a tree, a mug, a hand—would serve as signposts for students still fuzzy on numbers.
The district purchased the tests to meet the state’s new teacher evaluation laws. In elementary schools that don’t serve grades three through eight, No Child Left Behind testing dictates don’t apply, necessitating a supplemental test. Castle Bridge, a progressive K-2 public school in Washington Heights, is among thirty-six early elementary schools in the New York City targeted for the new assessments.
According to Castle Bridge mom Dao Tran, those at the PTA meeting were appalled. This was the first they’d heard of the tests. Talk of refusal arose among some parents, but they knew that “acting as individuals wouldn’t keep testing culture from invading our school.” They opted for collective action.
Starting in early October, a core group organized meetings, disseminated fact sheets on standardized testing and galvanized a spirited conversation at the next PTA meeting. Parents shared their concerns, weighing the risks of refusal. At one meeting a parent whose first language was Spanish testified to the pain and anxiety brought on by taking standardized tests in his youth.
Within three weeks, 80 percent of parents had submitted in writing their intention to opt out of the new tests. Principal Julie Zuckerman put her weight behind the families, agreeing, according to Tran, that “these tests would be the wrong thing to do.”
In a statement, parents wrote, “The K-2 high-stakes tests take excessive testing to its extreme: testing children as young as four serves no meaningful educative purpose and is developmentally destructive.”
By October 28, families of ninety-three of the ninety-seven students subject to the tests had opted out. The near-unanimous boycott is unprecedented in the city.
It also signals the first stirrings of a growing test-resistance movement poised to reach new heights this academic year.
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“Who do you like more: A, Mommy; B, Daddy; or C, Frederick Douglas?”
When 8-year-old Jackson Zavala posed this multiple-choice query to his baby sister, his mother Diana Zavala knew something was amiss.
Jackson, a student with special needs in communications, had been a “curious, interested” student until third grade, the first year NCLB-mandated state tests take effect. It was then his mother noticed that he “became anxious and bored by school.” She saw that his homework had become rote and repetitive, his class time devoted more to test prep and his speech inflected with the language of multiple-choice testing.
In time Zavala decided that the influence of testing in class had led to “damage to his personal well-being and originality” and “a strangling of his curriculum.”
She poked around and found a New York City–based test resistance group called Change the Stakes. With the group’s support, opting out was a less fraught decision. “We had a family, a connection with a community of people” also resisting the test.