Turn On, Tune In, Opt Out

Turn On, Tune In, Opt Out

The knowledge that students can forgo tests without repercussions has emboldened parents across the state.


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.

* * *

“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.

For the last two years, Jackson has refused state exams.

But actions like Zavala’s have been sporadic in recent years. It wasn’t until this past spring that the testing opt-out movement had its first bumper crop.

In January, high school teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian helped lead the dramatic test boycott at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Teachers refused to administer, and students refused to take the state test, which organizers argued wasn’t aligned to curriculum and provided statistically unreliable results. After a months-long standoff with the district which saw teachers threatened with suspension, the district relented and allowed the high school to forgo the test.

Since spring, Hagopian has been traveling the country speaking at events and advising schools “who want to replicate” the success of Garfield’s boycott. He even took part in a panel on NBC’s Education Nation in early October to rail against “the inundation of our classrooms with standardized testing.”

But while Seattle attracted the lion’s share of national media attention, schools throughout the country saw increasing numbers of students refuse standardized tests. Denver, Chicago, Portland, Providence and elsewhere witnessed opt-outs large and small.

Parent groups in Texas succeeded in halving the number of standardized tests given there. Students donned fake gore for “zombie crawls” in two cities, highlighting the deadening effects of test-mania. Little ones participated in a “play-in” at district offices in Chicago, living the motto that tots “should be blowing bubbles, not filling them in.”

This activism comes as a reaction to the growth of a testing apparatus unmatched in US history. Bipartisan No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002 laid the groundwork, requiring states to develop assessments for all students in grades 3-8, and threatening schools that fall short of yearly benchmarks. The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top heightened the stakes, encouraging states to develop test-based teacher evaluations and adopt Common Core standards.

Together they aim to capture all the complexities of a student’s learning in a few digits that sometimes add up to schools closed and teachers fired. Meanwhile three-quarters of districts facing NCLB sanctions have reported cutting the time allotted to non-tested subjects like science and music. And since Race to the Top’s passage in 2009, about two-thirds of states have ramped up their teacher evaluation systems, with thirty-eight now explicitly requiring evaluations to include test scores.

As standardized testing has grown, so too has its shadow. In 2011, the United Opt Out movement was established to counter the pro-testing mania sweeping the country. Its website provides opt-out guides for forty-nine states and the District of Columbia, and connects a burgeoning community of grumbling and disaffected parents.

“I didn’t ask for high-stakes testing,” says Tim Slekar, a co-founder of United Opt Out. Slekar sees participating in a large-scale opt-out movement as a way for him and his children to “reclaim public education.”

United Opt Out currently claims 6,000 members, but Slekar says its ranks are ballooning. “I’ve spoken to more parents in the last three weeks than in the past three years.”

In New York, dozens of grassroots organizations have emerged to address testing. Parent advocates recently formed New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) to serve as an umbrella group. The organization draws together parents from big cities and sleepy byways, united in “seeing the damage to the kids,” says NYSAPE co-founder Chris Cerrone.

In the tiny West New York district where Cerrone’s children go to school, the number of students opting out rose sixfold between 2012 and 2013. At Springville Middle School, enough students boycotted to trigger NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress alarms.

NYSAPE has scrutinized state opt-out procedures and found New York has no provision for addressing student test refusal. The knowledge that students can forgo tests without individual repercussions has emboldened parents across the state.

In schools from Long Island to Albany, from the Adirondacks to Lower Manhattan, students pushed their pencils aside and refused state tests this past spring. It was a high-water mark for the opt-out movement in New York, but still totaled less than 1 percent of students.

The question remains as to whether boycotts that exceed 5 percent of a school’s population, and thus preclude schools from making Adequate Yearly Progress, can invite consequences. National testing advocacy group Fairtest treads cautiously here.

Chris Cerrone calls it “a myth,” however, pointing to the fact that despite increasing opt outs, no school in New York has lost funding due to student test refusal. But it’s still unclear.

* * *

On October 27, eight days after the Castle Bridge boycott went public, the Chief Academic Officer of New York City schools told a state Senate committee that the K-2 bubble tests the city had selected in August were “developmentally inappropriate.” He indicated that the city would move towards “performance assessments” in these grades, noting that the new state teacher evaluation law mandates some form of assessment in these grades.

It’s the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures by the Department of Education toward parents and educators who’ve been raising hackles for years.

Some of the most aggressive pushing on testing recently comes from grassroots anti-testing group Change the Stakes. Incited by the perceived onslaught of Common Core–aligned state tests, the group published sample opt-out letters and rallied parents at numerous schools in support of a boycott.

This knowledge is empowering. Parents at Castle Bridge delighted at the realization that they could yank their kids from tests. Don Lash, parent of a Castle Bridge first-grader, said “just being aware there was an alternative” was a revelation.

Similar resistance efforts are underway at Earth School, a K-5 elementary in the same progressive network as Castle Bridge, where fifty-one students opted out last year. Special education teacher and parent Jia Lee played a central role in organizing last spring’s boycott, which included her fifth-grade son. Though many teachers will only whisper their support of opt-out parents, Lee is unafraid to speak publicly.

As a teacher, Lee wearied of the third-party test-prep materials flowing into schools. “You don’t need packaged curriculum to have meaningful learning,” she says. As a parent and CTS member, she feels “the only way to stop this is to deny the data.”

And in her advocacy, Lee sees the movement in the city metastasizing. “Schools that weren’t talking about this last year are starting to talk,” she says.

Parents at Castle Bridge likely won’t be backing down. Says Castle Bridge parent Vera Moore, “I will oppose testing as long as I am able.”

Interestingly, Shael Polakow-Suranksy, New York’s chief academic officer, isn’t drawing any red lines on test refusal. Regarding Castle Bridge, he said there would be “no consequences.” And children who opt out of state exams can still advance to the next grade, so long as they submit alternative portfolios, as per district policy. On the possibility of future boycotts, Polakow-Suransky won’t speculate. The recent boycott had little or no effect on his decision to renounce bubble tests for toddlers. “Preceding the news of the boycott we were exploring other options,” he says.

But it’s not just K-2 tests that parents are resisting. The opt-out movement reflects the inevitable response of citizens when dramatic changes are imposed unilaterally on democratic institutions. As they are unable to influence the content of curricula or nature of assessments through democratic means, direct resistance becomes perhaps their only option.

Diana Zavala says parents are taking the reins of school governance, but with one key difference from administrators: “You can’t fire us.”

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