This week, children across New York State will exchange the freedom of summer for work sheets, rubrics, and minute-to-minute daily schedules posted on the board. For a few days, their lives will be upended by novelty—they will go into new classrooms, be greeted by new teachers, make new friends, and get new books (if they’re lucky)—but by the end of the month, it will have all the feel of old routine.
Yet before School Year 2015–16 ramps up to accelerated rhythms, we would do well to reflect back on the last school year, which ended with a burst of controversy over the issue of high-stakes testing. In New York State, 1.1 million children in grades three through eight were supposed to be assessed last spring in math and English Language Arts. Instead, some 200,000 students, or nearly 20 percent, never took the exams because their parents refused to submit them to the standardized-testing machine. It was a record-setting revolt, with The New York Times estimating that as many as four times as many students opted out of the annual testing ritual in 2015 as did in 2014.
New York State parents were hardly the only school-zone rebels. Parents throughout the country have gone on record against an instructional culture that has turned test preparation into the de facto school curriculum. But what seems to have tipped the scales in New York was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement last January that standardized tests would be used to a greater and greater extent for evaluating teacher performance. “Ramping up standardized testing…has turned parents into rebels, solid citizens into outliers, the law abiding into the rule-defying,” Donn Esmonde, a columnist for the Buffalo News, observed in an April column.
As a new school year begins, top administrators are no doubt dreaming that the ill-advised adults who have been stirring up trouble will finally fall in line. Perhaps to raise the high stakes even higher, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia warned over the summer that districts whose students boycott the test in particularly high numbers this coming spring could be sanctioned or even lose their Title I funds. (The chancellor of the State Board of Regents has since said that money will not be withheld.)