Tens of thousands of students in New York boycotted the annual state-mandated English Language Arts exams this week in a grassroots challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo's controversial education agenda.
Organizers, including educational advocacy group United to Counter the Core, said at least 155,000 students opted out of the tests on Thursday, with only half of the state's districts tallied. That figure is up from 112,763 on Wednesday—and up from 49,000 last year. Testing began on Tuesday.
The revolt is in response to what parents, students, and activists say is a political takeover of educational standards—seen at the national level as well—that pushes a focus on standardized exams and a Common Core curriculum, developed by a secretive for-profit company, that compromises learning for test preparation.
In late March, Cuomo approved a budget that included many divisive revisions to the state education agenda, including teacher evaluations based partly on test scores, which critics say take too long , are too vague to be accurate, and fail to measure real learning.
Investigative journalist Juan Gonzalez explained the concerns over the increased focus on testing in his column for the New York Daily News:
The politicians created a test that says all schools are failing, not just the ones in the big cities, then declare a crisis, so they can close more neighborhood schools, launch more charter schools, and target more teachers for firing.
Meanwhile, the private company that fashioned this new test, Pearson, insists on total secrecy over its content.
As Democracy Now! reports, in January, as Cuomo held town hall meetings with parents in New York who voiced a number of frustrations over the proposed curriculum, special education teacher Jia Lee testified before U.S. Congress about the growing number of parents opting their children out of the yearly exams.
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"In New York state, at least, these tests have changed from year to year," Lee said during her testimony. "When parents and educators have voiced concerns, they’ve been accused of coddling. I want to challenge that assumption.
"The great crime is that the focus on testing has taken valuable resources and time away from programming, social studies, arts and physical education, special education services and ELL [English language learners] programs," Lee said.
Toni Smith-Thompson, a New York parent whose child opted out of the tests this week, spoke with Democracy Now! on Friday, explaining why this year's protest reached its unprecedented size.
"[W]ith the addition of these high stakes attached to the teacher evaluations, really just took it over the top," Smith-Thompson said. "Kids started talking about, 'If I fail, my teacher will get fired.' And kids should not be put in that position."
Once Smith-Thompson and other parents in her district "had the information about what was in the tests, the length of the tests, like eight hours—plus, you know, for most schools, months of test prep—it was a no-brainer," she continued.
Cindy Rubino, a parent in Lakeland whose children also boycotted the tests, told USA Today that she was "thrilled" with the turnout.
"I do believe this is a historic day in New York state, as we try to regain local control over the education of our kids," Rubino said. "These refusals are meant to protest a system that is currently failing our children and educators."
A new round of testing, focused on math, is set to begin next Tuesday.