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.”
Organized non-compliance, Lee says, enables community members to “deny the data, starve the data beast. Because… these high stakes tests are like the central nervous system to this entire operation.”
Alongside the Earth School faculty, educators at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning high school in Forest Hills, Queens, has issued a public statement lamenting the emotional and intellectual cost of of the test regime (see also Peter Rothberg’s note on PS 129’s opt-out campaign):
One teacher at our school asked her seventh-graders how they felt about the tests. The word “scared” came up multiple times, as did the word “hate.” “I feel nervous,” said one, “because you think you’re not going to pass.” Another protested, “I don’t think tests show our learning, and they don’t show our growth.” A third stated, “It makes it more possible to fail.”
For many city schools, failure is the new normal; the 2013 tests—which followed a new format and were widely criticized for being unfair, slopppily managed and riddled with confusing errors—resulted in “failing” grades for more than two-thirds of students.
The dismal data stream fed into the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to shutter many “low performing” schools, often in underserved communities of color. Even when not threatened with closure, the storm of negative numbers can undermine a school community, factoring into funding cuts, eroding children’s morale, and potentially affecting grade promotion and teachers’ job security.
When a school’s fate hinges on such narrow measures of achievement, educators are also hindered from exploring alternative forms of academic assessment, such as multidiscipinary long-term projects, rather than driving what the Teachers of Conscience call “the inept data-factories of education corporations.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor Fariña have cautiously signaled willingness to ease up on testing requirements. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Common Core standards might come with an initial grace period, so low scores will for now not be a major factor in grading or teachers’ professional evaluations—an acute issue in talks with teachers’ unions. Still, the movement is surging ahead of officialdom. The opt-out activists now represent a coalition of both affluent and working-class school communities, and progressive educators are demanding that schools employ an equally diverse array of programs and assessment tools to foster a more holistic academic experience.
For Lee, all this number crunching is the antithesis of a progressive education. Kids do need some basic academic skills, Lee says, but in the context of a well-rounded pedogagy, “[for] educators who believe strongly in…. developing the whole child—you see these tests as trying to turn the child into some kind of number based on artificially set standards.… that, to me, goes against the very reasons why we go into this profession."
Teachers are arguably taking a bigger risk than students in refusing to administer the tests. Officials in New York and Chicago have generally stated that student and faculty are allowed to opt out of exams, but reports of retaliation have surfaced. Earlier this year, the Chicago Teachers Union and community members who have opted out of the Illinois State Achievement Test have reportedly experienced bullying and intimidation by school authorities, and even threats of delicensing against participating teachers.
The reports of retaliation speak to the toxic mentality creeping through the school system. Instead of classrooms serving as an incubator for childhood curiosity and imagination, the “reformed” public school today is starting to resemble, well, any other workplace, where workers are dragged through an oppressive daily grind, girded by boredom, mistrust and ultimately, institutional disillusionment.
The families and educators who have opted out might be taking a militant stance, but with the integrity of public education under threat, no high-stakes data points can trump the defense of the open mind.
“I hope more teachers feel empowered to take a stand,” says Lee. “And I know of teachers who are just ready. They’re just done.”
Or rather: now they’re ready for the real test.