Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Choose to Refuse

In case you can't read the handwriting: 
To Whom It May Concern, 
I am refusing the NY State ELA, Math and Science Assessments. I believe in the quality education I am receiving at Olmsted. I believe in my teachers' abilities, knowledge and experience to help guide me along the path to college. I believe in more education and less testing. I believe that I am more than just a number or a score on a test. I believe that the value of my teachers should not be measured by the high stakes of a test. It is for these reasons that I choose to refuse to test. If you have any questions, please contact my parents.
Sincerely,
Henry

*Update at end of post

Today children in grades 3-8 across New York State embark on a grueling journey of high stakes State Assessments. With the burden of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs); with valuable learning time being stolen from students in order to prepare for the Assessments, and the State Assessments themselves, we have witnessed the swift robbery of our children’s innate love and curiosity of learning. Not only have my children become jaded by the system which is supposed to place a premium on their best interests, they have developed a suffocating anxiety due to the pressure placed upon them from the State, the district, and their school to score high in the interests of protecting their beloved teachers and their school. It has altered the culture of our school’s nurturing learning environment and has created a climate filled with tension and resentment harbored by teachers, students and parents.

This week our children will sit for three days of ELA testing and next week there will be three days of Math testing for a total of 540 minutes of testing. And to up the ante of a stressful situation, this test comes in an unfamiliar format with higher expectations and more material crammed into a tighter testing window. The test is based upon Common Core Standards which have not yet been fully unveiled and implemented into the classroom curriculum. There is an expected 30% drop in test scores this year.

With the outcome of each test bearing weight in the Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR) of our public school teachers and administrators, the State has placed an undue burden on our children by designating their performance on high stakes tests as the determining factor of the quality and ability of our talented, compassionate, dedicated teachers. That this has been placed on the shoulders of children is unconscionable. Through the misuse and over- use of high stakes State Assessments in our schools, our children have become pawns in this game of State VS Teachers.

That I do not support the idea that there is value in excessive testing does not mean that I do not believe in the best education for my child. I simply believe in MORE education for our children. I believe that reform in State mandated testing needs to take place and that if it does not happen soon our children will be forced to abandon the necessary critical thinking and problem solving skills that are essential to live, work and cope in the real world.  We need a fairer and more effective education system for our children and a better way to evaluate their progress, achievements and challenges. We, also, need the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to agree to perform a formal and independent study of APPR- conducted by a panel of qualified researchers who are not employed or affiliated with the State Education Department. As per the same request made by the New York State Educational Conference Board, ‘The review should include both qualitative and quantitative components. The qualitative component should address the impact of the system upon school climate and culture, including teacher-principal relationships; the availability and consistency of Network Team support and APPR implementation from region-to-region. The quantitative component should include a method to capture and measure the state-and local-level costs of APPR implementation and the impact of the system in improving student performance and college and career readiness.

Our family (including my mother and aunt, both retired Buffalo Public School educators) has joined a rapidly growing group of Western New York parents and teachers who share our values and concerns, who are intelligent and informed and who care about the state of our children’s education. Through them we have been given the tools and support to help teach our children a lesson in civil disobedience. While there is not a provision in New York State to “opt-out” of high stakes testing, there is a loop hole in that our children can refuse the test. As per the refusal form letter parents across NY State are using to Choose to Refuse, “We are writing to respectfully inform you that our child, (child’s name), under our guardianship and advice, will be scored as a “refusal”, with a final score of “999” and a standard achieved code of 96, on all State testing including ELA, Math and Science as described in the NYS Student Information Repository System (SIRS) Manual on page 63.  Please note that a “refusal” is not the same as “absent” as they are defined differently and scored with different standard achieved codes on page 63 of the SIRS Manual.  Also note that on page 25 of the 2013 Edition School Administrator’s Manual it is explained that “The makeup dates are to be used for administering makeup tests to students who were ‘ABSENT’ during the designated administration dates.”  Our child will specifically be scored as a “refusal”, not “absent”, and therefore our child will continue to receive a free and appropriate public education in his regular classroom environment during the administration of all makeup test periods as this letter provides written verification of a “refusal” for all tests.” Unfortunately, our parental rights, our rights to choose in the best interest of our child’s education are not valued and the onus to make the ultimate decision in regards to testing falls upon our children’s shoulders. If a child does refuse the test, he/she must sit in silence for each 90 minute test session.

For our 8th grader, Henry, who has a 504 plan with testing and classroom accommodations for ocular motor dysfunction (a visual tracking issue), these high pressure tests cause even more burden and strain on his eyes and his visual processing. It is different when he has the benefit of having his work evaluated by a teacher who knows and understands him and who can offer him an opportunity to perform an alternate activity/ project to demonstrate his understanding and mastery of the material or to decipher his unique handwriting. But these tests are corrected by teachers who do not know him, who do not know that he struggles with tracking; that while he is bright and articulate,  he can read the same passage, the same one line of text 100 times and it looks different to him each time due to missing words or lines of text. These tests are not a fair assessment of who my child is or what abilities and disabilities he has. I should also mention that in 8th grade, Henry is taking high school Algebra and Biology. He will have Regents exams in June. While the high stakes State Assessments have no bearing on his promotion to high school (other than the vague threat of being forced into Academic Intervention Services), Regents exams do count toward high school graduation. I’d rather my son spend time preparing for the exams which are truly critical to his success on the pathway to college.

This one act of refusal is just a crumb in the rich cake of action that is being taken to make a change. While, Henry understands this, he is also worried that he is just a crumb- just one person- that this will not make a difference. We understand that standing up for what you believe in is a scary place to stand because it often feels like you are standing alone. We are only one of two families (that we are aware of) in our school who are making this choice.

Henry left for school with our letter written in support of his refusal and a letter which he crafted himself in his pocket- in the event that he decided to refuse. We sent an email to the teachers and administrators with the refusal letter- just in case. As I sit here writing this, I am holding my breath until he comes home to learn what action he took.  If Henry feels that he is not ready to sit in silent protest, we respect and honor that choice. At least we have allowed him a different lens to look through. At least he was brave enough to consider the option.  I want my children to be afforded every opportunity for academic success and growth- allowing them to reach and exceed their potential- to keep striving for answers to the questions that surround them- to keep seeking new ways to improve upon ideas, to innovate, to gain a better understanding of themselves and the world around them through the process of learning rather than process of finding ONE right answer to a question.

I have high hopes that more parents will feel empowered to put pressure on our State leaders to find a resolution which will preserve education as means to inspire a life- long love of learning and which values the knowledge and expertise of our teachers so that they may continue to guide our children along a pathway of success and opportunity.


If you are a New York State parent and you would like more information about how you can make a difference, please visit this site:

UPDATE:
It was an agonizing wait for 3:00 to roll around. But it wouldn't be 3:00 around here if there wasn't some sort of crazy.  Henry refused the test. His assistant principal- who is generally just a wonderful human being- took him to the library and allowed him to read or work on the computer. This is much more than other local schools or districts offered refusing students today. I am reading stories of superintendents and principal's intimidating students and coercing them to take the test despite their parents' written statements of refusal. I am so proud of Henry for taking a stand for something he believes in. I'm proud of our school for choosing not to demonize the students who refused. This is just the beginning. We have a long battle ahead. But we are excited to take on the challenge- to bring about reform. 

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