Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Choose to Refuse: One Year Later

Over the past year, through a grassroots movement, parents, educators, administrators, scholars, community leaders and politicians from New York State have banded together to bring awareness to the dire need for change in our public school education system and to demand a more thoughtful, evidence based approach to getting standardized testing done right. Refusing the tests is the most media attractive and sensationalized component of the movement- but truly it is just a small piece of the larger body of work that is being carried out in the quest for fair education and testing for all of New York State's public school students. Many people have asked me why our family Chooses to Refuse. This is my best attempt- in the midst of a new cycle of testing- to explain some of the reasons behind our stance . If you would like more information about test refusal, please click here. If you would like to read more about how current education reform imposed by the State Education Department is affecting our children, please click here.

Standing up for what we believe is not always easy.  Or in my 6th grade daughter, Annalee’s case, sitting and staring* for her beliefs has been an uncomfortable yet valuable exercise in civil disobedience.

Annalee will sit at her desk for 1.5 hours, three days in a row this week with her hands folded quietly on her desk- contemplating her classroom surroundings, drawing upon her imagination to occupy her mind, and devising goals for the remainder of the school year. She will sit there, the lone dissident in her classroom, while her classmates complete a grueling 5 hours of testing for NYS English Language Arts Assessments this week. She will sit again at the end of the month for an additional five hours as her classmates complete the Math portion of the NYS Assessments. Annalee, like her older brother last year, has chosen- with our support- to refuse the tests this year. While she feels lonely in her stance, she is not alone. The latest tally reports that 26,006  3rd-8th grade students in New York State and Long Island have joined in a movement to protest high stakes testing.

Critics of the Choose to Refuse (otherwise known as Opt-Out) movement accuse parents who refuse of coddling our children. They claim that we do not care about our children’s education- that we don’t want our children to be challenged. They ask, Don’t you want to know if your kid is making the grade? They assert that we are ignorant. Some of Annalee’s classmates heckled her after yesterday’s test- calling her stupid for her decision. But after hearing the facts and seeing the bigger picture, she feels strongly (albeit painfully) that this is something she needs to stand up for- for ALL New York State students.

We protest because our children are more than just a single digit score. My child is challenged appropriately and thoughtfully every day by a very competent and compassionate teacher who has implemented an engaging and rigorous curriculum across all subject areas. We value the knowledge and expertise of our teachers- as professionals- to guide our children along a pathway of success and opportunity. We receive quarterly report cards which indicate that she is doing quite well. We have a solid line of communication to her teacher- who spends 5 days/ week with her, recognizing and accommodating her strengths, weaknesses, her emotional triggers, as well as the things that inspire her to succeed. My faith is in her teacher to let me know whether or not she is ‘making the grade.’ Annalee’s performance on one set of very flawed, unreliable and unproven tests does not truly inform of the depth, breadth and mastery of material she has learned or the areas which need additional support.

 We protest because the State has placed an undue burden on our children by designating their performance on high stakes tests as a hefty determining factor of the quality and ability of our talented and dedicated teachers (or for that matter, those teachers who still have much room to grow). Governor Cuomo has maintained that these tests do not count-that they will have no bearing on student matriculation- that parents who are worried about the tests can sigh in relief. Yet, our students’ performances on these high stakes tests are tied into their teachers’ Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). I would say that these tests do indeed count for something- a big something. 

We protest because valuable learning time has been stolen from our children in order to prepare for the Assessments. Ten years ago children were subjected to 625 minutes of testing. Today 3,200 minutes is devoted to testing- longer than the bar exam or tests administered to prospective city police officers. One third of classroom hours are spent preparing for tests. Teachers are spending less time teaching and more time collecting data which impacts teachable moments in the classroom. Through this drill and kill style of test prep and assessment, we have witnessed the stamping out of our children’s innate love and curiosity of learning.
We protest because the tests are flawed and developmentally inappropriate. Last year’s tests did not even reflect the new Common Core model from which the assessments are based. In ELA, for instance, students will take multiple days to read, interpret, dissect, discuss and then write about a selection of text in class. Yet on last year’s ELA Assessments, students were expected to process the same length of text in the severely abbreviated time frame allotted.
We protest because one- size- fits-all tests are inherently inequitable. This type of testing does not take into account the learning disadvantages of special education students or non-native English speakers- many of whom have recently immigrated to our country. There is certainly no provision which allows for a comprehensive view of the ‘whole’ child. One of our Buffalo Public Schools was deemed a Priority school (a failing school)  because of poor performance on state tests. But the State had no regard or sympathy for the fact that 75% of the school’s population was comprised of non- native English speakers with very unique learning needs.
We protest because there is no evidence to support the use of high stakes test in determining whether or not a child is college and career ready at the age of 9, 10, 11, 12, 13  years old. There is an overall lack of reliability, transparency, validity. In the past, standardized tests were used to determine strengths and weaknesses of student performances. Now the tests are sealed and sent back without providing to parents, teachers, and administrators diagnostic or prescriptive information to address strengths and weaknesses about student performance. Last year, teachers were required to sign an affidavit before the tests were sent back to Albany which stated that they would not speak of the content of these tests or they would risk losing their jobs.

We protest the $2.2 billion being spent on testing in NYS, which has become a financial burden for school districts across the state, especially impoverished districts like the Buffalo Public School district. We are facing cuts to the arts, athletics, after school and enrichment programs in favor of funding a very narrow curriculum of Math and ELA.
Just because we do not support the idea that there is any value in excessive testing does not mean that we do not believe in the best education for our children. We simply believe in MORE education for our children- more specifically, we demand a more equitable education for ALL students.

I worry that if we continue to accept the status quo of State mandated assessments (and all that surrounds them), 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- to truly become college and career ready.  We need a better, more comprehensive way to evaluate our students’ progress, achievements and challenges. 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. And we will continue to Choose to Refuse until a fairer and more effective evaluation system for ALL children is developed and adopted.

 *Our school district has enforced the punitive position of 'sit and stare' to deal with students who have chosen to refuse to take the NYS ELA and Math assessments. Other districts are more lenient and accommodating, taking refusers to a separate location to read or study during the examination period. You may read our superintendent's letter and the thoughtful  response by Buffalo Teacher Federation President, Phil Rumore by clicking here.


  1. Excellent article Amy! Proud of you and your family!

  2. I was the first generation in Ontario that standardized testing province-wide began. I couldn't disagree with it more! The most difficult was my grade 10 testing. What annoyed me the most about it, was the school's approach. The scores of the schools would show up in the news and each school was damned if they were going to have the lowest test scores, so what they started doing was taking precious hours of normal class time, and devoted it to prepping their students for the testing. We weren't learning anything. We were simply being coached on how to beat the tricky parts, and basically now allowed to think for ourselves.

    In general, I have come to unschoool myself in a lot of ways, because I'm very opposed to how our school systems and curriculum are designed and I have my own unique way of gathering and storing information. It's so bad the educational systems are living in the dark ages.