Editor's Note: The culture of high stakes standardized testing has become increasingly pervasive in public schools over the past decade. Thanks to federal legislation like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the future of teachers' jobs and of whole schools can ride on the whether students fill in the bubbles on their answer sheets correctly. Now, students and parents across the country — in places like Florida, Illinois, Colorado and Washington State — are rejecting the exams. In April, hundreds of New York City students refused to sit for a battery of standardized tests. Thousands more across the state also opted out. One of their most vocal supporters has been Fordham professor Mark Naison, who reflects on the testing regime and the opposition it has sparked in this short essay:
By Mark Naison
When I first got involved in education activism four years ago, I did so because elected officials in New York and around the nation were blaming public school teachers for problems that were not of their making. Under the mantle of "school reform," they were trying to subject them to numbers-based "accountability" protocols that would squeeze the life out of teaching.
I saw the best teachers I knew — those who were my former students and those with whom I worked on Bronx community history projects — feel as though they had become demonized and marginalized by people who had little real-life understanding of what their job entailed. Since they lacked the power to speak freely about what was happening to them, I felt it was my duty to speak on their behalf.
Four years later, there is still just as much pain and rage among the nation's teachers. Now that I am publicly identified as a "teachers advocate,' I probably get four or five emails or Facebook messages a week from teachers around the nation describing the fear, stress, humiliation and erosion of professional autonomy they experience as student test scores become the major indicator of judging teacher effectiveness. It is because of such experiences that I have launched, with the support of United Opt Out, a Teachers Oral History Project that will allow teachers' viewpoints on current education policies to be recorded and preserved
But in April, as I became involved with an Opt Out movement in New York State that has inspired thousands of families to demand that their children be allowed to sit out state tests, I have become even more appalled by what current school policies are doing to children. The stories I have heard from parents about their children's school experiences have been even more heartbreaking than those I hear from teachers. The flood of high stakes tests into the schools of New York State has not only turned instruction into test prep, making once eager youngsters hate going to school, but it has also produced anxiety attacks and stress-related disorders on a massive scale among students as young as 8 years old.
And these stories are not confined to one demographic group. I have heard them from parents in small towns and inner cities, in middle-class urban neighborhoods and suburbs. Children are traumatized by the length of the tests, by the steadily growing difficulty of the material they contain and by the fact that their teachers jobs depend on how well they perform. And God forbid a student or a family should decide not to take the test! In more than few school districts, children who have chosen to opt out have been have been browbeaten, insulted, threatened with loss of extracurricular activities and access to honors programs, told they will never get into college, told they are jeopardizing their teachers' jobs, told they will be responsible for lowering real estate values in their neighborhood, and, in a few instances, told they are unpatriotic and giving aid and comfort to terrorists!
Given what I have seen and heard last month from the parents of New York State, I respectfully suggest that we, as a nation, need a long period of soul-searching to examine whether the test-driven policies that are being imposed with breakneck speed in public schools are good for children. The two weeks of testing that the children of New York State endured in April comes perilously close reaching abusive proportions. A society that loves and values its children would not accept this as the norm.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. An earlier version of this article appeared on the author's blog, withabrooklynaccent.blogspot.com. For more about United Opt Out, see unitedoptout.com.