Parents at a small, progressive, dual-language public school in New York City took a bold stand against standardized testing by refusing to allow children in kindergarten through second grade to take new state-required tests.
They join the growing discontent against high-stakes testing–and active opposition in the form of protests and boycotts–among teachers, parents and students across the nation.
In a first for New York state, if not the nation, a nearly universal parental opt-out forced the school-wide cancellation of testing at Castle Bridge School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
This struggle began in September at the first PTA meeting of the year, when parents learned that their K-2 children would be expected to take a standardized test twice, once in the fall and again in the spring.
New York state mandated the testing for schools containing only K-2 classes as part of a new teacher evaluation system adopted to implement the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" policies. The math test, developed and sold by Discovery Education and consisting of 28 multiple choice (bubble-in) questions, will be used to assess the "value added" by teachers during the school year.
Standardized testing was initially marketed as a means of measuring individual student progress and making schools accountable to parents, although it is not nearly as useful in doing either as its boosters maintain. But increasingly, the students taking the tests have become simply an instrument, whose purpose is to generate data for teacher evaluation.
Standardized testing is a major front in the attack on teachers as unionized professionals. This was made even clearer with the extension of testing to the traditional "non-testing grades" of K-2. The sole purpose of the test is teacher evaluation; the results were never intended to guide decisions about individual children.
Few of the young children at Castle Bridge have any concept of filling in bubbles to indicate an answer on a multiple-choice test. Many can't yet read. And since Castle Bridge integrates instruction into projects stressing cooperation, the testing protocols that would have made shared work "cheating" are developmentally and socially destructive.
Finally, though Castle Bridge is a dual-language school, with some students learning English as a second language, and others learning Spanish as a second language, the test is administered only in English.
None of the families had been informed by the New York City Department of Education that their children would be tested. After the meeting, parents discussed the K-2 testing and conducted their own fact-finding. They organized a phone and e-mail campaign to register their objection with the New York State Education Department, key state legislators and the New York City Council.
Most importantly, the Castle Bridge families chose collective action. They drafted letters "opting out" of the test, directing the school not to administer it to their child. The form was circulated to parents in English and Spanish, and parents conducted outreach to those who hadn't been at the PTA meeting.
The response was quick and overwhelming. Within two weeks, parents of 80 percent of students had opted out, making the testing pool too small to yield statistically meaningful results. At that point, principal Julie Zuckerman advised the Department of Education that she would not be administering the test.
Even after the test was canceled, parents continued to opt out so that they could go on record as opposing the testing. Currently, parents of more than 95 percent of the Castle Bridge students have submitted opt-out letters.
PTA Co-president Elexis Loubriel-Pujols, parent to first-grader AJ and kindergartner Daeja, had a visceral reaction:
We found out about the test and were outraged that our kids would be subjected to standardized tests. There's no reason to have them fill out bubbles and have the stress of standardized tests when teachers can be evaluated using other measures. We prefer our kids to be playing in class, learning hands-on instead of worrying about taking tests.
Parents at Castle Bridge explained why they were motivated to oppose the test, not only for their children, but for their school. Vera Moore, the parent of 7-year-old Yvene Mackey and 5-year-old Zalyair Mackey, said:
I am against testing K-2 because it is unethical. Children in this age range are just beginning to refine their motor skills, learn how to follow verbal and written instructions, and develop the social skills needed to work with their peers and adults as a community. When you introduce outside testing, you disrupt the learning process of the child. You have to now teach the child how to take a test.
To base a teacher's performance on a test generated by an outside source is outrageous and unfair, especially at this age. These children can barely hold a pencil and they have a short attention span. A verbal test where they have to sit and listen and fill in their answers in a bubble format is unrealistic.
Let's not forget that the test is only in English and we are a bilingual school. We would lose many great teachers if we used this method to grade them.
The principal, Julie Zuckerman, supports the parents' efforts to stop the testing, saying that she was "horrified that anyone would consider testing K-2 kids." She objects to subjecting young children to testing, and maintains that it is not a valid measure of their teachers' performance or ability.
Writing later on an education blog SchoolBook, Zuckerman explained why the test is not only useless, but harmful:
The kindergarten test is filled with questions that children who cannot read will not be able to answer. It is filled with concepts and graphics that many fourth graders would struggle with.
Giving young children a pencil-and-paper task that any teacher knows the students will not be able to answer is wrong. It doesn't tell us about a teacher's effectiveness. Instead, it tells children that adults who are charged with their care will force them to do something that is at best meaningless and at worst damaging to their relationship to school, teachers and learning…
What saddens me the most is that many K-2 schools administered this test without a whisper of dissent. The accountability system promotes such an atmosphere of fear and shame that principals, teachers and parents dare not speak out.
Castle Bridge teacher Andrea Fonseca, writing a forthcoming article for Labor Notes, highlighted the importance of what was accomplished at her school:
This year, our kids will not need to sit through a meaningless task. They don't need to know about these weird bosses of ours who wanted us to sit children in front of a booklet that is completely inappropriate to assess their growing abilities as math thinkers and their exciting discoveries about how numbers work.
Our children who are beginning to learn English will not have to sit through this task listening to incomprehensible instructions in English either. Our school community also sent a message of resistance and hope. We (teachers, parents, principals and children) should not stay silent anymore.
The Castle Bridge parents, while relieved they forced the cancellation of the K-2 test at their school, know the resistance to the abuse of standardized testing must spread. They see their fight against testing in the early grades as linked to a growing movement against high stakes testing and its misuses, including its use to close schools and scapegoat teachers.
Across the country, parent, teacher and student protests, such as those at Garfield High School in Seattle and others in Texas, led to a reduction in testing.
Weeks after the Castle Bridge boycott went public, some students at storied Stuyvesant High School opted out of exams that would have been used for their teachers' evaluation scores. And officials at the city Department of Education admitted that the K-2 tests the city had selected in August were "developmentally inappropriate."
The wave of actions against high-stakes testing is part of a broader opposition to education "reform" policies threatening children and schools. Parents, teachers and students are realizing that these struggles are crucial to protect their schools as places for learning and play, and as democratic communities where all stakeholders are respected partners.
Don Lash is the parent of a first grader at Castle Bridge School. Dao Tran contributed to this article. First published at SocialistWorker.org.