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'Sit and Stare' to Prepare for Democracy?

Posted: 2014-06-19

This is from Taking Note blog, June 18, 2014.

It may be late and little, but I take it as a hopeful sign that a mainstream reporter comes close to supporting those who opt out of testing. I do, however, much prefer David Berliner's observation about anecdotes and data.

by John Merrow

Why did thousands and thousands of students opt out of standardized testing this spring? Which tests did they choose to skip? And how did school leaders react? Did they punish, ignore, or--horrors--reward the protesting students?

Opt out numbers are hard to come by. I have seen estimates ranging from 30,000 to 300,000 in just one state, New York. Even though the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data,' it's pretty clear that the opt-out phenomenon is tangible, real and growing.

Identifying the adult players in this battle is an interesting challenge. Some are Tea Party types who are opposed to anything--not just in education--that smacks of 'big government.' Here's one website. This faction of "opt out" is way out on the right politically.

The left has an "opt out" faction as well, albeit less organized. For them, opting out is a way of protesting what they see as the excessive influence of large corporations in our schools, with the testing company Pearson often being singled out for criticism and scorn.[1]

With the blessing of the New York State Department of Education, Pearson has been "field testing" questions at about 4,100 schools. For those students it's another day of testing, in addition to the six days of state-mandated, high-stakes tests. Some parents have refused to let their children take these additional tests, as Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News has reported.

Gonzalez believes that the extra tests won't produce any reliable data because the kids know these extra tests don't count and therefore don't take them seriously.

When New York State signed with Pearson to let that company try out its tests on certain students, it reminded some critics of an earlier time in America's history when landowners could assign their workers as they saw fit. Back then, they could rent their workers out to other landowners or to mills and factories when those industries needed workers. That infamous practice--slavery--became illegal with the passage of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. [2]

Since these tests are being given to help Pearson, it seems to me that the student workers ought to be rewarded for their efforts or offered the option of alternate activities. They are not chattel.

Many "opt out" supporters believe that excessive standardized testing is hurting genuine learning.[3] These parents, teachers, principals and school board members support opting out as a way of slowing down or limiting testing. The parents tell grim stories about their kids vomiting, not sleeping and crying all the time. Some school boards (including hundreds in Texas alone), teachers, principals and other educators want to limit standardized testing, and a few publicly support opting out. In Rochester, NY, school board member Willa Powell informed her child's school that she would not be taking the new state test, for example.

When veteran teacher Gerry Conti of Westhill, NY, publicly disclosed his reasons for opting out of teaching by retiring early, it caused something of a sensation. Too much testing and an overemphasis on data collection--to the exclusion of creativity--were his chief complaints. In his resignation letter, which he posted on Facebook, he spread the blame around to include legislators, his union, and local school administrators. Here's an excerpt:

In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian.

What I find intriguing are the targeted "opt out" protests aimed at the new Common Core exams, which are being rolled out around the country in trial runs.

Protests against these computer-based tests are creating problems for local administrators. The question some administrators seem to ask themselves is, "Should I punish or reward these non-participating students?" When they pose it that way, it strikes me that they are taking the protest personally, making it about THEM, not the kids. Bad idea. . . .

The education establishment, which does not want "opt out" to spread, has been straightforward in its response: If you let (or make) your kids opt out, you are hurting them. You may think you are helping, but you actually are doing them a disservice. Testing, they explain, is in your children's best interests because it tells you where they stand academically.

Among those campaigning against opting out is former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who mocked those who have chosen to keep their kids from taking the tests:

Opt out of measuring how well our schools are serving students? What's next: Shut down the county health department because we don't care whether restaurants are clean? Defund the water-quality office because we don't want to know if what's streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink? [4]

Some school districts have adopted a punitive "Sit and Stare" policy meaning that the opting out kids have to sit at their desks while other students take the tests.[5] The protesters are not allowed to read books, thus 'sit and stare' for 60-90 minutes. This is apparently designed to humiliate the protesters. In some cases, the test booklets and pencils are put on the protesting students' desks, probably with the hope that they will cave in to the pressure.

A poster child for what NOT to do might be Dr. Stacey Gross, principal of Ridgefield (CT) High School, where only 35 juniors--out of more than 400--took the new Common Core tests. That's right: more than 90% of the high school juniors in this wealthy Connecticut town opted out of the test, which was given over several days.

Why did so many juniors opt out? One explained to a reporter: "I find this time of the year to be just as stressful as before APs," Kristin Li said. "Now that APs are over, I've simply shifted my focus to SATs and ACTs. On top of that, I'm studying for my national registry exams to become a certified EMT, I'm becoming increasingly involved in my school clubs, and I dance four to five days a week. I can't speak for everyone, but my life is just as busy as it was earlier in the year."

In response to the opting out, Principal Gross decided to punish the protestors by prohibiting learning! She wrote an email to the parents of the juniors--protestors and test-takers alike-- to 'reassure' them that (her words) "NO NEW LEARNING" can occur in a class where a Junior is absent for testing.â"[6]

Teachers, she added, would not be covering any new material for the 365 students, at the expense of the 35 who toed the line and took the Common Core tests. The 365 students would have to go to their scheduled classrooms, she announced. She wouldn't mess up the school's patterns just to accommodate the 90%!

It seems to me that educators like Dr. Gross should be helping to identify useful alternative behaviors that would benefit the students who weren't taking the tests. What might she have said? How about: "To ensure that students who are taking the test do not fall behind, their teachers will not be covering new material during the testing periods. And I've asked those who are opting out to come up with some alternative activities that are educational in nature or somehow contribute to our HS community."

Michelle Goodman, who pulled her daughter out of the testing, told reporter Dani Blum of the Ridgefield Press that the administration's insistence on "no new learning" was "absolutely ludicrous." "Where are the priorities here, with the students who want to succeed or with the school system who is forcing their policies to the detriment of our children's education?" she asked.

Giving young people choices while they are still in school? Allowing or even encouraging them to take responsibility for their own lives? These are dangerous concepts that threaten the established order of things in schools. Stuff like that may be fine for adults in a democratic society, but choices and personal responsibility are out of place in our schools.


1. The New York State Department of Education's $32M contract with giant testing company Pearson did not include sufficient funds for field testing, so, with the State Department's approval, Pearson embedded items for future tests in its regular testing, sparking more protest from parents, who felt their children were being used as guinea pigs.
2. In the deep South, the shameful practice continued up to the beginning of World War Two, as Douglas A. Blackmon shows so powerfully in "Slavery by Another Name."
3. I count myself as a member of that group. My own take on excessive testing is a play on Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," which I call Mending School. It includes these lines:

"Before I gave more bubble tests,
I'd ask to know
What I was testing for, and why
And to whom I was like to do harm."

4. This is a rhetorical straw man, because the tests are not designed to measure school effectiveness. If that were our goal, we would use a more complex (and expensive) test but give it to only a carefully drawn sample of students--just as your doctor draws only a few drops of your blood, not all of it, to evaluate your body, and just as political pollsters survey only a carefully drawn random sample of likely voters to make predictions about elections.
5. Here's one story.
6. Does anyone, let alone an educator, really believe that learning can be prohibited? Arenât young people going to figure out the foolishness of that prohibition? Aren't they going to learn something pretty basic about a person who feels she can prohibit learning? Prohibiting learning seems to me to be akin to telling someone not to think about a pink elephant--the opposite happens.

Growing up, we learned about King Canute, who famously stood on the beach and commanded the tide not to rise. The sea disobeyed him, as he knew it would, because the wise King was trying to teach his subjects of the futility of some human laws. Alas, Dr. Gross does not seem to possess the wisdom of Canute.

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