In this letter Jeff Nichols and Anne Stone share their plan and reasons for opting their children out of high stakes testing. Please read and share widely.
Dear fellow parents of NYC public school students,
We have two children in public elementary schools in Manhattan, and until this year, when one child entered third grade, we were extremely satisfied with the educations they were receiving. Their teachers and principals have been without exception smart, professional and deeply knowledgeable about our children as individuals. Our experience of our son’s third grade year thus far, however, has convinced us that the standardized testing that has come to dominate our schools severely compromises his teachers’ ability to do their jobs. They have been forced to adopt inferior test-oriented teaching practices and to take too much time away from classroom activities to accommodate endless practice tests. The reward for their efforts from the Department of Education has been a completely unwarranted test-based grade of “D” for their school, which is sapping their morale. Even before the recent disastrous release of flawed teacher evaluations based on test scores, which promises to drive good teachers from the profession in droves, we had come to the conclusion that the current heavy emphasis on testing seriously undermines the quality of public education.
As parents, we feel compelled to act. We will be boycotting state-mandated standardized testing of our children for the indefinite future, with the goal of restoring control over education to those who really understand how children learn – parents and teachers. If you would like to join us or just share your impressions, please contact us using the email address given at the end of this letter, or check out the information and resources at changethestakes.org.
Here are five basic reasons for our decision:
1) Testing is dumbing down our schools. Placing standardized tests at the center of the curriculum forces the reduction or elimination of subjects like history, science, the arts and physical education, as well as narrowing the ways the “core” subjects of reading and math are taught. (For more on our opinions about this see our piece in Schoolbook: http://www.nytimes.com/schoolbook/2012/01/20/dear-governor-lobby-to-save-a-love-of-reading.)
2) Testing is unduly stressful for young children. The test preparations, including mandatory afterschool and weekend sessions and practice tests scheduled throughout the year, and the official test itself (six days of testing in the third grade, more in higher grades) are extremely onerous for young students who are compelled to sit through them. Testing often becomes torturous for special-education students, who are given the perverse “accommodation” of extra time. To make matters worse, this year the testing time is being substantially lengthened so that test designers can try out practice questions for future years, using our children as uncompensated guinea pigs.
3) Using test scores to grade teachers hurts the most vulnerable students. The use of standardized tests as the primary performance measure of teachers and schools creates a powerful incentive for teachers to avoid schools that serve students in need of extra help. Teachers often cannot significantly raise the academic performance of children who do not have adequate support for learning outside of school. Punishing teachers when students are struggling because of factors beyond their control, such as unstable home situations or learning disabilities, is gross social injustice – and it is the children who pay the price.
4) High-stakes tests force teachers to adopt bad teaching practices. The dire consequences for teachers who do not teach to the test prevent them from doing what they were trained to do: to educate our children based on their best professional judgment. Teachers who must constantly strategize to improve test scores at all costs do not have the time or the intellectual freedom to do their jobs properly, and our kids’ educations suffer.
5) Standardized tests are a waste of public money. In an age of scarcity, we should not be spending untold millions of tax dollars on practices that add nothing of value to children’s educations. Many of the finest school systems in the world do without standardized tests entirely, and such tests hardly figure in the lives of children in the elite private elementary schools that our political leaders send their kids to. We should stop funding the testing industry and use that money to hire teachers, build schools, and restore the arts and sciences to all our public schools.
We cannot allow our children to be used as tools in the enforcement of unjust laws and destructive, wasteful policies. They will be educated in public schools, and they will not take state-mandated standardized tests.
We have not come to this decision lightly. We have considered the central argument for the tests, that they are essential tools for assessing student and teacher performance, and rejected it. If the tests are necessary, why does the most successful school system in the world – Finland’s – do without them? The fact is, teaching is too complex an activity ever to be properly assessed by numerical models, which is why expensive evaluation systems based on test scores keep failing. Teachers know how to assess children’s progress, and principals, fellow teachers and parents know how to evaluate teachers, by observing their work directly.
We have been warned repeatedly of serious consequences that might arise from boycotting these tests: our children will not be permitted to move on to the next grade, or, even worse, their schools and teachers will be penalized because student absence from the tests is reflected in teacher assessments and the school’s grade. It has been suggested, in other words, that we should comply with the tests because our act of civil disobedience will cause the state to harm others. Because this is a very real danger, many parents opposed to high-stakes testing have chosen to petition for the legal right to opt out of the tests rather than to boycott them outright (information about this option is also available at changethestakes.org). However, we refuse to be intimidated by threats coming from the Department of Education into submitting to practices that we consider both unethical and harmful to our children. And we will challenge any actions taken by the DOE to punish our child or his wonderful teachers because of our decision.
Thank you for reading this letter, and please contact us to share ideas about how parents can play a leading role in restoring public education in our city.
Jeff Nichols and Anne Stone