Boycotts and a Bill Protest Mandatory|
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
New York Times
This article first appeared on March 6, 2002
Nearly a year after a group of rebellious mothers in
Scarsdale staged a boycott of the state's eighth- grade
reading test - only to have their children's schools
threatened with punishment by the state - the protest
movement against standardized testing in New York is still
At two competitive alternative middle schools in New York
City, the School of the Future and the Institute for
Collaborative Education, scores of students went to school
yesterday brandishing letters signed by their parents
giving them permission to sit out this year's test, which
began yesterday. Some students wrote their names and a bold
message: "I object to high-stakes testing," across the top
of their test forms.
In Westchester, two State Assembly members, Richard L.
Brodsky and Amy Paulin, have taken up the cause. At their
request, the state education commissioner, Richard P.
Mills, has agreed to meet today with county school
superintendents, teachers and parents to discuss their
concerns about testing.
Mr. Brodsky, meanwhile, has introduced a bill in the State
Assembly that would force the State Board of Regents to
consider alternatives to existing standardized tests in
public schools, like portfolios of work.
"This is an issue that has united Bed-Stuy, the South Bronx
and Scarsdale," Mr. Brodsky said yesterday. "There has got
to be a way to find flexibility. This is the real world,
not an academic vacuum."
Each community and type of school, however, has a somewhat
different reason for opposing the state tests.
In Scarsdale, parents and teachers argue that the test
distracts students from a curriculum that is more rigorous
than state standards, forcing the schools to focus on
familiarizing their students with the peculiarities of a
relatively simple test.
The best alternative schools in New York City - like the
School of the Future and the Institute for Collaborative
Education - say they cannot prepare for tests while shaping
their curriculum around in-depth research projects.
Many other public schools, both alternative and
traditional, fear the tests will spur many of their
students to drop out.
The state faces its own dilemma: Without standardized
testing, it is hard for the state to keep track of
struggling schools where children may not be getting the
education they need or struggling students at successful
Meryl Tisch, a state Regent, said she supported both tests
and test preparation. Her own children went to private
schools and did not take the state tests, she said. But
they did take courses to prepare for a standardized test,
the SAT's, and found that they actually learned valuable
vocabulary, math and writing skills.
Anticipating yesterday's boycott, the state has changed its
regulations to crack down on boycotters.
Schools are now required to administer the standardized
tests whether parents want them to or not, Alan Ray, a
spokesman for the Education Department, said yesterday.
Last year, if students missed the test day or the makeup
days, they were never given the test. This year, if they
are absent on testing dates, they will be asked to take the
test the next time they enter the school. If they refuse -
or, as in the School of the Future yesterday, if they write
a message across the form - their tests will be scored as
zero, which will lower the school's overall rating.
At that point, schools are required to find other ways of
convincing the state that the student is not in need of
New York State is in step with President Bush's education
bill, known as "No Child Left Behind," which will require
annual reading and math testing in all states for grades 3
through 8 by the 2005-06 school year.
Contrary to what boycotters say, a national telephone
survey released yesterday by Public Agenda, a nonprofit
polling organization, found that about three quarters of
the students in grades 6 to 12 say that preparing for
standardized tests did not force them to neglect other
classroom work. In contrast, 84 percent of parents and 60
percent of teachers said too much emphasis was put on
State officials say children should be able to pass the
tests without any special preparation. For the English
test, the state recommends reading 25 books a year and
writing 1,000 words a month. The tests, they say, are a
kind of minimum check on the quality of education. If
anything, state officials say, eighth grade needs to be
monitored more closely than any other grade, because
American eighth graders consistently lag behind those in
the rest of the world in both reading and math.
But opponents say that it is unrealistic to think that
schools will not devote substantial time to test
preparation in a quest for ever higher scores in their
competition with schools in other communities or
Scarsdale parents say they are refraining from boycotts
this year for fear that their popular schools
superintendent, Michael V. McGill, could suffer
repercussions. "If boycotting would in any way jeopardize
his position, we're looking for another way to make our
point," said Leslie Berkovits, the mother of three
Jane Hirschmann, a high-school parent who helped organize
yesterday's boycott in New York City, said she had been
meeting monthly with a slowly growing group of parents of
children as young as kindergarten, from all over the city.
These parents, she said, are concerned that good teachers
are leaving the system because they are dispirited by the
emphasis on testing.
They also worry, she said, that principals who feel judged
by the tests are making school a grimmer place by taking
children out of enjoyable classes like art, music and gym
to concentrate on test preparation. Under the principals'
contract, principals now get bonuses if test scores in
their schools improve.
"Principals know that tests are a reflection of their
schools," Ms. Hirschmann said. "They also know they are a
reflection of increases in salary. So come on, the name of
the game is getting test scores up."
Claire Kazar, an eighth grader at the Institute for
Collaborative Education, said the school had encouraged her
inventiveness, and outside of school, she has performed in
seven shows at an Off Broadway theater.
"There's no way you can memorize all the facts of life,"
Claire did remember a few facts, nonetheless. She said her
humanities class had been studying World War I by looking
at the paintings of Picasso and Dali, and reading "The Time
Machine" by H. G. Wells.
"I'm not really worried about these tests," she said. "I've
taken a lot of tests, and I've passed all of them. In fact,
I got rather high test scores. But I wholeheartedly love
this school, and these tests, if imposed, will destroy what
I love about this school."
By contrast, Matthew Ellor, one of Claire's classmates,
could not remember any of the poets or artists they had
studied. Math was more his forte, he said.
Matthew has been studying the cello since he was 5. He did
remember the name of the piece, "Chanson Triste" by
Tchaikovsky, that he played to audition for Fiorello H. La
Guardia High School, a competitive performing arts school.
Preparing for the state test, he said, "would require a
whole new way of studying, which I don't think is fair."
All but about 20 of the 140 eighth- graders in the two New
York City schools refused to take the English test
yesterday, Ms. Hirschmann said.
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