Students Forced to “Sit and Stare”
At Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington, not one junior took Common Core Smarter Balanced (SBAC) standardized tests this spring. At four other Seattle high schools, district officials said about 95% of juniors refused to take the tests.
Seattle-area juniors boycotted tests because they aren’t needed in order to graduate from high school and because it is predicted that between 60-70% of students will fail. Students are using refusal as a protest against too much standardized testing. Sophomores must take the test because the reading portion is a graduation requirement.
Teachers at Nathan Hale High School planned to boycott the exams but changed their minds when state and district officials intervened. (Seattle Times, 4-28-15)
The claim that the U.S. Department of Education could withhold funding under No Child Left Behind if not enough students take the mandated tests is disputed.
Punishing Students for Opting Out
Many parents feel that the education system is too focused on standardized tests and that classroom activity focuses mainly on what will appear on tests. Some frustrated parents feel that opposition to Common Core is futile because no one seems to be listening to their concerns. Many believe the last hope to control their children’s education that parents have is to protect them from taking tests.
At a time when unprecedented numbers of students are opting out of taking spring 2015 standardized tests, controversy has emerged concerning what those students who opt out are allowed to do while other students take tests. In some schools, students must sit quietly with no alternative activity while others take tests. Even young students are not allowed to read or draw. They can only sit. And stare.
Some are calling this punishment for opting out.
In many cases parents couldn’t keep students at home on testing days for fear of repercussions over truancy.
Defending his decision to make students sit and stare, allowing no alternative activity to taking the assessments, Brian Schmitt, superintendent of the Genesee Valley Central School District in western New York, said of students opting out of testing, “We were not going to reward them by having them do something that other students may perceive as either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment, because that’s not fair to kids who were doing the right thing.”
In New York, there are three days of math tests and three of English language arts, for a total of six days; each day’s test lasts 90 minutes.
Richard Hughes, the superintendent of Central Valley, New York schools makes students sit and stare for the first thirty minutes with the test booklet in front of them before allowing them to read quietly at their desks. About 40% of Central Valley students refused to take the English assessment.
Is it Bullying?
At some schools in New York, educators have been inundated with emails asking that they stop making students sit and stare. A few parents put signs on their minivans asking that the procedure be stopped. One parent’s minivan had a sign on which was written, “Central Valley sit and stare policy” next to two frowning faces.
Some superintendents feel that parents who opt their students out of tests and protest the sit and stare policies are behaving in a “bullying” manner.
But others wonder who might actually be doing the bullying, when schools try to force testing on children whose parents don’t believe in them and have no confidence in the tests’ efficacy. One parent said about bullying, “Honestly, we believe that’s what sit and stare is.”
In some schools students who are not taking the tests are allowed to go to the library or another designated location to read.
It is estimated that about 150,000 out of over one million New York students opted out of testing this year, which is more than double the number from last year. (New York Times, 4-23-15)
The 95% Controversy
Pressure from the federal government is causing trouble for local districts.
A May 6, 2015 letter to the editor published in Education Week states, “There is no reasonable basis in federal law for recent U.S. Department of Education threats to punish states, districts, or schools if significant numbers of parents opt their children out of standardized tests.” Letter writer Monty Neill, the Executive Director of FairTest, criticizes “dubious claims about potential sanctions made by Education Department staff members,” who are trying to scare states and districts. He says, “Federal officials are fabricating threats to discourage parents from opting out.”
The original No Child Left Behind Act did state that 95% of students must take the test for a school to make adequate yearly progress. If they did not, the school faced sanctions. However, NCLB sanctions no longer apply to schools in the vast majority of states that have waivers from the federal law. In the few non-waiver states, virtually all schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress, so they face no additional risk from not meeting the rule on 95% participation.
In Idaho, the Madison School District’s board of trustees voted unanimously in February against giving third-grade through high-school students the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, the fancy alternate name Idaho assigned to the federally funded Smarter Balanced (SBAC) Common Core tests. The district planned to offer an alternative test that is shorter, cheaper to administer, and gets results back to schools faster.
But the superintendent and board reversed their decision when state officials in Boise claimed that Madison’s refusal to use SBAC could cost the state millions of dollars. They said that Idaho is required to have 95% of students take the Common Core test or lose their No Child Left Behind waiver, which the federal Dept. of Education issued and which allows the state to fail to meet federal educational requirements and benchmarks.
40% of Madison district parents opted students out of SBAC tests. The district will allow use of alternative methods of assessment and allow students who opt out of standardized testing to pass on to the next grade level and to eventually graduate. The Madison superintendent said, “We’ve honored every parent opt out request because we believe it’s a parent’s right.”
But accommodating students has angered other Idaho districts. The superintendent of Bonneville district says, “You can’t legally do that . . . they can’t opt them out, it’s against the law.” (IdahoEdNews.org, 4-22-15)
The Washington Post reported on April 20 that schools in 20 states have had problems administering the computer-based tests.