Resisting the Common Core

May 1, 2013

Brian Erway reports on building opposition to standardized testing in New York state.

IT'S SPRING--and the time of year for school kids to struggle through hours of standardized testing, sometimes day after day.

Two weeks ago, New York state rolled out its latest testing regime for third through eighth grade students in English Language Arts (ELA), with a second wave of testing in math the next week. The new state tests were designed to be more difficult than in previous years, and to align with the nationally defined "Common Core" curriculum for ELA and math adopted by 45 states and D.C.

The statewide teachers' federation, New York State United Teachers, launched an advertising campaign against the new testing, arguing that teachers and students shouldn't be held accountable to a curriculum they have not yet taught. They also tried to pressure the Department of Education for a delay in testing, submitting petitions and 10,000 letters from teachers to state officials.

Well before the tests began, handfuls of parents in schools across the state announced their intention of boycotting the exams and keeping their children from taking the tests. They held press briefings, and circulated model "opt-out" letters to submit to school officials.

Willa Powell speaks out against high-stakes testing
Willa Powell speaks out against high-stakes testing

As the scattered movement looked like it might pick up steam, state officials stepped in with grave warnings for what could happen to noncompliance, which the press, like Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle, duly amplified: "State to Students: Take the Tests."

One high-profile refusal in Rochester was that of City School Board member Willa Powell, who went in front of the cameras to assert the right of refusal for all parents if they so choose, further saying, "this test doesn't do these children any good."

She was referring specifically to these Common Core "baseline" tests, but these exams are just one example of a whole thicket of standardized tests, high-stakes and otherwise, that students must constantly be preparing for, and taking.

THE COMMON Core State Standards Initiative is promoted by the National Governors Association to enforce a unified structure for public school curricula, presumably to teach skills deemed valuable by business owners and colleges.

Raising the banner of national competitiveness, the Common Core champions point with alarm to the mediocre showing of U.S. students on international assessments, and demand rigor and accountability. Theirs is the old-school approach to problems with education: "We just need tougher standards, and look, here they are."

Common Core is another flavor for the magic elixir of National Standards, adoption of which will rigorously propel graduating students into higher education, or into just those job market niches for which contemporary business hankers.

Bad though Common Core testing may be, it's only a small piece of what's emerged as the overall corporate agenda for education, a kind of business school fantasy to use the rankings provided by high-stakes testing (Value Added Measurements!) as a hammer to bludgeon teachers, their unions and entire schools.

The present drive, directed from the highest levels of national and state government (Arne Duncan, NYS Regents), and from the councils and foundations of billionaires (Gates, Walton, Broad), aims to dismantle and privatize the entire system of public schools in favor of privately run but publicly funded charter schools, and even of publicly funded vouchers for altogether private schools.

The corporate "reformers" have done as much in New Orleans and in Philadelphia, and soon Detroit schools will be restructured under state diktat.

Given the current situation, the green shoots of revolt against the testing mania that we saw across the state were a welcome sign. Could the opt-out movement expand as a protest, and challenge the high stakes testing regimes?

Clearly the threat worried many state education officials, and they pushed hard to stave off any whiff of rebellion. Editorial pages gladly collaborated in tut-tutting the non-conformist parents, but disciplinary measures and retaliation met some students who resisted.

Suburban Rush-Henrietta Schools punished students who, on parental instruction, refused to sit for the test, charging them with "insubordinate behavior" and threatening loss of recess and extra-curricular activities. Last week, a federal judge in Rochester sided with the school, denying the parents of Hunter Barber a temporary restraining order to prevent the school from punishing their son by excluding him from baseball games and practice.

State education commissioner John King warned that, as befits a more rigorous and thus meaningful test, parents and students should expect lower scores. Test designers have apparently achieved this by giving students more challenging questions with less time for completion.

On the first day of testing came reports from one well-off suburban school that the nurse had to attend to kids when they panicked and broke down as time expired and they couldn't finish the exams.

Other students failed to benefit from the testing. Elementary school principal Peter DeWitt described administering the ELA test, mandatory for all students, to special education kids, who were completely unable to read it:

Students sat with rigid fists, tears and frustration...They couldn't sound out the words, and could not ask for help from their teachers. Some of my students could not get past the second word on the third grade exam, which was "tarantula." A few students put their pencils down and wouldn't budge. Imagine what it must feel like to not be able to read the second word on a 70-minute exam.

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