Parents Pull Kids From School to Boycott State Tests

By Julie Shapiro on April 19, 2012 7:34am 

MANHATTAN — Nearly every fifth-grader in the city is taking the all-important state standardized tests this week — but not Davie Langer.

The 10-year-old East Harlem student is boycotting the annual exams to protest the city's overemphasis on high-stakes testing, said Davie's mother, Sally Langer.

"She really likes taking tests," Langer said of her fifth-grade daughter. "She thinks it's fun. But she also thinks it's important to stand up for what you believe in."

Davie is one of at least half a dozen students who are sitting out the state tests this week as part of a "Change the Stakes" campaign organized by their parents, who are advocating a more relaxed and holistic approach to testing.

"The amount of pressure that is placed on this test is in no way productive," said Andrea Mata, a Washington Heights resident whose third-grade son, Oscar, is sitting out the English Language Arts test at P.S. 210 this week.

"It's gotten to the point where it's detrimental to students… and to their love of learning."

While only a handful of children are participating in the boycott, a petition asking the state to give parents the right to opt out of standardized tests without risking negative consequences has gathered more than 1,200 signatures.

The city does not have a formal policy for dealing with students who choose not to take standardized tests, but opting out could affect both the school and the child's future, Department of Education officials said.

The city uses state tests to decide whether children are promoted from one grade to the next, so those who do not take the test will have to be evaluated through a portfolio proving they meet standard benchmarks, according to the DOE.

The fourth- and seventh-grade tests are also important factors in children's admission to middle and high school.

In addition, the tests are a federal requirement under the No Child Left Behind law, and schools that do not have at least a 95 percent participation rate could face sanctions, DOE officials said.

Parents, though, said the potential consequences are worth the risk.

"Opting out is not going to change this overnight, but we can't be cogs in a system that's running off the rails," said Jeff Nichols, 55, a Morningside Heights resident who is keeping his third-grade son home from school to avoid the tests.

Nichols said his son's East Harlem school, which he declined to name, put an intense focus on test preparation and cut music and art instruction after recently getting a D on its city report card. Nichols' son had always loved school, but that changed shortly after he started third grade last fall.

"He came home with wide eyes and said, 'Mommy, Daddy, I'm being tested in the spring and if I don't pass I won't go to fourth grade. I wish it was still summer vacation,'" Nichols said.

"It's educational malpractice. It's outrageous. It's completely unacceptable."

While Nichols' son was initially angry that he couldn't take the tests with his classmates, he eventually came around, Nichols said.

Like Nichols, Diana Zavala, 36, an Inwood resident, joined the boycott after noticing her third-grade son Jackson's stress skyrocket during nonstop test preparation earlier this year.

"His tension, his stress — it was like an adult coming home from work carrying a weight on their shoulders," Zavala said. "My child is not getting taught. My child is getting test-prepped."

Zavala said Jackson calmed down once she explained that he would not have to take the tests.

While some parents are keeping their children at home during the six days of standardized testing this month, Davie Langer's teachers at Central Park East 1 are finding alternative assignments for her, like helping out in a kindergarten class and doing extra math and writing exercises.

Sally Langer said she and her daughter were both initially hesitant about opting out of the tests, but they were even more concerned about the way the city uses the scores to evaluate and sometimes punish schools.

"She loves her school and she loves her teacher," Langer said.

"The very idea that they could use her test score to hurt her school or her teacher was very upsetting to her."

While Langer made the case to her daughter for skipping the tests, she said the final decision was entirely up to Davie.

"I said, 'Davie, I'll be proud of you either way,'" Langer said.

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