“Sit and Stare” to Prepare for Democracy?

Why did thousands and thousands of students opt out of standardized testing this spring? Which tests did they choose to skip? And how did school leaders react? Did they punish, ignore, or–horrors–reward the protesting students?

Opt out numbers are hard to come by. I have seen estimates ranging from 30,000 to 300,000 in just one state, New York. Even though the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data,’ it’s pretty clear that the opt-out phenomenon is tangible, real and growing.

Identifying the adult players in this battle is an interesting challenge. Some are Tea Party types who are opposed to anything–not just in education–that smacks of ‘big government.’ Here’s one website. This faction of “opt out” is way out on the right politically.

The left has an “opt out” faction as well, albeit less organized. For them, opting out is a way of protesting what they see as the excessive influence of large corporations in our schools, with the testing company Pearson often being singled out for criticism and scorn.{{1}}

With the blessing of the New York State Department of Education, Pearson has been “field testing” questions at about 4,100 schools. For those students it’s another day of testing, in addition to the six days of state-mandated, high-stakes tests. Some parents have refused to let their children take these additional tests, as Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News has reported.

Gonzalez believes that the extra tests won’t produce any reliable data because the kids know these extra tests don’t count and therefore don’t take them seriously.

When New York State signed with Pearson to let that company try out its tests on certain students, it reminded some critics of an earlier time in America’s history when landowners could assign their workers as they saw fit. Back then, they could rent their workers out to other landowners or to mills and factories when those industries needed workers. That infamous practice–slavery–became illegal with the passage of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. {{2}}

Since these tests are being given to help Pearson, it seems to me that the student workers ought to be rewarded for their efforts or offered the option of alternate activities. They are not chattel.

Many “opt out” supporters believe that excessive standardized testing is hurting genuine learning.{{3}} These parents, teachers, principals and school board members support opting out as a way of slowing down or limiting testing. The parents tell grim stories about their kids vomiting, not sleeping and crying all the time. Some school boards (including hundreds in Texas alone), teachers, principals and other educators want to limit standardized testing, and a few publicly support opting out. In Rochester, NY, school board member Willa Powell informed her child’s school that she would not be taking the new state test, for example.

When veteran teacher Gerry Conti of Westhill, NY, publicly disclosed his reasons for opting out of teaching by retiring early, it caused something of a sensation. Too much testing and an overemphasis on data collection–to the exclusion of creativity–were his chief complaints. In his resignation letter, which he posted on Facebook, he spread the blame around to include legislators, his union, and local school administrators. Here’s an excerpt:

In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian.

What I find intriguing are the targeted “opt out” protests aimed at the new Common Core exams, which are being rolled out around the country in trial runs.

Protests against these computer-based tests are creating problems for local administrators. The question some administrators seem to ask themselves is, “Should I punish or reward these non-participating students?” When they pose it that way, it strikes me that they are taking the protest personally, making it about THEM, not the kids. Bad idea…

The education establishment, which does not want “opt out” to spread, has been straightforward in its response: If you let (or make) your kids opt out, you are hurting them. You may think you are helping, but you actually are doing them a disservice. Testing, they explain, is in your children’s best interests because it tells you where they stand academically.

Among those campaigning against opting out is former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who mocked those who have chosen to keep their kids from taking the tests:

Opt out of measuring how well our schools are serving students? What’s next: Shut down the county health department because we don’t care whether restaurants are clean? Defund the water-quality office because we don’t want to know if what’s streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink? {{4}}

Some school districts have adopted a punitive “Sit and Stare” policy meaning that the opting out kids have to sit at their desks while other students take the tests.{{5}} The protesters are not allowed to read books, thus ‘sit and stare’ for 60-90 minutes. This is apparently designed to humiliate the protesters. In some cases, the test booklets and pencils are put on the protesting students’ desks, probably with the hope that they will cave in to the pressure.

A poster child for what NOT to do might be Dr. Stacey Gross, principal of Ridgefield (CT) High School, where only 35 juniors–out of more than 400–took the new Common Core tests. That’s right: more than 90% of the high school juniors in this wealthy Connecticut town opted out of the test, which was given over several days.

Why did so many juniors opt out? One explained to a reporter: “I find this time of the year to be just as stressful as before APs,” Kristin Li said. “Now that APs are over, I’ve simply shifted my focus to SATs and ACTs. On top of that, I’m studying for my national registry exams to become a certified EMT, I’m becoming increasingly involved in my school clubs, and I dance four to five days a week. I can’t speak for everyone, but my life is just as busy as it was earlier in the year.”

In response to the opting out, Principal Gross decided to punish the protestors by prohibiting learning! She wrote an email to the parents of the juniors–protestors and test-takers alike– to ‘reassure’ them that (her words) “NO NEW LEARNING” can occur in a class where a Junior is absent for testing.” {{6}}

Teachers, she added, would not be covering any new material for the 365 students, at the expense of the 35 who toed the line and took the Common Core tests. The 365 students would have to go to their scheduled classrooms, she announced. She wouldn’t mess up the school’s patterns just to accommodate the 90%!

It seems to me that educators like Dr. Gross should be helping to identify useful alternative behaviors that would benefit the students who weren’t taking the tests. What might she have said? How about: “To ensure that students who are taking the test do not fall behind, their teachers will not be covering new material during the testing periods. And I’ve asked those who are opting out to come up with some alternative activities that are educational in nature or somehow contribute to our HS community.”

Michelle Goodman, who pulled her daughter out of the testing, told reporter Dani Blum of the Ridgefield Press that the administration’s insistence on “no new learning” was “absolutely ludicrous.” “Where are the priorities here, with the students who want to succeed or with the school system who is forcing their policies to the detriment of our children’s education?” she asked.

Giving young people choices while they are still in school? Allowing or even encouraging them to take responsibility for their own lives? These are dangerous concepts that threaten the established order of things in schools. Stuff like that may be fine for adults in a democratic society, but choices and personal responsibility are out of place in our schools.


[[1]]1. The New York State Department of Education’s $32M contract with giant testing company Pearson did not include sufficient funds for field testing, so, with the State Department’s approval, Pearson embedded items for future tests in its regular testing, sparking more protest from parents, who felt their children were being used as guinea pigs.[[1]]

[[2]]2. In the deep South, the shameful practice continued up to the beginning of World War Two, as Douglas A. Blackmon shows so powerfully in “Slavery by Another Name.” [[2]]

[[3]]I count myself as a member of that group. My own take on excessive testing is a play on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which I call “Mending School.” It includes these lines:
“Before I gave more bubble tests,
I’d ask to know
What I was testing for, and why
And to whom I was like to do harm.”[[3]]

[[4]]4. This is a rhetorical straw man, because the tests are not designed to measure school effectiveness.  If that were our goal, we would use a more complex (and expensive) test but give it to only a carefully drawn sample of students–just as your doctor draws only a few drops of your blood, not all of it, to evaluate your body, and just as political pollsters survey only a carefully drawn random sample of likely voters to make predictions about elections.[[4]]

[[5]]5. Here’s one story: http://www.13wham.com/template/cgi-bin/archived.pl?type=basic&file=/news/features/top-stories/stories/archive/2014/03/ovbProS5.xml#.U6Fv241dVeM [[5]]

[[6]]6. Does anyone, let alone an educator, really believe that learning can be prohibited? Aren’t young people going to figure out the foolishness of that prohibition? Aren’t they going to learn something pretty basic about a person who feels she can prohibit learning? Prohibiting learning seems to me to be akin to telling someone not to think about a pink elephant–the opposite happens.

Growing up, we learned about King Canute, who famously stood on the beach and commanded the tide not to rise.  The sea disobeyed him, as he knew it would, because the wise King was trying to teach his subjects of the futility of some human laws.  Alas, Dr. Gross does not seem to possess the wisdom of Canute.[[6]]

9 thoughts on ““Sit and Stare” to Prepare for Democracy?

  1. The health inspection metaphor falls rather flat, in that *customers* in a restaurant do not have to submit to inspection. Only the facility, employees and food are being graded.

    To inspect schools the same way the same way, authorities would assess the building, faculty (via observation), and materials.

    Bubble tests are a rather lazy substitute.


  2. I am the parent of a third grader in Southern California. My husband and I are not right wingers, and neither are we opposed to curriculum that encourages, inspires, or creates critical thinking. We opt our child out of standardized testing because we view it as not only harmful and abusive to children, needlessly chipping away at their self-esteem and their confidence, but as corrosive to public education. This by design, of course. The Michelle Rhees among us love nothing more than tests (well, maybe teacher-union busting is vying for pole position) because tests—the way they are currently utilized—help privatize and commodify something that shouldn’t be privatized or commodified. (Funny how Rhee so smugly tries to compare opting out to shutting down the health department or defunding the “water-quality office,” as if these are equitable analogies. Better analogies would be to have our kids eat at un-inspected restaurants and drink untested water. I’m sure Rhee would be willing to have her little darlings do that…)

    About the sit-and-stare punishment. Schools in California are required to provide opting out children with something to do during test time. However, in opting out, we haven’t been assured that our child will be provided learning opportunities during test taking time, which is to say NOTHING of all the hours spent in test preparation during the weeks leading up to the tests, for which there is no opt out other than dropping out. Testing and the prep is antagonistic to learning.

    So I withdrew my daughter during test time this year and last, and took her for some precious mother/daughter time spent in various enrichment activities around our city. I’m lucky that I am able to do this and recognize that most parents aren’t allowed this luxury. Kids do not deserve to be punished for opting out of tests, and doing so just further abuses and marginalizes them. A school should care for the education of all its kids, and not on a conditional basis; the goals and concerns of any administrator who makes a kid stare into space should be cause for dismissal.

    We will continue to opt our child out of testing as both a protection of her as a person and as a way to tell our school board, our Governor, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and Pearson, et.al. that they will not be using our child as a means to destroy public schools, collect the ever-more-valuable data, or to fill their coffers.


  3. Could you please explain what you believe “genuine learning” to be? Again, your articles are rich with information about the politics of schooling, but I question your underlying philosophy in terms of how compulsory schooling works towards producing some optimal vision of learning.


  4. Cevin, I think you are convinced that no one should have to go to school. I think genuine learning involves production and creation of knowledge. I have written a lot about this in this space over the years. A piece I wrote about kids’ mapping their city’s ‘cleanliness opportunities (I.E., trash cans) comes to mind. I am a fan of project-based learning as a means of developing all sorts of useful skills.


  5. I’m the mom of a student with disabilities who is now in community college, taking it slow to do well and bringing home As & Bs (so far). I help families of students with disabilities in their IEP meetings as an advocate for no fee. In a meeting earlier this year, one of the teacher participants mentioned she was the proctor for the CCSS pilot testing (we’re calling it “Smarter Balanced” in California, in spite of it being neither of those things. Link here to guides (the instructions for students who must utilize Braille is time-consuming and I’m waiting to hear how that goes): http://sbac.portal.airast.org/ca/practice-test-ca/resources/

    This proctor stated that during the math portion, students were NOT allowed to use pencils or scratch paper to try and work out answers. There is no equivalent on an iPad while in the middle of a test. There were other glitches as well and the biggest concern she had was that schools cannot contact the creators of the test materials regarding mistakes, problems or other concerns. They are to forward their information to the state who can then either ignore or pass on the information….and we all know how quickly state agencies work.

    At another IEP, the mother was inclined to opt her child out of testing, but wanted to know if it would hurt her child’s chances of getting into a UC system or community college. We asked to reconvene until I researched for her. I called UCLA & USC college recruiters and several LA area community colleges (we’re in Los Angeles Unified School District). Not one administrator or counselor had heard of “Common Core State Standards” or “Smarter Balanced” tests until I mentioned LAUSD’s iPad purchase fiasco with Construction Bond funds. They all then laughed and said, “No, that test is not a requirement of admission.” They want to see transcripts, either ACT or CST tests (either, not both) and additional club activities/community service involvement as their indicators.

    CCSS was never about improving education, it was about making a buck at our children’s expense and to privatize education: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html


  6. It is truly time for sane people to see the irony and hypocrisy in all of the testing. It is to make money, demonize public schools and teachers so that more money making charters can be opened. Observe the very high salaries, nepotism, and poor education found in many, many charters. I live in Ohio where charters are a big problem. Our state govt. seems to love them, and big donors are owners of the big charter chains. Follow the money….so true. Our public schools in Ohio – and throughout the US are quite excellent. If there were grades given for PR campaigns to destroy public education, teachers, and turn education into a money-making plan, then they would have an A+. I so hope that more and more people realize that public schools, not testing, are what have preserved (what’s left) of our democracy.


  7. Rhee and Gross, and other administrators, are perfect examples of what public education is facing today. They are too removed from the classroom and learning. They have forgotten how the brain works and how learning takes place. Or perhaps they never knew, or are afraid of losing their high paying jobs. It is clear, from local administrators on up to Arne, and beyond to the profit of testing, problem solving and creative thinking are not on the agenda.

    Each student comes to school with a different experience from a different developmental level and learning style. Filling in a bubble on a test with questions that are the same for every student at a grade level does not encourage learning and does not indicate what a student is capable of learning or has learned. We have had standardized testing in America for over a decade and still we keep hearing that our graduates don’t have the learning they need. That must tell us something besides, “oh, we have to change the test questions again.” Pearsons keeps telling us they can fix the system through testing, maybe they should be focusing on General Motors instead of education. That’s where the true industrial model is. General Motors needs the help. Education needs to move beyond the assembly line.

    Several years ago when I was administering NH’s standardized test to my third graders, I looked across the room. One of my smartest students was looking around at other students’ nearby desks. I couldn’t believe she was cheating. As I walked over I could see she was in tears. “I don’t know how to do this problem,” she whispered. In looking around she had found all the other students were ahead of her. I realized, which she didn’t, that the other students hadn’t done the problem, just filled in the bubble and moved on. She was devastated. She knew she was smarter than those around her. Against the rules, I helped her to understand the problem and she finished the test.

    That situation, along with others, demonstrates how negative standardized tests can be. If a test question can harm one of my better students, what must continued lack of success in years and years of testing do to the psyche of each of our children?

    Testing is destroying their ignition switch for learning. We are born to learn. We need to keep that motor running.


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