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Family opts out of test, and daughter ‘OK with it’

Kelsey Morrow plays the flute, sings in chorus and takes three dance classes, when not playing with the family dog, a boxer named Rosie.

What the 10-year-old is not doing this year is taking the fourth-grade English Language Arts assessment at Lindbergh Elementary School in the Town of Tonawanda.

“She feels OK with it,” said her mother, Jennifer. “I was worried about putting my daughter in that position. But she’s a very confident little girl. We explained to her why we were refusing the test and she understood.”

Morrow was an early adopter of boycotting state tests for her children. It began two years ago, when her other daughter, Natalie, was an eighth-grader at Kenmore Middle School.

“The more I read about it, the more I didn’t like what I was hearing,” she said, “and I didn’t feel that the tests served any educational purpose for my daughter in eighth grade.”

After consulting with her husband, Paul, they agreed to “opt-out” – a movement that appears to have expanded significantly this year. ELA assessment refusals in the Ken-Ton School District grew from 6 percent last year to 37 percent on Tuesday.

“It was our way of taking a stand against the testing,” said Morrow, a speech pathologist. “It was our way of having someone hear our voice and to let them know that this wasn’t OK with us.”

She cites a variety of reasons for opting out, including a preference that Kelsey’s teachers are in control of testing.

“It takes all the testing out of teachers’ hands and puts it in the state’s hands,” she said. “And I feel we have great teachers who are quite competent at teaching and assessing how my kids are doing in school.”

She also doesn’t agree with using those test results to rate teachers or rank schools.

“Any kid could come to school the day of the test and maybe was up all night the night before and they’re going to perform poorly on the test,” she said. “That’s not a reflection of the teacher. A lot of times it’s a reflection of the family or the child’s ability that is out of the teacher’s control.”

And she said she sees a narrowing of the curriculum, with too much focus on English and math. There’s not enough time for Kelsey to do the hands-on science projects she loves, Morrow said.

“If you’re not exposing young kids to a wide variety of topics, they’ll never find what they’re good at,” she said. “They’ll never find their passion.”

Her daughter has even soured on reading.

“Kelsey has said to me that the way they’re teaching reading now is incredibly boring – and she’s a good reader,” Morrow said. “But they choose one story and they go over, and over, and over the same story for a long period of time. They’re not reading for enjoyment anymore. They’re reading to analyze the test and it has turned her off from reading.”

In response, Morrow helped found an organization late last year called Ken-Ton Advocates for Student-Centered Education, which made pins with anti-testing messages for students to wear on test day. Kelsey’s pin read, “Choose to refuse.” She also wore a rubber bracelet that read, “I refuse the New York State standardized tests.”

“She was fine with it,” Morrow said. “She always complains she hates testing week because she says that they don’t do anything else.”

Forty percent of Kelsey’s classmates joined her Tuesday in reading silently in the cafeteria while the others took the test.

“She was bored,” Morrow said. “It’s a long time for kids to sit and either be taking a test or to sit and read. It’s a long time for that age group. So she was bored. I told her ‘Can’t you put your head down and take a nap?’ She said, ‘I don’t know if we’re allowed to do that.’ ”

She hopes state education officials, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, take notice of their growing movement.

“I hope that people start to listen,” Morrow said. “That’s why we’re doing it. We want our voices to be heard. And we want the state ed department and Cuomo to start listening to us. This isn’t what we want from education. I hope they hear us.”