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Another Voice: Opt-out movement offers a vision for public education

By Chris Cerrone

Six years ago, my family began a journey to take a stand for our children’s education. We were among handful of parents across New York State to publicly announce that our children would “opt-out” of (boycott) the grade 3-8 state assessments. Since then, thousands more families have joined us in defending public education, with over 225,000 students opting out of New York State exams in 2017.

While motivations vary in the testing boycott, the majority of families were driven to action because they witnessed their children’s classrooms becoming focused on test preparation and a system that forced teachers to concentrate on a limited set of ELA and math skills, instead of a well-rounded education.

So, what has the opt-out movement achieved? The opt-out movement influenced changes, resulting in shorter assessments in both the number of questions and the days spent testing. Opt-out families also motivated the Board of Regents to offer more pathways to high  school graduation.

While these changes are positive steps, the boycott of state assessments must continue, because schools are still forced to focus on test scores over true learning, and the assessments continue to be flawed measures of student achievement. While Every Student Succeeds Act has replaced No Child Left Behind as federal education law, politicians in Washington and Albany continue to fail our children. Seventeen-plus years of test-based accountability for schools mandated by federal law have failed to close achievement gaps for vulnerable groups of young people. Why should schools continue a policy that has obviously been unsuccessful? Additionally, in New York, teacher evaluations are still legally tied to student test scores, despite ESSA removing that federal mandate. Making state assessments high-stakes for adults harms our children, as focusing on raising test scores does not necessarily equate with improved learning outcomes. It is time for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature to repeal the current teacher evaluation law so we can give schools local control of their employment and curriculum decisions.

We also need to question the role high-stakes Regents exams play in forcing high school educators to cover a large quantity of content at the expense of in-depth learning and critical thinking that our young adults need as our nation endures a charged political climate and economic challenges.

The opt-out movement is not just about refusing to take a test, but, instead, offering a vision for public education that rejects a focus on assessment skills, workbooks and teacher-centered classrooms. Families who boycott yearly standardized tests instead advocate for student-centered learning and creative activities that include hands-on and real-world simulations. Imagine every classroom and school system engaging students, to promote imaginative, higher-order thinking that goes well beyond the narrow scope of a test-focused education system. These are the skills our children need to truly be ready and flexible to meet a rapidly changing world as they graduate.

Chris Cerrone of Springville is co-founder of Western New Yorkers for Public Education and NYS Allies for Public Education. He is a middle school teacher.

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