Power to the Children for They Shall Lead

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A beautifully written “tale from the trenches” by Joe and Barbara Schwartz, (NJ concerned parents):

Here’s a story from the trenches, from here in South Brunswick, NJ.  My wife and I (both educators) had for the past several years contemplated opting our children out of the state standardized test, the NJASK.  Why? For all the reasons so fervently expressed by United Opt Out.  We could no longer stand having our children used as pawns by corporate controlled politicians and bureaucrats interested in de-legitimizing public education.  The corrosive effects of the high-stakes standardized testing culture had become too much to take without taking action.  So last year we decided to take a stand.  Our son was a ninth grader and not subject to the test; our 7th grade daughter would be called on to perform a heroic act of civil disobedience.

We told her early on in the year that she would not be taking the NJASK.  She could go to school and refuse to comply, or we would keep her home, but either way she was not going to take the test.  We explained that as the date got closer she could make a decision. In January we contacted the supervisor in charge of testing for the district to explain our decision.

We learned that keeping her home for the 4 mornings of the test administration would not be enough; in order to “opt-out” she would have to miss a further 5 mornings the following week because if she came to school the district would be obligated to give her make-up tests.  We protested this policy to the district superintendent, the county superintendent, and the director of testing at the NJDOE, to no avail.  At every step we were told, “If you don’t want her to take the test, keep her home.”  It was clear that they did not want her in school during the tests.  We felt that forcing her to miss 5 mornings of instruction in order to “opt out” was a violation of her right to an education, and we contacted both Fair Test and the ACLU but they were unwilling to help.  I contacted union (NJEA) lawyers and some local education attorneys but there was no interest in a “pro bono” case.  I think there is no greater indictment of the system then the plain fact that they would rather her miss 5 mornings of actual instruction then go to her school on the test days.   The “stress ball” she came home with (made in school a few weeks before the test) was the icing on the cake!  At this point she had expressed the desire to stay home.  My wife and I put a plan in place to cover watching her in the AM and getting her to school by lunch so she could spend the afternoon in school with her classmates.

The turning point for her came in April.  I had planned to attend the OCCUPY THE DOE event by myself, but in the end we decided to go as a family.  We drove down to DC on Friday night, and Saturday with the protestors outside the DOE.  We listened to speakers and engaged in conversations with other “occupiers”.  My daughter took it all in.  Right before the afternoon march to the White House I suggested we head back to NJ, but my daughter insisted we march.  So march we did, and she held a sign she had made stating her intention to opt out of the NJASK all the way to the White House.  Outside the gates we chanted and demonstrated till our voices were hoarse.  The experience was profound.  When we got home, my daughter calmly explained that she was not staying home.  She would go to school and just refuse to take the test.  It was the decision I hoped she would make.

So the on the Monday morning of the grade 7 NJASK administration she marched into school wearing her “Occupy the DOE” shirt and wristband.   She went to school three out of the four days of the test administration.  She wrote slogans she had learned in Washington (“Hey hey ho ho Arne Duncan’s got to go” and “We want an education, not a corporation”) all over the booklets.  She also wrote an essay about why standardized testing is evil.  By opening up the booklets and looking at the questions, she rendered any make-up invalid.  She was the only child in the entire school (to my knowledge) who went to school and refused to comply.  The handful of other South Brunswick “opt-outers” stayed home.  She displayed courage and character, qualities that no standardized test could ever measure.

I take a few things away from this experience:

  1. Children who opt-out should go to school and refuse to comply.  They have a right to be there and we should not be bullied or coerced into keeping them home.
  2. If at all possible, attend the OCCUPY protest with your children.  The experience was powerful and helped my daughter understand why we wanted her to do what she did, and gave her the courage to do what she did.  It showed her that she was part of a community of like-minded individuals that valued her strength and independence.
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