This was written by Timothy D. Slekar, head of the Division of Education, Human Development and Social Sciences at Penn State Altoona, and a parent. His last post on this blog, on March 2, detailed his deliberations about whether his son should take Pennsylvania’s standardized test. This piece explains the verdict and aftermath. It refers to the Bartleby Project, an effort to persuade stdents and parents to boycott standardized tests.

By Timothy D. Slekar

My wife and I had Luke “opt out” of No Child Left Behind standardized testing (here in Pennsylvania known as the Pennsylvania System of School Achievement, or PSSAs). My wife and I have not given into the high stakes testing culture. It is the start of a NCLB boycott known as the Bartleby Project; other parents are opting out too.

Learning how to“opt out” of the PSSAs required some commitment. The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website (PDE) is no help, nor is calling PDE. I learned through the grapevine; a friend has a friend who works at the department and who explained that parents can “opt out” of PSSAs for religious reasons. Religion can work miracles!

The process is as follows:

Parents must make an appointment with the school to view the test and sign a confidentiality agreement. After receiving a pat down and going through metal detector. you are then given the sacred test (exaggerated for political humor here). The school testing administrator must sit on the other side of the room and monitor you as you scan the test. After that, the administrator walks you out and informs you that if you plan on “opting out” that they must receive a written request that specifically states that the test violates your religion.

Last week I did just that. I looked at the test and determined that it violated my religion. How, you might ask? That’s an entirely different blog, but I can quickly say that my religion does not allow for or tolerate the act of torture and I determined that making Luke sit for over 10 hours filling in bubble sheets would have been a form of mental and physical torture, given that we could give him no good reason as to why he needs to take this test.

I wrote my letter and received a note back from the school immediately, granting me permission to have Luke opt out of testing (although you don’t technically need “permission”). The letter did remind me, though, that such a reason for opting out of the PSSA testing will negatively affect the school’s participation rate and could POTENTIALLY have a negative impact on the school’s Adequate Yearly Progress under the rules of No Child Left Behind. In other words, Luke could be the difference between the school meeting the requirement or failing. We had to weigh the consequences. TEN hours of torture or a possible failure label applied to our entire family and school? We went with the possible failure label. My wife and I decided to “make a statement” (literally and educationally).

Day 1

Today was the first day of March Madness, or three days of standardized testing. Having opted out, my wife and I planned an educational adventure for Luke. As a professor and administrator, I was able to adjust my schedule to accommodate having Luke “hang” with me. He went to his school for the first hour to attend art class, and then came with me to a local radio station where I am a guest host once a week (on a talk radio program devoted to education). He heard about the issues that had led him to the radio station, as the topic of the show was opting out of the PSSAs. The point was to give Luke some experience in how to conduct planned civil disobedience in a lawful manner. He got it, and more; Luke was able to get a full tour of the station and learn how it works.

Luke next watched me conduct a division faculty meeting. Lunch was served and the business meeting lasted an hour. Luke’s assessment—“that was boring and the lunch was gross.” (What isn’t boring to an 11-year-old boy?) Still, he learned something.

After the meeting I arranged for a kinesiology professor to take Luke to the field house and put him through a strength training and conditioning program. When I went to pick Luke up I found him collapsed in a chair, his face red and his hair wet from sweat from riding a virtual reality exercise bike up hill for a mile. I asked him if he was complaining but he said, “no.”

We headed back to my office where I set aside a small assignment for Luke. He had the choice to read “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen or research Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. He chose Fallingwater and I planned a field trip to the historic home instead of allowing Luke to be used as a data point.

Day 2

Luke went to school again to attend art class, and he told his classmates what he did the day before. Then I took Luke to work with me again. This time, instead of having Luke sit through another meeting, he researched the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as a current events project. A teacher from Luke’s school had assembled a host of websites dealing with the tsunami/earthquakes in Japan for middle school teachers to use in their classrooms, and Luke used the websites to produce a report that left me pleasantly surprised. He clearly had learned something.

At noon we rushed home to meet the cable guy. He showed up at the same time as the local news reporter and cameraman to interview us about our NCLB boycott). While I was helping the cable guy, the reporter and cameraman moved on without me and started interviewing Luke, who was was building a Lego replica model of Fallingwater. According to the reporter, Luke told them about Fallingwater and his future dream to be a professional football player or a civil engineer. Once they were finished interviewing Luke, it was my turn. I spent 25 minutes laying out a spectacular dissertation about the flaws of high stakes testing and it’s damaging effects on children, teachers and communities. When the interview aired at 5:30 pm, Luke got more airtime than I did.

Luke wound up watching the cable guy install cable in our house. At the end of the day we had new cable and we were able to record and watch the 5:30 news.

Day 3

This was the day for our trip to Fallingwater. We met Luke’s grandparents there and learned about building materials, engineering with nature, artistic ideas, and more.

Fallingwater is Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of organic architecture. On the drive home I asked Luke about the tour, and he responded, “It was cool.” We were quiet for about 15 minutes when Luke offered, “I really understand now how my Lego replica is supposed to work. I can see all the pieces and how they fit together. It all makes sense to me now that I got to see the real thing.” Perfect!

Earlier in the day, as we drove to the historic home, Luke and I talked about all the things we did this week. Radio show. Kinesiology instruction. Faculty meetings. Independent background research on Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater, Japan and the tsunami, local interview with television news, watching the cable installation process, working the Lego replica of Fallingwater. Did I miss anything?

I asked Luke what he thought about it all. He just smiled. I also asked him what some of his friends were saying.

According to Luke, they did not believe that NCLB and PSSAs were going to be used to evaluate the school. They didn’t know about AYP and the sanctions that came with it. Luke’s friends just thought the tests, “were used to make sure our teachers are teaching us the right stuff.” My guess is that is what most parents believe. Why wouldn’t they believe it? They’ve been told for nine years that we are raising standards, holding teachers accountable, and leaving no children behind. Who wouldn’t support that?

That, of course, is the real problem. NCLB and the standards movement is a political bait and switch. Sold as one thing (positive) to the public and then in practice, something radically different (punitive). This is probably one of the biggest reasons I decided to do the boycott—to make my community aware and to try and enlighten them of the real issues.

Some see me as a radical college professor rather than as a concerned parent). They want to know why I am intentionally harming “our” school? “Why don’t I take this up with government?”

My answer is that the government is not listening. Teachers, principals, teacher educators, child development specialists, and educational researchers have been trying to get this message out for years. No one will listen.

Civil disobedience is the only option left. It’s my scream in a dark cave for light. I want teachers to teach again. I want principals to lead again. I want my school to be a place of deep learning and a deeper love of teaching. I want children exposed to history, science, art, music, physical education, and current events—the same experience President Obama is providing his own children.

Please stop hurting our children by preparing them for low-level cognitive tests at the expense of deep learning. Stop treating my child as data! He’s a great kid who loves to learn. He is not a politician’s pawn in a chess game designed to prove the inadequacy of his teachers and school.

It’s unfortunate that Luke’s friends spent the three days in a punitive reality designed to prove the inadequacy of our public school.

Hopefully, next year, my wife and I will be seen as true advocates for public education, the teachers and the children. Maybe I won’t be a radical college professor. Instead, maybe we’ll be concerned parents that finally exposed the emperor. Maybe civil disobedience will be contagious. Maybe parents will join us in reclaiming our schools and demand that teachers and administrators hands be untied and allow them to do their jobs—engage students in a rich curriculum designed to promote deep learning and critical thinking.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll create a culture devoted to “real” high standards for all children?


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