A new policy is being enacted in some school districts across the country known as “sit and stare.” What is that?

“Sit and stare” policies are enforced on those students whose parents have opted them out of taking a high-stakes standardized test but who are still required to be in the school building when the exams are actually proctored. Under this practice, kids are forced to sit at their desks and stare while their classmates take the test. They can’t read. They can’t write. They can’t put in earplugs and listen to music. They can only sit and stare. Really.

“Sit and stare” policies are being considered or adopted in schools from New York to California as a reaction to the growing “opt out” movement in which parents have decided that they do not want their children to have to take high-stakes standardized tests. Each state has its own policy about opting out, but they don’t generally provide districts with guidance about how to enforce it, so administrators come up with their own policies.

Jeanette Deutermann, a co-founder of the parent advocacy group New York State Allies for Public Education, said in an interview that she believes the policies are vague in an effort to intimidate parents into not opting out. She also said she has heard about at least one case in which children who have been granted double time to take exams because of a diagnosed disability or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have been told that they will have to sit and stare for the entire extended time they would have used to take the exam.

While there are no definitive numbers about how many parents are opting their children out of tests, thousands have this year and the movement is gaining momentum.  As the number of parents opting out grows, so do the ways that school administrators are trying to persuade them not to, often out of concern that their schools will be penalized by federal education rules that require annual standardized testing by most of the students who attend each campus.

Other punitive acts by administrators against children whose parents have opted them out include giving them detentions if they don’t come to school and isolating them from their class and forcing them to sit in the principal’s office. Chalkbeat Colorado reported that this week — in the middle of state assessments — Denver Public Schools issued new guidelines for schools to handle opt-out cases after an incident in which one mom dropped her daughter off at school after a standardized test had been given but the student was not allowed to return to her regular class. The new guidelines allow students who have opted out from tests to come to school during the exam and work in another class. Another Colorado mom wrote in Slate about the trouble administrators at her two daughters’ schools gave her when she and her husband decided that the state standardized tests provided no educational benefit and they decided to opt out.

Parents in various districts have been protesting “sit and stare” policies, imposed by administrators who apparently believe they are following the letter of their state law. In Lancaster, N.Y., for example, Schools Superintendent Michael J. Vallely was quoted by the Buffalo News as saying,

Mothers were asking for kids not taking the test at all to be able to go to the library or principal’s office (to read).  That is not something we’re going to do. We’re obligated to give every student the test per the state education commissioner.”

Some parents said that forcing kids to sit and stare while classmates take an exam is abusive. Donald Oglivie, superintendent of Erie One BOCES who  is also the state education commissioner’s field representative to 19 Erie County school districts, which includes Lancaster, argued otherwise, telling WGRZ-TV:

“There is no basis at all for using such phrases to describe sitting, while your classmates take a test that you refuse to take. That’s not bullying and that’s not abuse.”

New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi denounced sit-and-stare policies last month, noting that at least 15 school districts on Long Island and others around the school had adopted or were considering doing so for the April administration of Common Core-aligned high-stakes math and English Language Arts tests. He said in a statement:

“NYSUT strongly condemns the policy of ‘sit and stare.’ This policy aimed at students whose parents elect to ‘opt out’ their children from state standardized testing is unconscionable. It would be spiteful and counter-productive for any school district to require an administrator or teacher to direct a child to ‘sit and stare’ at a blank desk while other students are taking exams because of a choice made by a parent.
This is cruel to those students not taking the exam and a distraction and disservice to those who are attempting to complete it. Punishing or embarrassing children because their parents exercised their right to choose not to have their children participate in tests they consider inappropriate is, frankly, abusive.”

In California, the Long Beach Classroom Teachers Association condemned the practice, too, and an assistant superintendent announced to the Board of Education recently that no student would be required to “sit and stare” during spring standardized assessments — though the board has yet to adopt guidelines on how parents and students can refuse to opt out.

In Maryland, state education officials say there is no provision for parents to opt out. On the other hand, there is no mandated punishment if parents keep their children at home on school days. The District has no specific policies or provisions to opt out, but also has not issued threats to parents about opting out, according to the advocacy group United Opt Out.  Virginia has no opt-out provisions for its required Standards of Learning, and students who don’t take them are at risk of not being allowed to graduate.

You can learn more about opting out here on the Web site of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.