Back to School Guide: Reclaiming Your Child’s Education (1/2)

In March of 2011, the mother of a straight-A Hartford student called up the principal to say that her daughter, Caridad¹, “will not be taking the test.”

The test, in this case, happened to be the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), which is administered to all students in grades 3-8, every year. About one week is dedicated to the actual test (seven hours in all), though the level of preparation varies from school-to-school, with some assigning test prep homework all year round. Caridad, who was in the seventh grade when she opted out, attends one of the schools that puts less emphasis than others on the standardized state tests.

While this student was not the first in the nation or even the state to exercise her right to not take an exam, she may be the first in her school. When her mother contacted the principal at the school, the conversation that followed was one of “understanding,” but the administrator said that she would need to check out the legality of this action.

Initially, the Connecticut State Department of Education asked Caridad’s mother why she would not want her daughter to take the test.

When this topic is raised, the assumption made by some is that the child is lazy or a “bad student,” or, if viewed in a more sympathetic way, prone to test anxiety.

In this case, the Hartford student has none of those qualities. Caridad enjoys all of her subjects at school, naming Math and English as her favorites. When asked, she told me that her school does fun things, like reading plays aloud and working with pulleys in lab projects.

“I actually like to be tested,” she told me.

But Caridad opted out of the CMT last Spring and says she does not think she will take them in 2012 either.

What triggered this family’s choice was when Caridad’s mother read about the bonuses doled out to teachers and administrators; these were tied directly to increased standardized test scores.

“We both felt like we were being used,” Caridad said of herself and her mother. Caridad told me, “I felt like I was being trained in a match.”

Her mother started to think about how $2.7 million in bonuses was awarded when some of the schools are in such poor condition. In past years, the inability for some schools to stock toilet paper has been publicized.

Caridad’s mother decided, “I’m not going to have my child be exploited” or subjected to “mental manipulation.”

photo courtesy of David Hartman

photo courtesy of David Hartman

There were, however, concerns about what repercussions may follow. Policy information, while easy to access, is not entirely clear. Would opting out interfere with the high school application and admission process? Would teachers or administrators single out Caridad or retaliate somehow?

Standardized tests vary by state in terms of content and consequences.

What Caridad’s mother was told by officials was that if her daughter attends school on a test day, she must be provided with the test. This allows some options. Caridad could stay home, attend only when testing was finished for the day, or attend but refuse the test.

For someone who enjoys school as much as Caridad, being absent was not even an option to her.

Caridad’s mother spoke with the principal and teachers in advance to let everyone know her daughter would not be taking the CMT. Instead, Caridad would sit in the teacher’s office and work on SSAT prep materials that her mother put together for her. She would study for and work on a test at the same time as her peers; however, the SSAT will be needed when Caridad applies for high school — Watkinson is at the top of her list — in a few months.

But Caridad had to do one thing with the CMT– fill in a single bubble.

The following is a screenshot from the 58-page CMT Test Coordinator’s Manual. This outlines exactly what students in Connecticut are entitled to do:

The last sentence implies that a student’s refusal to take the test may lead to the district losing federal funding. When administrators claim that their “hands are tied,” they are referring to this penalty; instead of actively challenging  NCLB, their complicity enables the federal government to continue pressuring schools to take part in practices that few within the school system actually believe to be in the best interest of the children.

When Caridad’s mother was first told that her daughter’s school could lose federal funding, she says she “felt a little guilty with our decision” because she wanted to “advocate for schools to receive funding to improve them and our children’s education,” but, she says, “there are so many other ways that funding could be used to improve our children’s education as opposed to making corporations and others rich at the cost of all of those children who don’t test well and experience high levels of stress when test time comes around or at the cost of closing down schools that we should have been maintaining all along.”

As for the student, Caridad said that her teacher and principal did not treat her any differently afterwards. The other students were aware that she was taking a different test. Before making this decision, Caridad was prepared with the different ways she could respond if anyone reacted negatively to her at school. What actually happened was that her classmates just assumed she was taking a different test because “she’s smart,” and Caridad — smiling as she tells me this — did not say anything to correct them.

Caridad does think other students should make their own choices about whether or not to take the CMT, but that they should “know what’s going on” before making any decisions. By “what’s going on,” Caridad was referring to the practice of giving bonus pay to teachers for improved test scores in the district. She called the practice “unfair.” Her mother echoed the belief that people should be fully informed before making any choices. Caridad’s mother said parents should have “conversations with children about No Child Left Behind” because it is “important to know the history behind the CMT” and how it became a high stakes test. She added that it is important for parents to know about the bigger picture and the role of economics in all of this.

Though she does not have test anxiety, Caridad, who described herself as “very shy about things,” remarked that less shy classmates have vocalized their own nervousness about the CMT.

So much of what happens during the school year now hinges on these tests. Caridad explained how early in the school year, silver and gold medals are awarded to students who scored well on the CMT; this is done at a “community meeting” (school assembly). Students are given DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) exercises “all year,” and much more focus is given to CMT preparation after winter break. The students at Caridad’s school have 3-4pm after school activities, which get replaced by test preparation as March draws near; her mother said that when hours were added to make up for the high number of snow days this past year, all the hours were used for CMT practice, though they were not officially referred to as such. While Caridad has not had creativity or the love of learning driven from her, not all children are as fortunate in that way. Tested or not, Caridad is a solid student, who says that studying a lot and paying attention in class are the reasons why she is successful.

Read on to learn more about what students, parents, and teachers are doing nationwide to resist the NCLB coercion.

¹ Caridad is not the student’s real name. The student is a minor, and as such, she has a right to privacy and protection that adults do not.