Anne Stone is Associate Professor of Music at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Jeff Nichols is Associate Professor of Music at Queens College and the Graduate Center. They live in Manhattan with their sons Aaron and Gabriel. As a result of their 3rd-grader's experiences with a test-driven curriculum, they joined with other parents and teachers in Change the Stakes, a committee of the Grassroots Education Movement working on issues related to high-stakes testing in the public schools. They have published two pieces for SchoolBook: "Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading" and "A Lesson on Teaching to the Test from E.B.White".
When people ask us why we are boycotting the standardized tests this spring, we hardly know where to begin. We find it unconscionable that our son's test results can be used to determine whether his teachers keep their jobs, whether his school stays open, and whether he goes on to the next grade. But the "high-stakes" nature of the tests is just the tip of the pineapple.
Because so much is riding on these tests, the curriculum at our 3rd-grader's school has been distorted dramatically. There is no music, science, or gym teacher; art has been suspended since December so that there can be extended hours for test prep. Our son's homework for months has consisted of practice tests; the main function of school seems to be to teach him to read passages of little or no literary merit and then decide which of four possible answers to equally insipid questions is the "right" one. In math, our son brings home dreary worksheets day after day, asking the same kinds of questions 100 different ways.
At this point in a conversation we are usually asked the question "but don't you think there need to be standards and accountability?" The answer to this question is complicated, and complexity of thought has, ironically, no place in current public discussions of educational policy: if you're for standards and accountability then you must be for high-stakes standardized testing.
What does accountability have to do with high standards, or with testing? "Accountability" is a buzz word that is used to imply that teachers are not to be trusted to educate our children without the state constantly peering into their classrooms – and test scores are supposed to be the means by which state officials see what's going on. But this is utterly misguided. If a child performs well on a standardized test that means one thing: the teacher has trained the child to take a standardized test. And if this is what the high standards are, then no, we are not for them. (And neither are our politicians and their backers, who send their kids to private schools that maintain extensive programs in the arts and sciences and whose teachers' imaginations are not restricted by standardized tests.)
It is precisely because we believe in high standards that we oppose placing these mediocre tests at the center of the curriculum. We want to see deep and broad study in the arts and sciences restored to our son's school. We want his teachers to have a high degree of autonomy and responsibility that will allow them to exercise their talents fully. Through our childrens' experiences and through our speaking out about high-stakes testing, we have met dozens of outstanding educators in the New York public schools. If the leadership would take the time to listen to them, there would be no "crisis" in our schools, and no need for the kind of "accountability" that is undermining our son's education.