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Why some students are refusing to take the Common Core test

March 11, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Rebellion is brewing against the Common Core educational standards. Testing for the new standards began in March, and some students have refused to take part. Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports from New Jersey, where he talks to Common Core critics and supporters.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Testing for the Common Core learning standards in U.S. public schools began earlier this month. And just as a rebellion is brewing against the Common Core, there are now protests building against the national tests associated with them.

Reports of students refusing to take the tests are coming in daily, and if those numbers keep building, it could endanger the goals of the standards themselves.

Our special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has the story from New Jersey.

STUDENT: We’re live. We’re live.

JOHN MERROW: Something big is happening in New Jersey, and it’s being broadcast on YouTube.

STUDENT: If you’re, like, following us on Twitter or Instagram, make sure you use the hashtag #OccupyNPS.

JOHN MERROW: In Newark, high school students occupied the superintendent’s office for three days, one of their issues, the Common Core test.

STUDENT: This is a pretty big deal. We’re taking back our district.

TANAISA BROWN, Newark Students Union: Politicians actually get very nervous when they see how many people are against one thing. They have money power. They have political power, but we have people power.

JOHN MERROW: It’s happening in Montclair, where a protest group released this video.

WOMAN: We’re fighting back.

STUDENT: I’m trying to push back against the test because I’m not just a number and I’m not a dollar sign.

MAN: We are refusing the test. Refuse the test.

JOHN MERROW: And it’s happening in the state capital.

RAISA RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ, Student: In conclusion, the PARCC high-stakes standardized tests will hurt our students, teachers, and schools. That is why I am refusing the PARCC test.

When I heard about what happened in New York, how like 60,000 people opted out, and I thought, wow, that’s something we can do about it.

JOHN MERROW: PARCC is one of two national tests of the Common Core state standards being given to about 15 million students, starting with third-graders, in 28 states and Washington, D.C., this spring. The Common Core and the tests have their defenders.

MARCIA V. LYLES, Superintendent, Jersey City Public Schools: I think the Common Core state standards have upped the ante for everybody, that it is, indeed, more rigorous. So we needed a more rigorous assessment to address whether or not we were providing more rigorous instruction.

JOHN MERROW: But resistance to Common Core testing has been building, in Florida, New York, Washington, Colorado, and elsewhere, including New Jersey, which has 590 school districts, 1.4 million students, and, these days, anti-testing activity just about every night, often with strong language.

WOMAN: I’m willing to go as far as I have to go in order to get this done. I would be arrested because of this.

JOHN MERROW: Protesters are from across the spectrum and from opposite sides of the political aisle.

CAROLEE ADAMS, Eagle Forum: We don’t want a national school board. We really don’t.

JOHN MERROW: Carolee Adams is New Jersey president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group.

CAROLEE ADAMS: When it comes to, perhaps, social issues, we may not agree, but, on this issue, we are shoulder to shoulder, parents, conservatives, progressives, the teachers. We’re all opposed to this because this is not about learning. This is not about education.

JULIA SASS RUBIN, Save Our Schools New Jersey: And it’s really exciting, John, because it’s pure democracy.

JOHN MERROW: Julia Rubin is one of the founders of save our schools New Jersey.

JULIA SASS RUBIN: Nobody really cares about the ideology of the group. It’s about saving our schools. It’s about protecting those children.

JOHN MERROW: Strange bedfellows is what they say.

CAROLEE ADAMS: And it’s so much fun, one message, many voices. And that is the winning strategy.

JOHN MERROW: The message? Tests take away from teaching and learning.

JULIA SASS RUBIN: They’re impacting the kind of education kids are getting because they’re eating up a lot of introduction time with test preparation and test drilling. If what you’re measuring is English and math, then all these unimportant subjects like art and music and science and social studies, languages, you know, that gets put aside.

So how was your day?

JOHN MERROW: Her 12-year-old daughter, Raisa, singles out the PARCC test.

Have you taken is?

RAISA RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: I have taken some sample tests.

JOHN MERROW: What did you think?

RAISA RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: It was very confusing. You’re supposed to pick one right answer, which is hard for a lot of people.

JOHN MERROW: But the test must have a right answer.

RAISA RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: They did have a right answer. Like, they had a defined right answer, but they asked, which of these is not a main idea? But all of them kind of tied in to the idea. So everybody had a different answer, because everybody interpreted the text differently. There’s never going to be one right way to solve a problem, so why should there be one right answer?

JOHN MERROW: Left and right object to the cost of the tests.

CAROLEE ADAMS: They’re saying New Jersey needs at least $575 million. I have heard of schools that have a shortfall of half-a-million and three-quarters-of-a-million. So, it is something. This is costly.

JOHN MERROW: Students will spend up to 11 hours taking the test over nine days. Most will take them on computers and everyone is expecting glitches.

RAISA RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: They don’t be what the computer thing is going to be like. A lot of them, there’s, like, all these different problems like dragging and dropping, and a lot of student don’t know how to do this kind of stuff on the computer.

JULIA SASS RUBIN: I think the only people who benefit from this would be those who are selling the test, because the districts are not well off from the testing. Students are certainly not well off from the testing.

JOHN MERROW: As the protests have picked up steam, the education establishment has gone on the offensive.

NARRATOR: The old standardized test merely evaluated Tommy’s ability to memorize basic facts. The new assessments measure deep understanding of the types of problems he will encounter in the real world.

JOHN MERROW: In New Jersey, most school superintendents are defending the test, including Jersey City Superintendent Marcia Lyles.

MARCIA V. LYLES: We want to prepare our students to think about thinking. When they graduate from high school, it’s not just a regurgitation or memorization of everything.

JOHN MERROW: She believes that higher standards will create a level playing field in mostly African-American and Latino districts.

MARCIA V. LYLES: It will have the effect of making sure everybody has the same expectation. It’s about shared expectations for everybody. And I think that, for certain students and certain groups, that we didn’t have the same expectation.

JOHN MERROW: Seventy percent of her 28,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

But, as they say, the critics say all this test is going to do is remind them that they fail tests.

MARCIA V. LYLES: So they will be reminded that they’re not successful when they leave high school, and they can’t get into a college of their choice or they have to take remedial course work. We need to know now how they are performing. We need to know now, so that we can provide the interventions necessary. And this will help us craft that.

JULIA SASS RUBIN: There’s absolutely no data to show that imposing this — quote, unquote — “accountability” has improved educational outcomes, in fact, just the opposite. Inequality has increased. What the tests primarily measure is the wealth of their families and the educational background of their families.

JOHN MERROW: Scores on the PARCC won’t determine whether students are promoted. However, teachers in several states, including New Jersey, will be judged on the results.

JULIA SASS RUBIN: It certainly impacts the teachers directly. And if teachers are miserable and de-motivated, it certainly affects the students.

JOHN MERROW: What happens to students who opt out is up to individual school districts. Some are taking a hard line and making them sit at their desks during the testing hours, no books to read, nothing.

If a kid is opting out, will he or she just have to sit and stare?

MARCIA V. LYLES: Oh, no.

JOHN MERROW: Or will there be…

MARCIA V. LYLES: No, we will have — we will have — we will have alternatives for students who parents withdraw them from the test.

JOHN MERROW: But superintendent Lyles is not telling parents about this policy.

MARCIA V. LYLES: We are not promoting withdrawing from the test. We really want our students to participate in this assessment.

JOHN MERROW: The PARCC test will be administered in New Jersey throughout this month and again in may. Meanwhile, protesters seem to be growing more determined.

TANAISA BROWN: I think this is exactly democracy looks like. It’s coming out in numbers, showing exactly what the people want.

JOHN MERROW: How strong is this grassroots test refusal movement? Politicians are paying attention. Twelve states have already dropped the Common Core tests. And others are considering it.

I’m John Merrow, reporting from Newark, New Jersey, for the PBS NewsHour.

GWEN IFILL: It’s too early to say just how many students are opting out so far, but we will stay on the story and report back this spring with the results.

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