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Video: One family’s place in the push against “high-stakes testing”

When state test scores come out in the next couple of weeks, one student who won’t count in the city’s averages is Matthew Sprowal. Encouraged by his mother Karen Sprowal, Matthew did not take the state tests, the first to be tied to new learning standards known as the Common Core, out of protest.

Nathan Place, a student at CUNY’s journalism school, filed this video report about the family and the movement against “high-stakes testing.” Writes Place:

Matthew, 10, was the one student at his school who “opted out” of the test. His mother, Karen Sprowal, told the school’s principal that he would be refusing the test as an act of protest, and while the rest of Matthew’s fourth-grade class took the tests, he sat in another classroom and read quietly.

“I kind of felt special that I was the only kid,” said Matthew. “And I felt relieved that I didn’t have to take the test because I was really worried about that.”

Karen Sprowal said the new tests, which are tied to the “Common Core” state standards, had turned her school’s curriculum into an endless series of drills and practice tests, and caused stress among students and teachers alike.

“My son Matthew started exhibiting a lot of anxiety,” she said, “being terrified that if he doesn’t do well on the test, his teacher could get fired.”

That fear was not completely unfounded. In New York City, students’ grades on the tests are tied to school evaluations, principal evaluations and whether or not students make it to the next grade. Starting next year, they will influence teachers’ ratings, too.

To protest the “high-stakes testing,” as they call it, education advocacy groups such as Class Size Matters and Change the Stakes encouraged parents to “opt out” of the tests, an unofficial alternative to taking them.

The Sprowals chose that path — and they weren’t alone. Throughout New York State, hundreds of parents opted their kids out of the tests, including in places such as Long Island, Westchester and Buffalo.

Teachers spoke out as well. Lauren Cohen, 31, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, participated in a protest at Tweed Courthouse in April that Matthew and Karen also attended. In a speech she gave there, she said over the past year she watched the joy drain from her students’ faces as their curriculum shifted toward pre-test drills.

“The tests are just immensely stressful experiences, especially for elementary school children,” Cohen said. “As much as we try to shield them, they know that they are at risk of not being promoted if they don’t pass the test. … That’s a lot of pressure that these kids are under.”

Karen says opting out carried its own stresses. Matthew complained of feeling bored and left out while the rest of his class took the tests.

“I never took into consideration the emotional toll that it would have on him, being the one sole person in the school amongst his peers not taking the test,” she said.

Even so, she said, the family would opt out of state tests again.

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