NEW YORK — It was just a few years ago that Mary O'Brien became uncomfortably aware of certain changes in the public schools her five children attend in Upper Arlington, Ohio.
"We had a great multiage program at the elementary school, but then they began separating kids by age" to prepare them for standardized state tests, she recalls. "Then a new math program was put in place to work toward the test." She also detected more emphasis on conformity, and less respect for individual learning styles.
In short, Ms. O'Brien says, she came to an unhappy realization. The standards movement - the drive to ensure that students attain a certain knowledge base by a certain grade, and the reliance on standardized tests to assess such learning - "is trashing our curriculum."
O'Brien is just one of a small but increasingly vocal group of parents across the United States, up in arms over the recent changes in many public schools - most particularly the sharper focus on standardized testing at the state level.
Typical of many of the parents fighting the tests, she's well-educated, politically savvy, and comfortable crossing the line from advocacy into activism. It's difficult to measure the numbers of these protesters who seem to have sprung up in scattered clusters and often are linked only by e-mail, but it's a group, some are warning, that politicians and policymakers ignore at their own peril.
"Could they take the standards movement off track?" asks Paul Reville, executive director of the Pugh Forum on Standards-Based Reform and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "If there's a sufficient groundswell, they could."
A program a politician can love
Until now, most politicians have viewed the standards movement as a shining success, a trend many were eager to support. At the recent national education summit in Palisades, N.Y., attended by President Clinton, state governors, and heads of influential corporations, the standards movement received nothing less than a full round of applause and a resounding confirmation.
But now some are suggesting that there could be a less-appealing side to the drive, especially due to its heavy reliance on standardized tests. One of the principal thrusts of the movement has been the effort to "level the playing field," and reduce the quality gap between suburban and inner-city schools.
But while standards may be intended to improve urban schools, some parents worry the movement could drag down the level of instruction at schools once freer to apply more-creative teaching strategies.
Much of the country continues to solidly support the idea of standards. Last year a survey done by New York-based Public Agenda indicated that 82 percent of parents believed setting guidelines for what students are expected to learn can help academic performance - although they were not asked whether they supported the specific programs their states and districts were adopting.
But even if dissatisfied parents represent only scattered pockets of resistance, that resistance can be intense. In certain Detroit suburbs - particularly Birmingham, Troy, and Farmington - protesting parents have refused to allow their children to take the state test. In some towns, fewer than 15 percent of students participate in state testing - a number so small as to render any results meaningless. Statewide, last year, 22.5 percent of high school juniors opted out of the exam.
In California, Wisconsin, and Illinois, there have been instances of students either walking out of state tests in protest, or deliberately flunking them.
In Cambridge, Mass., Tim Wise and other parents created an alternative curriculum for Mr. Wise's son Jackson and four other students to occupy them on the days the other fourth-graders at Cambridge Court Elementary School prepared for and took a state test.
"There's a huge reservoir of resentment towards this test," says Wise, a researcher at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He questions the length of the state exam (eight hours), its difficulty, and its link to passage to the next grade. A reasonable test, he says, he could accept - but not the "thoroughly unreasonable, out-of-control behemoth" he believes the state test has become.
But it's not yet clear that those calling the shots are taking such protests seriously - although some are saying they should. "It's dangerous when policymakers get out there too far ahead of the parents," cautions Kathy Christie, policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "You get into trouble when you don't address the concerns of the majority - and sometimes you don't realize it's the majority until too late."
Boxing in education
The concerns driving O'Brien's campaign in Ohio - which includes staging protests, writing letters, and contacting parents around the state, urging them to exercise their rights to refuse to allow their children to take standardized tests - are similar to those voiced by parents in other parts of the country.
"They're taking my children's education and putting it in a really narrow measure," she says. Teachers who used to engage children in more creative ways are now spending all their time on test preparation, she laments. "They're dumbing the curriculum down."
Connie Gavin and Meredith Scrivner, mothers of school-age children in Whitefish Bay, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, cite loss of local control of education as another serious negative to the standards movement. "As soon as I heard [about the standards movement]," says Ms. Gavin, "I immediately thought, 'We're doing a great job in our community. Leave us alone.'"
Gavin and Ms. Scrivner - friends since two of their children began kindergarten together some years ago - quickly kicked into gear an e-mail network of Wisconsin parents. Soon these parents were traveling to Madison to make their concerns known to their state legislators.
Due at least in part to their efforts, Wisconsin legislators voted two weeks ago to soften the state's reliance on standardized tests as the sole criterion for determining whether or not kids pass from one grade to another.
"Wisconsin is the first significant victory" for the parents' movement, says Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve" and an outspoken opponent of the standards movement. But he predicts, "I see where the organizing is going and it's going to grow."
The best thing about involved parents, says Mr. Kohn, is that their concerns for their children have a high credibility level. "If teachers say testing is destructive to learning, they will be dismissed by politicians saying these are people who don't want to be held accountable," he says. "When parents are involved it's harder to dismiss them."
Turn detractors into supporters
Professor Reville agrees that the parents' movement - even if it remains a minority group - should not be taken lightly, particularly given its concentration in affluent and influential suburbs. But he believes the standards movement can turn some of these parents into supporters.
"We're entering into a bumpy period," he stresses. As the focus on accountability tightens and school districts begin holding back children who fail to pass the high-stakes tests, it's not surprising parents are becoming upset. Also, he says, some states have shown poor judgment in rushing headlong into high-stakes testing.
"You can't put standards into place one year and then fail students who don't meet them the next," he says. But he insists his confidence in the movement is not shaken by such errors. "If we're flexible, measured, and thoughtful in making adjustments, it will endure."
Many of the parents fighting the current drive in education say they could in fact be reconciled to the standards movement if it were being implemented in a more realistic fashion. Some say they like the idea of standards but worry that the material their kids are being required to learn is top-heavy with unnecessary facts and fails to take into account the need to offer training in skills.
At Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass., longtime English teacher Thomas Hooper has announced that he will not teach to the test. Bill Schechter, a history teacher at the school, has been holding open meetings for local parents for two years now to inform them of the dangers of the state's new program.
Mr. Schechter insists that neither he nor the parents he meets with would protest if the state standards were more realistic. "If they were more thoughtful, more skill-based, and leaner," he insists, teachers and parents would find a way to work with them. But as it stands, he sees no backing down from the current cause. "We're fighting for our schools, our kids, and our professions."
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