New York’s Education Rebellion

Have you ever heard of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791? It represented the first instance of a sustained anti-government protest in the United States. Although President George Washington employed federal troops to decisively squash that uprising, Americans have continued to stage protests since that time.

Indeed, from the military draft riots of the 1860s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and then on to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests of the 21st century, Americans have continued to rally against their own government’s policies and practices. And today, the ongoing public demonstrations against police brutality extend this established tradition.

Every so often, though, social rebellion tends to erupt in unusual venues. Did any one expect, for instance, the suburban parents of grade school children in New York State to rebel against school testing practices?

The recent governmental emphasis on standardized tests originated in the No Child Left Behind law a decade ago. It then expanded under the recent Common Core initiative. But why are parents in New York now so concerned?

Apparently, the parents believe that an over-emphasis on testing is creating a destructive high pressure, high stakes culture that diverts resources from learning activities and encourages “teaching to the test.” They do have a point; after all, eight grade school educators in the Atlanta school system just received prison sentences for helping students cheat on their standardized exams.

New York is facing a similarly challenging situation because parents in the Empire State can elect to opt out of testing activities. In much the same way that California’s “opt out of pediatric immunizations” policy led to a measles outbreak and a public health crisis, New York’s “opt out of standardized testing” policy is leading to a public education crisis.

That’s because the bedrock foundation of any standardized testing activity is the presumption that the results of the tests are representative of the students in the education system. Once significant numbers of students opt out, an assessment system solely based on testing has no alternative means to gauge their needs.

Imagine, for instance, a restaurant owner who decides to transform his entire menu on the basis of information from a handful of little customer feedback cards. If many of his paying customers decline to hand in their cards, should the owner rely solely on the feedback that he receives from a few patrons?

At the moment, New York State Education officials are both exhorting and threatening parents who wish to opt out of the testing process. Many officials are encouraging parents who have already opted out to change their minds and opt back into the system. But no official has yet launched any initiative to address their complaints.

In a society where teachers risk prison to help students cheat, though, why not directly address the high pressure, high stakes testing culture? After all, if America’s Whiskey Producers, Civil Rights Protestors, Tea Partiers, and Wall Street Occupiers never responded to simple requests to cease their protests, why would the soccer moms of New York State act any differently today?