Nearly two dozen districts across the state last year forced students who refused to take state standardized tests to "sit and stare" during the testing period. No books, no drawing. Students as young as 8 years old were forced to sit and stare at the walls for as long as 10 hours over three days.
In the Rush-Henrietta school district, a Rochester suburb, a middle- school boy whose parents opted him out of state testing was not allowed to play two games of baseball or attend practices. Not only did the school punish him for being "insubordinate," it reportedly sent sheriff's deputies to the ball field to make sure he didn't play, according to court documents.
Other schools took away recess for elementary children whose parents chose to remove them from testing.
When NYSUT heard about these practices and growing concerns that more districts plan to use them this year to pressure parents to have their children take the state tests, NYSUT issued a press statement condemning "sit and stare" policies. NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi called on districts to provide constructive alternatives for students who opt out of taking state tests.
"Punishing or embarrassing children because their parents exercised their right to choose not to have their children participate in tests they consider inappropriate is, frankly, abusive," Iannuzzi said.
With the next round of state assessments later this spring, Iannuzzi is calling on the State Education Department and Board of Regents to put an end to these "unconscionable" practices and provide clear guidelines to districts about how they should handle instances when parents choose to opt their children out of testing.
Knowing that parents will ask NYSUT members questions as they decide whether their children should take the state tests, Iannuzzi also sent guidance on this issue to local presidents in February.
While NYSUT does not encourage or discourage decisions by parents to "opt out" of state testing, the union strongly supports a parent's right to "opt out" of state standardized tests if the parent believes state testing is inappropriate and may be harmful to his or her child.
NYSUT will vigorously defend members who are the subject of any negative employment action for choosing to "opt out" their own children, and will vigorously defend members' right to speak, as concerned citizens, about the overreliance on state standardized testing.
Iannuzzi is urging local union leaders to join with parents to advocate for district policies that provide a supportive testing environment for all students and constructive alternatives for students whose parents have opted them out of state testing.
"Having the students 'sit and stare' is not only harmful to the child who is refusing to take the test, it's a policy that is very distracting to the other students in the room," Iannuzzi said.
The Regents and SED must step in and craft guidelines that protect students from harmful policies that result from parents exercising their right to decide what's best for their child," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "It's not acceptable for SED to skirt its responsibility and say this is a local decision. It cannot punt on this practice."
Jeanette Deutermann, a Long Island parent activist who co-founded New York State Allies for Public Education, said her group appreciates NYSUT's strong stand.
"We need to work together with union leaders, educators and legislators to convince these 'sit and stare' school districts to do the right thing," Deutermann said. "While the vast majority of districts are allowing students to read a book or go in another room for quiet educational activities, others are abusing their power and trying to intimidate parents. They're threatening to withhold honors classes or refusing to let kids participate in extracurricular activities."
After Deutermann wrote a letter to many districts making it clear there is nothing in current SED policy requiring "sit and stare," an attorney for the East Meadow school district fired back a letter warning that her "characterization" of the district's procedures was "inaccurate and may constitute libel and defamation."
"That's the kind of bullying we're dealing with," Deutermann said. "You can't do that to parents."
Deutermann noted several districts have backed down when local teacher union leaders and parents have worked together to challenge the policy.
"Forcing teachers to carry out these testing policies is cruel," Deutermann said. "Think about it: If a child came to a teacher saying 'At home my parents make me sit in a timeout chair with nothing to do for three hours every day,' the teacher — as a mandated reporter — would be required to report it."
It is important to note that SED test administration manuals give schools the option to allow students to read if they have completed the test — an option that districts at a minimum could allow for students opting out. The better approach is an alternative setting that offers a meaningful learning environment.