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Even some kids are encouraging students to opt out of standardized tests

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The move to refuse the state standardized tests scheduled for later this week is getting more vocal, as test dates approach for children in third through eighth grades. Teachers unions, and some parent organizations are organizing opt out sessions and email blasts meant to let families know how to refuse the tests that start Tuesday. For one Central New York family, keeping their children from taking the test sends a message to Albany about a complicated issue they say, goes deeper than using tests to measure teachers performance. 

Cora Gilbert is a fifth grader in the Jamesville-DeWitt School district in suburban Syracuse. She can tell the tests are coming, because of what she does at school. 

"Lately we’ve been having three periods of math, and three periods of ELA. So no science, or usually no social studies," said Gilbert. "And science is really the only thing I liked about school, because we got to do actual fun hands on stuff. We’re hatching shrimp in science, and we can’t do it any more because we’re preparing for the state tests so much.” 

Gilbert didn’t take the test last year, and will refuse again when the test regimen starts this week. She admits her parents, active in the opt out movement, have influenced her, and from a kid's point a view, the thing that bothers her is the connection of these tests to teacher evaluation. 

“I’m thinking if there is one student who just doesn’t pay attention, and the teacher is doing a great job for teaching, then the teacher will get a bad grade,”  said Gilbert.

Cora's mother, Jessica Sicherman, says she became impassioned about the issue after talking to her brother, a teacher. But for her the issue goes deeper than just teacher evaluations.

"Last year Cora had an amazing teacher, one of the best teacher’s I’ve ever met. And she would stand in front of the class during math, and teach from dittos she got online. And she had to study them the night before to make sure she understood it," said Sicherman. "It was very confusing and convoluted, and takes away spontaneity and creativity and all that stuff for teachers.” 

Sicherman believes the state’s focus on tests is slowly changing the way children are taught in public schools. And that’s what she wants other parents to know. 

"I don’t think they understand how much Albany is starting to take over and take control, and making changes little by little, to the point where things are changing at J-D, and there’s not much the principal and the teachers can do about it.” 

Sicherman’s husband, and Cora’s father, Michael Gilbert, is a school psychologist in the Syracuse City School District. He says he sees the impact of the tests in his job, as the district is forced to begin preparing kids for the tests as early as kindergarten. 

"There’s less time for social development and emotional development -- those skills that are needed as a foundation for learning. Our young students in the city aren’t having those skills develop, because they’re being pushed academically so hard so early," said Michael Gilbert. "That those other things are being neglected and we’re seeing a lot of kids struggling because of that.”

Michael Gilbert has spoken at various forums, trying to encourage more parents to think about letting their children opt out of the tests. Attendance is often sparse, though. And Sicherman says it’s been difficult to get attention on the issue in their own district. So they don’t expect many children to join Cora as she sits out the tests. 

"I think the problem is that parents trust their district. This is a great district. Nothing bad is going to happen to my kids cause J-D is a good district. Teachers are great. All of which is true. And a lot of this is out of the teachers control. And I don’t think the parents get that.” 

Sicherman doesn’t think there is enough of a ground swell of support in the opt-out movement at this point, to force Albany to make substantive changes.  

"I know that people are listening more," she said. "But the pendulum hasn’t swung back the other way. We need more parents to understand the enormity of this. This is not just about three days of testing, six days of testing. It’s so much bigger than that." 

For Cora Gilbert, other kids in her class just think she’s lucky she doesn’t have to take the tests. And she’s been talking it up. 

"I told them all about it, so they could tell other people," said Cora Gilbert." And maybe, maybe, if we keep on telling the people, maybe someday, everyone won’t take the state tests.” 

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.