Recent Dobbs Ferry Middle School graduate Lina Cavalcanti said everyone in her school has been talking about pineapples.
There was one question on the required state exams, she said, “The most ridiculous pineapple story ever,” involving a far-fetched scenario in which a pineapple challenges a rabbit to a race and gets eaten. Somehow the moral of the story: pineapples don't have sleeves.
"Huh?" was the collective reaction of many students.
This year, students statewide in grades three through eight were subjected to three days of 90-minute regular testing with select grades and schools spending an additional morning for field testing. The field tests are meant to try out questions for future testing, essentially using kids as focus groups. Many teachers cited errors in the questions or just head-scratchers like the pineapple one.
Though Cavalcanti, as an eighth grader, didn't have field tests this year, she is already dreading the high school regents exams to come. So much so that her mother Raquel Cavalcanti thought they would take action and come to Tarrytown for Thursday's small rally.
On this sweltering afternoon in front of , a group of representatives from area parent associations handed New York State Board of Education Regent Harry Phillips their petitions and even some invoices.
“It's the longest, hottest day, but that won't stop parents,” said Lisa Rudley.
Rudley, representing parent-run group Ossining Citizens for Schools, said that mandatory state testing has grown from seventy-five minutes in 2005 to nine hours in 2012. (Testing also used to start in fourth grade and now starts in third). Rudley is particularly involved in the plight of the autistic and other special needs children who may not qualify for alternative testing and fall into this same testing cohort. Sitting this long and taking tests is hard on any kid in these age groups, but she described “many crying and emotionally distressed” special needs kids.
One Sleepy Hollow mother said some months back her during just the test-prep period, which takes up a . She refused to subject her children to the tests themselves and boycotted them in the spring. But the story in the Tarrytown Union Free School District was anecdotal rather than a trend; while many parents here may have objected, their kids still took the test. Not so in Dobbs Ferry, where 35 percent of the kids declined at least the field test part of their testing.
Flanked by representatives from Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Harrison, Ossining, and Somers with their own petitions (Ardsley, Nyack, Valley Cottage and Scarsdale folk weren't present but submitted lists of names as well), David Neilson, Tarrytown EPTA president, was the first to hand Phillips the names of objectors, comments and a bill for the expenses incurred by the schools and parents for using the children as focus groups.
The state-mandated field tests, wrote Neilson in an email earlier, "had no bearing on their schooling, their teachers, or their districts. These tests were only used to provide free focus group testing to Pearson, a for-profit company that has a $32 million contract with NY State to provide standardized tests."
Phillips was was gracious at the rally and said "I sure am [on the parents' side]," when questioned about his former PTA presidency and former role as chair of the Westchester Community College board.
“He's a good guy,” noted Neilson, though he wondered how much power Phillips really wielded in the face of such things like .
“I think we made the wrong decision,” admitted Phillips, “and I assure you we are going to listen. We realize the questions weren't good and we didn't accomplish what we wanted and we'll pay a price...The field test will not happen the same way next year.”
Most likely, Phillips said, the field questions would be embedded into the regular tests. But he admitted the difficulties of “pushing back against this corporate mentality."
In two years, state tests are slated to be computerized across the board. Some wondered about resource deficiencies in this scenario: if there would be enough broadband in all points of the state and enough capacity within each school to give the students the tests all at once.
“It's another unfunded mandate unless they supply the computers,” pointed out Neilson.
Raquel Cavalcanti said she works at the White Plains Public Library and deals daily with technology and its importance in getting messages out, and on the flip side, how its lack can leave less privileged groups less informed. She figured Dobbs Ferry was successful in their boycott because a tiny district makes for greater ease in creating a close-knit community with the help of a good emailing campaign.
“I'm heartened that so many districts did send their representatives, but we need to participate more,” Raquel Cavalcanti said.
“I wanted to give her perspective that we shouldn't be putting so much stress on our kids,” Cavalcanti said of her daughter Lina, by her side. “She's an excellent student and an independent thinker. I wanted to show her what it's like to stand up and be here in protest without shooting each other.”
Though today's agenda specifically targeted on field testing, Raquel Cavalcanti spoke of a larger movement afoot for individualized rather generalized testing.
Regent Phillips, was honest in his assessment that there were many bigger problems hurting the schools beyond field testing: “There are worse things."
Lina Cavalcanti said she wrote in the margins of her tests last year, “Okay you State People, this testing is wrong.”