Dawn Dunn knew something was amiss when she could no longer help her son, Logan Abdat, with his nightly homework.
Over the past year, Ms. Dunn says her son went from having an hour of homework to as many as three hours each night — and that’s only in math. Logan is 10 years old and in the fifth grade at the Springs School.
Ms. Dunn came to dread the nightly routine. After Logan complained of headaches and stomachaches and the two collapsed into fits of tears on multiple occasions, she finally decided that enough was enough.
“He was crying. I was crying. That’s it. We’re done,” Ms. Dunn said on Monday. She works at WordHampton, a local public relations firm. Her husband teaches Spanish at the Springs School. “Now, almost every piece of homework says test prep on it. It’s too much testing and it’s not working. The kids are completely stressed out.”
All this week, Ms. Dunn has opted her son out of taking part in the annual high-stakes math exam. She is part of a small but vocal group of local parents that have similarly sent in letters of refusal and whose children will be excluded from picking up No. 2 pencils and filling in bubble sheets for hours at a stretch.
Across New York State, students in third through eighth grades took the English language arts exam last month, with the math exam administered yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is the second year that students are being assessed using the new national Common Core learning standards, intended to improve critical thinking and enhance problem solving skills. Last year, during the first year of its implementation, districts across the state, including many on the South Fork, reported a sharp decline in test scores.
In the intervening months, the opt-out movement has grown, with parents across Long Island and New York City banding together to boycott the exams. Change the Stakes, a New York City advocacy group, estimates that as many as 1,000 city students declined this year’s test. Last year, 276 students opted out citywide. And across Nassau and Suffolk counties, thousands sat out the recent E.L.A. exam, with growing numbers expected to refuse this week’s exam as well.
Ms. Dunn, along with several parents, first began hearing inklings of a growing opt-out movement on Facebook. Long Island Opt-Out Info, a particularly active group, has nearly 17,000 members, with multiple, impassioned posts occurring throughout the day. Inspired by its popularity, Ms. Dunn recently started another Facebook group. The South Fork Alliance for Common Sense Education now claims around 50 members.
Here on the South Fork, Ms. Dunn is the first to concede that the numbers are quite small by comparison.
At the Montauk Public School, eight students sat out the English exam and nine opted out of the math exam. Amagansett School reported no refusals and Bridgehampton had 1 student who declined yesterday’s math exam. The Springs School, meanwhile, reported 20 refusals, with the East Hampton School District reporting 3 for English and 2 for math.
“If more than 95 percent of kids don’t take the test, you can supposedly be called a school in need of improvement,” explained Jack Perna, the Montauk superintendent. “But with this growing opt-out movement, who knows what the state will do?”
“I respect the right of a parent to refuse to have their children take the state assessments. It is my job to administer the tests on behalf of the state and support our superintendent to define the response of the district to the parents who have chosen to exclude their children from the exams,” said Eric Casale, the principal of the Springs School. “To them, I have said this: We will always treat our students with care and compassion, and that will certainly be the case in these instances.”
Gail Simons, who lives in Montauk and has two children at the Montauk School, counts hers among the handful of families who have opted out.
Of the challenge in recruiting more families, she says geography plays a definitive role. “We have a small population out here. It’s a different mindset. People are more laid back and not as competitive,” Ms. Simons said Tuesday afternoon. “In Montauk, it’s status quo.”
Ms. Simons works as a business manager for a local landscaping company. Her daughter, a third grader, and son, a seventh grader, refused both exams.
Over the past few months, once she started researching the Common Core, Ms. Simons said it became a bit of an obsession. Though she described herself as “quite liberal,” she conceded that many opposing the test tend toward the more conservative end of the political spectrum.
To opt her children out of the exams, she sent in what she described as a “stern refusal letter” to teachers and the superintendent — basically anyone who would come into contact with either of her children.
In general, she described administrators and teachers as “extremely supportive of the refusals.” During the blocks of state testing, her children were sent to the school’s art room, where they worked on art projects, read, and completed assigned packets of work.
At the Springs School, Lily Valleau-Lowney, a fifth grader, sat out this week’s math exam in the library along with nearly two dozen of her peers.
Her mother, Lynn-Marie Valleau, who helps run a wine store in East Hampton, sent her daughter with a packet of work to complete, downloaded from Education.com, a website geared toward parents looking to provide their children with supplementary educational materials. Her father, James Lowney, works in real estate.
“They started changing things and making guinea pigs out of our children,” Ms. Valleau said of her opposition to the Common Core and what she described as an increased emphasis on test preparation. Last spring, her daughter reported that the test had included material they had never encountered. Since last spring’s exam, Ms. Valleau has observed a huge uptick in the number of students now qualifying for academic support services.
“When a whole school needs after-school help in math and English, don’t tell me there’s not something wrong,” she said. “I think children need to be children. You don’t have to start getting ready for the SATs and college in these younger grades. Let them have a childhood. I turned out okay.”
So far, at least, Ms. Dunn describes the movement as grassroots. She, too, has had a difficult time recruiting more parents. “Our life is fine. My kid is doing fine. It’s just a test,” she said, explaining what she perceives as the pervasive mind-set. “They don’t want to take the time to get involved and find out more.”
Mostly, she sees it as a political battle, with Bill Gates, the education philanthropist, Pearson, the testing company, and the federal government as the primary targets of her frustration.
Over the summer months and into the fall, she hopes to recruit other parents who share in her sense of outrage.
“I want him to have a nice childhood,” said Ms. Dunn, referring to her son, Logan. “I feel like it’s being taken away.”