Thursday, February 24, 2005

A School Exam's Conscientious Objector

February 24, 2005


EDINBURG, Tex., Feb. 23-Macario Guajardo was one child left behind Wednesday when his classmates took the all-important Texas statewide reading test for promotion to the sixth grade.

Actually, 11-year-old Macario, an unlikely crusader at 4-foot-11 and 93 pounds, wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt, left himself behind. He stayed out of school in protest against what he called "the big deal" of the testing program, which he said "keeps kids from expressing their imagination."

"I don't think I'm brave," Macario said at his home here in the Rio Grande Valley. "Any kid could do this. It does take a little bit of guts."

Amid sharp critiques of the Texas-inspired federal education law called No Child Left Behind and its mandatory annual testing to measure school success or failure, a handful of students like Macario have taken the risky step of boycotting their tests. Some students say that the state tests, some of which predate the federal program, focus the learning process on test preparation.

"The protests are very significant; I just think they're nearing the breaking point," said Angela Valenzuela, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas and the editor of a collection of critical essays, "Leaving Children Behind," published recently by the State University of New York Press.

In San Antonio on Tuesday, a 14-year-old high school freshman, Mia Kang, refused to take the required reading test, known as the TAKS, for Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Two years ago, another San Antonio freshman, Kimberly Marciniak, 15, made headlines when she boycotted the same reading test in its debut year.

Also in 2003, two Washington State high school sophomores refused to take that state's mandatory exams. In 2002, parents in Scarsdale, N.Y., organized a boycott of the eighth-grade test.

And in Stewart, Ohio, a high school senior, John Wood, 17, who has refused to take any statewide test since the seventh grade, has lost out on graduating this spring. That poses a quandary for his father, George, who is co-editor of "Many Children Left Behind," a 2004 book critical of the federal law, but is also principal of John's school and must keep him from graduating. George Wood said he supported his son, who has been accepted by two private colleges.

In Texas, students like Macario who do not pass a state assessment test can be promoted only if a panel of the child's parents, teachers and principal all agree to make an exception.

"The children are really hurting themselves," said Debbie Graves Ratcliff, a spokeswoman in Austin for the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the state's school system. Ms. Ratcliff said that each year three million students from grades 3 to 11 took the assessment tests in, depending on their grade, math, reading, writing, English language arts, science and social studies. Boycotts are "a rarity," she said.

She defended the current tests as "harder, covering more grades and more subjects."

The current statewide testing system in Texas grew out of an accountability movement fostered by Ross Perot in the 1980's. Jose Luis Salinas, superintendent of Macario's district, acknowledged that "a lot of critics feel we are teaching to the test and not to the child," adding, "As an individual I think a lot of that is true." But Mr. Salinas, with 32 years as an educator, said that "as the individual in charge, I must follow the law. This district stands behind the Legislature, regardless of what some of us may feel."

Alfie Kohn, a Boston speaker and writer on education and the author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve," said, "People are scared to death in Texas to speak out." He added, "The use of fear and coercion to raise test scores has teachers despondent."

Macario's parents, both educators, said they supported his action without trying to influence him either way although, they said, he had been under such stress over the past two years from a succession of substitute teachers and previous assessment tests that he had developed a nervous tic.

His father, Francisco, 40, a former high school teacher, is a professor of education at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg. His mother, Yvonne, 40, teaches computer skills at Edinburg North High School and runs a local dance studio where Macario, his brother Daniel, 15, and sister Andrea, 13, study ballet. Daniel and Andrea are taking the assessment tests but say they applaud Macario's stance.

A year ago, to take to an educational conference, Mr. Guajardo made a videotape of Macario giving a critique of the school system. It seems to have planted a seed with Macario.

Last October, his father said, Macario, a student at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, which has earned an "Exemplary" rating for its test scores, "sat me down and said: 'Dad, we need to talk. This is serious. I want to protest the TAKS test.' "

Mr. Guajardo said he told Macario to "let it rest for a month, to see if he would get over it."

But he did not, telling his father, as the boy recalled: "I think we should be doing other creative things that helps kids express their imagination. We don't do any art. We don't get enough recess."

Mr. Guajardo suggested that Macario poll his classmates. Macario, who had earlier been elected class representative, said that he asked his teacher if he could speak to them, and that "she was very supportive."

He made several speeches to the class. "I mentioned the stuff and why I disagreed with this law and how it keeps kids from expressing their imagination," he said.

Father and son also met with the principal, who, Macario said, tried to change his mind. But Macario said he insisted: "I'm still not going to take it. I had better stick to my beliefs."

As word circulated last week with an article in the Spanish-language newspaper Rumbo and two reports on local television, supporters came forward. Frank M. Gonzales, a neighbor of the Guajardos and a former high school principal, said his son, a lawyer, would be ready to help with a lawsuit.

"I'm not against testing," Mr. Gonzales said, "I'm against how they're using it."

Macario said he wanted to be careful how he spent his day of protest. "I didn't want to do something that makes me look like I'm wasting time," he said. He ended up going with his father to visit his grandparents at their nearby farm in Elsa to play with their goats and sheep and try out some chili recipes - he is a pepper devotee. And he read about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Thursday was set aside for make-up tests for those who missed Wednesday and Macario said he would skip those, too, although he would attend school.

He had another idea, too. He asked his father if he could go to Austin, the state capital. "I want to talk to the government," he said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


  1. While reading this article, I was most struck by the TEA quote that the reporter used. While it is hard to extrapolate the larger conversation or even the context of the quote( and I am more than willing to say that this quote is taken from a lengthy conversation), its inclusion, and the implication that it represents the way that teachers and educators feel about testing, is problematic. The idea that Ms. Graves Radcliffee posits, that the test being "harder" somehow qualifies the TAKS and makes it a valid assessment of a student's knowledge is faulty and irrelevant. It is not only the material on the test but the way that the test is administered and constructed to be "the method" for assessment that these students, and many others, have an objection to. I have an idea--why don't we talk to "regular" teachers who have to adminster the test on a yearly basis to see if the "harder" content really does make the test defendable.

  2. I am particularly proud that these very young and brave students all over the country are standing up for what they believe are being taken from them. The enormous attention schools these days are putting towards these high stakes testing has crippled our creative geniuses in local, state, and nationwide school districts. Programs such as the fine arts which are always under budgeted are being cut even more due to students seeing the lack of career endeavors of such fields. I feel that students that wish to stand up to the failing system should be rewarded by universities based on other criterion like: community service, fine art grades, character, and overall achievement. As stated by the article two privet universities have already offered school admission to the young Ohioan who has refused to take the state mandated test, I think this trend would continue should more students continue to stand up to their personal beliefs on the educational system that educates them and not policy makers. Slowly a few more schools will begin to take into account factors other than testing. This slow but steady domino effect will happen if other competing institutions begin to see the quality of students they have missed out on. Although this is a long solution and would probably require a number of cases studies, I am positive research would show that testing is not the only determinant in the intelligence and well being of these students.