Assessment

Rebels With a Cause

By Drew Lindsay — April 05, 2000 3 min read
Sommerfeld became a martyr for the MCAS resistance.

Alex Sommerfeld is pretty much your typical teenager. Thin with close-cropped dark hair, he likes soccer, surfs the Internet for hours at a time, and is on intimate terms with profanity. He lives in a small, white-frame house in the Boston suburb of Danvers with his father. When his dad tells him to stop biting his nails, he tells his dad to shut up.

But for a brief moment last spring, Sommerfeld became a martyr for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System resistance. He and a handful of classmates at Danvers High School refused to take the test, earning themselves fame, notoriety, and several days of suspension from school. Sommerfeld’s protest may not have been in vain, however; as schools prepare for this month’s administration of the test, a student protest group is hosting anti-MCAS forums and organizing boycotters statewide.

Sommerfeld says the seeds for his protest were planted by his teachers, who kvetched about the assessment as they handed out practice tests and questions. Investigating research on standardized tests via the Internet, the 10th grader concluded that they were a joke. At the same time, his philosophy class was exploring the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, giving him ample models for ways to protest the MCAS. With classmate Melissa Parziale, he circulated a petition urging Danvers students to boycott the test, then told various newspapers and TV stations of their plans. “It snowballed from there,” Sommerfeld recalls. “When the day of the test came, Channel 4 was waiting at my door.”

Investigating research on standardized tests via the Internet, one 10th grader concluded that they were a joke.

Danvers students were not alone in their protest: Teenagers in Cambridge, Newton, and Boston also boycotted in apparently unrelated actions. Though the exact number of protesting students was never clear, there were enough to stir debate within Massachusetts about the validity of the test—and the youths’ action. Some critics dismissed the students as slackers, and state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll questioned their tactics. “I have very little sympathy or patience for the people who protest the test by not taking it,” he said at the time. “There are various ways to speak out against the test. But to conclude that because they don’t like the test that they’re not going to take it, that to me is not a show of courage.”

Still, allies of the teenage refuseniks, and even some school officials, say the students demonstrated a mature understanding of the stakes involved. Some Cambridge high schoolers decried the tests as biased against minority and disadvantaged students. “I was so taken by their strong sense of social justice,” says Lois Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Cambridge school system, which did not punish the youths.

Whether they know it or not, some of the students espouse a vision of education that squares nicely with Deweyan ideals. Melissa Parziale first questioned the MCAS when she saw her younger sister, then an 8th grader in special education classes, struggling with her school’s test prep. “It seemed to me that over half the stuff on the test is stuff that she hasn’t gotten to yet,” Parziale says. “And it’s totally unfair for her to have to do that. That’s not her style of education; that’s not her style of learning.”

Worried about her sister, she talked to some of her teachers about the test and did some research. The MCAS, she concluded, is moving schools in the wrong direction.

The MCAS, concluded another 10th grader, is moving schools in the wrong direction.

“Education is supposed to be something that touches and nourishes the soul,” she explains. “And filling in bubbles and teaching to the test doesn’t nourish my soul. When I walk out of my school, I feel drained, I feel violated, and I feel awful. That’s not how kids should feel when they’re in school. Education is supposed to be creative; each child has the right to a unique learning experience, and each child has their own style of learning.”

—Drew Lindsay

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A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2000 edition of Education Week as Rebels With a Cause

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