A kid, a No. 2 yellow pencil, a list of test questions and a piece of paper for the answers.
That's the kind of tests kids have been taking for centuries, but come test time next week, the stakes are higher than ever before.
For the students, it means not just eventually whether they get a high school degree, but if they will get into advanced classes or extra-help programs.
It means how they learn and what they learn, and the tests are at the heart of it.
For teachers, the stress on the new testing will guide their classroom instruction. It also means their livelihood; the new "high-stakes" tests link their jobs with how well their students score.
Some call the new paradigm accountability and long overdue; others call it mind-numbing and a distraction from real learning.
Time to opt out?
On the evening of April 2, a small group of parents and educators gathered in the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz to plan a bit of civil disobedience: Having students "opt out" of the state's new tests.
Through their Facebook page and word of mouth, the New Paltz-based group — Re-Thinking Testing: Mid-Hudson Region — has been sounding the alarm on what they say are the negative consequences of the state's new teacher evaluation system — what they call high-stakes testing.
In a few weeks, after three years of work on implementation by teachers and administrators supported by Race to the Top-funded Network Teams, students in grades three to eight will, for the first time, take assessments that reflect the state Common Core Learning Standards.
So on April 16, when thousands of students in the region are mandated to sit for the tests, the group is asking parents to consider having children opt out and join their parents at a rally against the tests on the steps of the Capitol in Albany.
"It's important for parents to be vocal and make a big stink about this," said Bianca Tanis, a Re-Thinking member. "It's really about public awareness and the court of public opinion."
Boycotting the tests could be risky, members of the opposition group said. Kids who take off may — may — lose access to accelerated programs. They also weren't sure how boycotting would affect teachers' evaluations.
Re-Thinking Testing member Cynthia Listort, a New Paltz parent and Kingston City School District teacher, said she's unhappy with all the time her children are sitting for tests that aren't measuring their abilities.
Her kids are opting out.
"These tests are crowding out everything we know about multiple intelligence," said Listort.
After the meeting, New Paltz parent Elsie Gold said she would have her child opt out of the test. She said she thinks the tests are a way for large testing corporations to make money and don't test the full abilities of a child.
"To me it's corporate greed that's taking precedence over education. It's teaching to the test as opposed to doing problem-solving and critical thinking," said Gold.
School boards, officials weigh in
The Re-Thinking Testing group isn't alone. Boards of education from Kingston, Rondout and New Paltz school districts have all passed resolutions against the testing.
Middletown School District Superintendent Ken Eastwood issued a letter last month calling on state and education leaders to not weigh the test grades in teachers' evaluation formulas, which he said count toward 25 percent of their evaluation as per state law. The Middletown school board voted last week to urge an end to the overreliance on tests.
Eastwood said student results will still fall largely along socioeconomic lines, regardless of the new standards, tests and evaluations.
"People are finally getting totally disgusted with what's going on here," said Eastwood.
Cost of implementing the tests in the next few years will also increase, according to the New York State School Boards Association. The Association said the cost will exceed the federal Race to the Top money to fund it. That will put the onus to pay for the changes on cash-strapped local districts, said the Association.
Districts will eventually be required to take the new tests online, Eastwood said. "When we have to tell parents that we're going to cut music, art, sports or other programs because we have to implement online testing, that's when people are really going to go berserk," he said.
Shifts in testing are stressful
In a letter in late March, State Education Commissioner John King said he expects students to score lower on the tests this year due to the changes in how they're scored — yet doesn't expect teachers' evaluation scores to be impacted because either way, similar proportions of educators will end up in each of the state's four rating categories.
In King's letter to educators, he acknowledged how stressful the new changes can be, especially with the tough new goals and standards of the new tests.
But, he said, "We owe it to our students to move forward. Opportunity awaits them and it's our responsibility to make sure they're equipped to seize that opportunity."