No Child Left Behind created its first "conscientious objector" this week. On Tuesday, middle school teacher David Wasserman, 36, who instructs a multi-grade class at the Sennett Middle School in Madison, Wis., opted to sit in the teachers' lounge rather than administer the state exam, which is required under the controversial federal law. After word of his protest was reported in the local paper, then picked up by a newswire, he was deluged with congratulatory phone calls and messages of support from across the nation. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Peg Tyre about his actions. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Was this a spontaneous protest?
David Wasserman: No. I gave my principal a heads-up that this was coming. I did it in a way that my students wouldn't be aware of what was happening on their test day.
Why did you take this stand?
I feel that the tests assess academic achievement in biased ways, with a challenging and confusing format of questions and answers. The tests don't engage thinking, questioning or connecting—ideas that we reinforce in our school the rest of the year.
What kind of statement were you trying to make?
That the tests have a negative impact—financially, morally and emotionally—on kids, the parents and the community. They aren't positive for teachers either. They are not learning tools. As teachers, we don't learn how kids did or didn't do on the tests so that we can improve. The scores are released to the media directly, so they can highlight schools that haven't made Adequate Yearly Progress [the standard under the law]. The teachers must take that blow and then somehow rally to raise those scores without the information they need and with even less support from the community.
What has been the response to your actions?
Overwhelmingly supportive and positive. I'm getting e-mails from all over the country, most of them saying "Bravo, I support you. I believe the same thing."
Aren't tests important to measure whether or not kids are learning?
The state test is one type of assessment. It only measures one type of learning. Only one type of learner can successfully show what they know. We are leaving out a huge majority of children.
But haven't the state tests been useful and important tools to underscore the achievement gaps between poor kids, kids of color and middle-class white kids?
If there is a gap, it's not because there is a gap in true academic achievement of the students. What you are seeing is a bias in the testing. If we had an aural language assessment [a test using the spoken word], for example, we'd have different test results that would show less of a gap between those groups.
How did your students respond to your protest?
At first, they didn't know about it. But when they found out, they were amazing. It's opened up a big conversation about testing. With their parents, it's opened up a big conversation about teaching. Kids and parents are now looking hard at what No Child Left Behind means to them.
Do you think other teachers should follow your example?
I think there are a lot of teachers who feel the same way I do. I think we need to start talking about it—good thoughtful conversations, and not just with people who agree with you. I think parents need to know that they have options. They should e-mail their school board or contact their elected officials. We need to make this discussion a bigger part of the presidential debates. Parents also have the right to opt out of the testing for their children. They should exercise that right.
You received an official reprimand from your district officials and proctored the second day of exams in order to keep your job. Was your protest a success?
I think so. Yes. I know what I feel and I feel strongly enough to act in certain ways in order to stimulate positive conversation and interaction.