Roy Exum: The Momma Bears Roar

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

If I could count Hamilton County’s best educators on one hand, Normal Park Elementary Principal Jill Levine would be the biggest finger. What she and her faculty and a dazzling commitment from both her students and parents have accomplished is an educational dream. I am told people literally move to North Chattanooga just so their children will be zoned for the award-winning school.

But, oh my, what it this? It has been reported over 140 parents at Normal Park have pulled their children out of the state of Tennessee’s mandated standardized testing. That alone is a pretty clear indicator the best of the best – these devoted parents – want what is good and right for their children. I believe they have done much due diligence and are now standing up for what they sincerely believe.

Jill was quoted in Friday’s Times Free Press as saying, “For years we have asked people to speak out about public education. We are at the point now where parents are speaking out, and advocating, and as educators we need to respect that.”

But Ashley Hall, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education, is saying – not so fast, Pilgrim -- that’s not legal. “Given both the importance and legal obligation, our department’s policy is that parents may not opt a child out of participating in state assessments.”

And that’s when the Momma Bears began to roar. There is a website ( that is quite vocal on all matters of education in Tennessee. According to the website, the rightful definition of a Momma Bear is “Momma Bear (noun) 1. One of the most protective animals in all of nature, known for providing and caring for her cubs 2. A parent fiercely devoted to protecting her children. "Woe be to one who provokes the wrath of the mother bear from protecting her young."  3. Known as one of the most powerful forces in nature "Never, ever, ever cross a Momma Bear” (verb) 1. Taking action to protect children. "I'm gonna Momma Bear that politician for selling my children's education." 

I’m thinking the Department of Education wants no part of a growing group of determined Momma Bears and to illustrate my point I am going to share with you a letter that just appeared on the Momma Bear blog. It was written by Ruth and Mike Stewart of Nashville. She is a Momma Bear and he’s a lawyer. Just so you’ll know, Mike has also been a member of the State Legislature since 2008, representing East Nashville. Here is the letter Stewarts just delivered to the Metro Nashville Public Schools:

* * *

Please accept this letter as a record of my decision to refuse for (name redacted for privacy) to participate in TN Ready/TnReady TCAP test and pretests at (school name redacted for privacy) for the remaining school year. My refusal to allow (child's name)  to participate is because I believe standardized high stakes testing take away time from the instructional experiences my child might otherwise receive.

I want more teaching and learning, and less testing! I am aware that there is no “opt out” clause in the state of Tennessee. But the state has yet to provide any legal documentation that my child may not exercise his or her right to refuse the tests.

I understand that it is state and local policy to require all students are to be evaluated for proficiency in various subject areas at each grade level. However, I believe that testing is not synonymous with standardized testing and request that the school and my child’s teacher(s) evaluate her progress using alternative measures including project-based assignments, teacher-made tests, portfolios, and performance-based assessments.

(Child's name) is prepared to come to school every day during the testing window with alternative meaningful, self-directed learning activities that support the essential curriculum, or is willing to participate in other meaningful activities as determined by the school or her teachers during testing times. Please let me know beforehand what I can expect as far as instructional experiences (child's name) will experience during testing windows.

I am happy to develop material for her if the teachers believe this is appropriate. I have a tremendous respect for (child's name)'s teachers and her school. My issue is with frequent high-stakes standardized testing and the harm it does to children, teachers, and our public schools.

Respectfully yours /s/ Ruth Stewart

* * *

What is equally interesting is that there seems to be a movement underway from other top-tier schools like Hamilton County’s Normal Park. One of the best public schools in Memphis is White Station High School. Parents literally camp out on the school’s lawn in attempts to get their children a seat in the place.

It seems that a cluster of the high school’s students, as a result of advocacy they were taught in a civics class, have delivered a stream of emails that have flashed all over Memphis in both English and Spanish (there is a sizable number of Hispanic students) and it reads:

* * *

Dear Teacher:

As you may have noticed, the quantity and duration of standardized tests have increased astronomically in recent years. We feel that these tests take away from instructional time, waste valuable resources, constrict our curricula, and still fail to provide an accurate measure of progress that would justify the losses they incur.

My peers and I have decided to try and change standardized testing policy by creating and supporting a bill to limit the damaging effects of standardized testing. We request that you help us achieve this.

Attached to this email are a number of relevant documents. First, we have letters for parents and students to help educate them on the situation. Many parents have no idea how all-encompassing testing has become and many students are unaware of what they can do to fix it. Please copy these letters and distribute them to your students. We have written both English and Spanish versions of these letters to ensure that they reach as many people as possible.

Second, we are providing surveys for teachers, parents, and students. In order to effect any sort of change, we need as much support as possible. Please have your students complete the surveys and bring them home to their parents to fill out. You can send the compiled information from your school to White Station High School either by email or school mail.

We are also sending petitions to the state representatives of Tennessee asking them to reduce standardized testing. If you think standardized testing is going too far, please add your signature to the petition. Since a more personal approach carries emotional weight, we will also send a contact list for local and state representatives so that you and your students can inform them of your concerns.

It may seem a bit far-fetched for a group of high school students to try and change government policy, but we are organized, we are prepared, we are united, and we are willing to do everything in our power to reduce standardized testing and reclaim our education.
Sincerely /s/ Shelby County Students

* * *

So why is there suddenly an uproar over standardized tests, some that require 360 minutes to take? As the Momma Bears website explains, “It is our hope that this group will connect lots and lots of Momma Bears, because we are stronger together than as individuals.  Together, we must protect our children and public schools and we must also support the teachers who nurture, inspire, and protect our children.”

Wow, I am thinking that this uprising could be wonderful.

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