April 25, 2008 — -- When it's time each spring for Carl Chew to give his Seattle sixth-graders the federally required standardized tests, he can feel their anxiety.
They complain about stomachaches, they get sick and some of them just start to cry. Even the straight-A students.
For both teachers and young children, the annual Washington Assessment of Student Learning test creates an atmosphere "rife with fear," the science teacher at Nathan Eckstein Middle School told ABCNEWS.com.
"The WASL is presented in a secretive, cold and inhuman fashion," he said. "The teacher is not allowed to read the questions, or help, and the kids have to maintain silence for hours and hours. They are only allowed a bathroom break once in a while."
But after agonizing about the detrimental effects of standardized testing for several years, Chew did something about it last week. He refused to administer the test, which is the key measure of academic progress under the federally mandated No Child Left Behind law.
The WASL is just one of numerous high-stakes tests that now dominate the curricula of elementary schools across the country. A growing number of teacher and parents are rejecting these kind of tests, which have increased in frequency and gravitas after No Child Left Behind.
They rebel at their own peril, however. Chew was suspended for nine days without pay by his principal. But today -- sitting at home while a substitute teacher takes his place -- he is a rock star among parents and teachers who have blamed the testing for stamping out the love of learning in children.
"I have let my administration know that I will no longer give the WASL to my students," Chew wrote in an e-mail to national supporters. "I have done this because of the personal moral and ethical conviction that the WASL is harmful to students, teachers, schools and families."
The e-mail was circulated by Mothers Against the WASL, a group of activist parents who oppose the test. Chew received hundreds of letters from as far away as Hawaii and Canada, some of them from students.
"They have all said 'thank you, Mr. Chew, for standing up against WASL,'" he said.
One e-mail came from Beth Hovee of Vancouver, Wash., whose 8-year-old granddaughter Zoe fears reading because of a battery of repetitive speed tests.
"Drill and kill is the motto of the WASL," Hovee said. "She's a smart kid, but the pressure tests and teaching techniques make her hate school."
Zoe took her first WASL this week. "It gets really quiet in the room and the door is closed," she told ABCNEWS.com. "When you get stuck on a question, the teacher can't help. You don't know what to do and you have to figure it out."
Her 10-year-old brother Jonah -- a stellar student -- was traumatized by the WASL last year.
"They have this big rule about not going to the bathroom," his mother, Andrea Logue, said. "In the middle of testing he asks to go and the teacher said she was sorry, but we he couldn't leave. Much to his mortification, he wet his pants."
Incidents like these reassure Chew that his protest is important, but Seattle Public School spokesman David Tucker defended the suspension.
"Our expectation is that all schools will administer any and all state-required tests," he told ABCNEWS.com. "I am a parent as well. I think accountability is something we should definitely stress within the school district. We need to know where the children are academically and ensure that they reach levels they need to reach to move forward."
The popular Washington teacher is now a hero among national critics of the controversial 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which has faced numerous court challenges and has been actively opposed by state teacher unions and many school districts.
President Bush's sweeping education reform law, which is up for reauthorization, aims to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged and other students and to make schools more accountable. It requires states to set standards and assessments and mandates annual testing in reading and math for grades 3 through 8.
"Some children handle these tests well and some are sent over the edge," said Walter Gilliam of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. "What we need is good research."
Gilliam said No Child Left Behind places the wrong emphasis on accountability.
"It's one thing if we have tests for the sake of improving instruction for children," he told ABCNEWS.com "But it's quite another thing to give a test for the sake of holding adults accountable. What I would rather see is observing teachers as they teach, rather than shouldering it on children."
The WASL is given each spring to students in grades 3-8 and grade 10, and covers reading, writing, math and science. Starting this year, students had to pass reading and writing on the 10th-grade exam to graduate from high school. Students are graded as "below, meeting or exceeding" standards
"The teachers really play it up," said the father of a fourth-grader in the Lake Washington School District. He didn't want to be identified for fear of reprisals against his daughter.
"About three weeks ago we started getting e-mails from the other parents about bringing in brain food to support the kids through this tough period," he told ABCNEWS.com. "I thought it was pathetic to put 9-year-olds into that kind of test environment."
His district in Redmond serves highly competitive parents, many of whom work for Microsoft, which is headquartered there.
"They put pressure on kids to perform well," he said. "But the test serves no purpose. It's nothing more than a benchmark for the state. It's connected to money and teachers, who are clearly ranked. It does nothing for children."
Donald C. Orlich, professor emeritus of education at Washington State University and author of "School Reform: The Great American Brain Robbery," agrees the WASL is a "dreadful" test.
"It's a very poorly constructed test," he said. "There is a very high correlation between how well a student can read and do math. For those who are economically disadvantaged, they don't even have the vocabulary."
Orlich's research echoes one of Chew's complaints: that the WASL unfairly uses "white, upper-middle class language."
"I want to nominate him for teacher of the year," Orlich said. "In my book I call for that kind of behavior. We need nonviolent strikes against WASL."
One such teacher was Robert Allen, a middle school teacher in Arlington County, Wash., who was asked to resign after telling parents they could opt out of the WASL test.
"I was stunned there was no focus on basic skills," he told ABCNEWS.com. "The testing was never about facts or any real learning. It was very airy and fuzzy."
"It's not a standardized test at all," said Allen, 39, who now teaches in Tennessee and has "no problem" with achievement tests.
But Joe Willhoft, the state's assistant superintendent for assessment and student information, told ABCNEWS.com that the WASL is a good tool for measuring student achievement.
Only half the questions on the test require a written response, and experts make sure they have no "unfair and biasing features," Willhoft said. "For example, we don't use the words 'tennis' or 'golf.'"
Willhoft admits that some districts and teachers may exert undue pressure on children to perform.
"I don't think we are getting an overabundance of pressure from parents," he said. "But I do think teachers may feel the need to overmotivate students, and it's my hunch some comes from principals."
"Frankly, kids do well if they are somewhat motivated, but there is such a thing as being overmotivated," he said. "If students are taught state standards, the best we can do for the students is say, 'Here is the test, go ahead and do the best you can.'"
Meanwhile, he said teachers like Chew must comply with federal and state law. "We are disappointed this teacher made those particular choices," Willhoft said.
Chew, who is 60, said his act of civil disobedience will cost him about $1,000 over his nine-day absence. He knows it will go on his permanent record and he could ultimately be fired.
"It took me a few moments before I decided to do this," he said. "I did protesting around the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights in the '60s. But this was the first time I did something against a seemingly huge machine."
"I feel so strongly about this -- that it's bad for the kids and I have to do it," he said. "But I know from my own experience, I have to accept the consequences."