The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!

The First Rule of Test Club is We Don’t Talk About Test Club

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How can you criticize standardized testing if you aren’t allowed to talk about the tests?

To show why these assessments are bad, you have to be able to mention specific questions on the exams.

But if you do that, you will be violating the test company’s copyright and thus be subject to legal action.

So there will be no discussion of your concerns, no defense of the questions in question. Instead you’ll be threatened to silence.

This is the Catch-22 for teachers, parents and children throughout the nation.

We know the federally mandated high stakes assessments public school children must take are poorly constructed, culturally and racially biased, and ultimately unfair. But if we speak up in public with any kind of specificity, we’re threatened with steep fines. And if we write about it on-line, those articles will be taken down, censored or otherwise disappeared.

This is what happened to Prof. Celia Oyler of Teachers College, Columbia University this week when she posted an anonymous classroom teacher’s critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam on her blog.

Since the article reproduced three live questions from the exam, Oyler received a threatening email from PARCC CEO Laura Slover.

Oyler acquiesced to the CEO’s demand that she remove the PARCC questions, but she did not – as Slover commanded – reveal the name of her source. Oyler is debating legal action of her own against the testing company.

Meanwhile, education bloggers across the country have engaged in civil disobedience by reprinting Oyler’s entire post along with the PARCC questions. Many of these articles have been taken down by Twitter, Facebook or other Internet enforcers.

It’s a sad day in America when free speech is treated so disdainfully.

These PARCC questions are considered private property, but in many important ways they are not. They were developed at public expense. They were funded by taxpayers for use in our public schools. As such, they should be subject to public review.

And we may review them – privately. Ostensibly anyone could ask their local school district officials to be allowed to come in to the principal’s office and look over the tests. In fact, this is one of the first steps parents go through to opt their children out of taking the exams. You can page through the tests with supervision so you don’t make any copies or remove any materials from the building.

I’m sorry. This is just not the same thing as putting these tests under public scrutiny.

I can look at them, myself, and make up my own mind. So can you. We can even meet and talk about this together in our own private homes. But the second I go to a public forum like a school board meeting and begin to discuss these assessments in any detail, I can be charged with breaking the testing company’s copyright.

And so can my child. In fact, multiple students have already been harassed on-line by test corporation Pearson for allegedly talking about their exams.

This begs several questions: Can we legally hold minors accountable to such contracts without first providing them with legal representation of their own? Moreover, can they be forced to enter into these agreements without the presence of their parents or guardians?

However, there is an even more basic question with more far-reaching implications for the entire high stakes enterprise: How can experts explain what is wrong with the tests, if they can’t talk about anything on the tests?

Oyler mentions a question from the 4th Grade PARCC exam that is written at least two years above the grade level being assessed. Students are asked to read at a level beyond their years in order to find an answer. That’s patently unfair. But it’s one thing to make that claim – it’s quite another to point to the exact question and prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Unfortunately, this vital fact is being completely ignored. The testing companies have already silenced that debate. We’re not discussing the quality of the test anymore. We’re discussing free speech. It’s an important issue, but it isn’t the one we started with.

Standardized assessments are not top secret military documents. Reproducing a test question that tens of thousands of students have already seen is not analogous to Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.

Hundreds of test questions are already released by assessment corporations as examples to help with test preparation. Some of them even show up on the actual tests. Why not release them all? One couldn’t possibly go through every question and memorize the answers before taking the tests.

When the assessment industry gets to show us only a portion of the questions they use, they’re bound to display only the least objectionable ones in the bunch. We’re accepting an illusion of transparency and forking out more than $1 billion annually for the privilege.

A product created with such a wealth of taxpayer dollars should be open to public review and debate. At very least, we should demand these questions are subject to independent review. That doesn’t mean the testing companies get to hire so-called experts with ties to their industry to sign off on the questions. It means real experts should have a say. We should hear from PhD’s in the field like Oyler. We should hear from classroom teachers. We should hear from parents and even students.

This is the only way we can ensure students are being assessed fairly. We shouldn’t just trust the huge corporations manufacturing this stuff. We have to know exactly what’s on the tests.

Without such public scrutiny and outcry, test corporations have no incentive to better their products. In fact, this is exactly how New York State residents got rid of perhaps the most infamous test question ever reported – The Pineapple Question.

You can read about the whole thing here, but the basic story goes as follows. Several years ago, students who finished their 8th grade reading test couldn’t get over how absurd this question was. They talked about it to anyone who would listen. Eventually, the question was reprinted on parent Leonie Haimson’s blog, Class Size Matters. It became a national head-scratcher. People all over the country called for the question’s removal.

Without public input, the Pineapple Question might still be on the tests. Students could still be trying to answer a question almost everyone thinks is ridiculous.

People often say they want more accountability in public education. Isn’t it time we started to hold the test manufacturers accountable for their products? Isn’t it time we restored free speech to public education?

We can’t improve our schools if we’re more concerned with a private company’s copyright than we are with the quality of the product they’re providing us.

We can’t have a functioning school system if whistle blowers are silenced.

Parent Power Can Crush the Testocracy – and the Government is Scared Witless

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“We need to change accountability for schools to be more holistic. My greatest frustration is that I can’t do it fast enough.”
Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary

Parents, you can.

It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what laws are on the books. It doesn’t matter if your state is controlled by Democrats, Republicans or some combination thereof.

No government – not federal, state or local – can trample your parental rights. If you don’t want your child to be evaluated based on standardized tests, your child doesn’t have to be. And if a majority of parents nationwide make this decision, the era of standardized testing comes to an end. Period.

It has already begun.

Across the nation last school year, parents decided to opt their children out of standardized testing in historic numbers. The government noticed and functionaries from New York to California and all places in between are scrambling to deal with it.

In the Empire State one in five students didn’t take federally mandated standardized tests. State education commissioner Mary Ellen Elia responded yesterday by threatening sanctions against schools this year with high opt out numbers. In short, if in the coming year too many kids don’t take the test in a given school, the state will withhold funding.

It’s a desperate move. If the public doesn’t like what its duly elected officials and their functionaries are doing, those same officials and functionaries are vowing to punish the public. But wait. Don’t those people work for the public? Isn’t it their job to do our will? It’s not our job to do theirs.

The message was received a bit better in U.S. Congress where the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is being reauthorized. Two drafts of the law that governs K-12 public schools were approved – one in the House and one in the Senate. And both specifically allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. But can schools be punished for it?

The House version says no. The Senate version says it’s up to each state legislature.

These bills are being combined before being presented to President Obama for his signature. If he doesn’t veto the result, one might assume that at worst the issue will become each state’s prerogative.

But you’d be wrong. The state has as much business deciding this matter as does the fed – which is none. This is a parental rights issue. No one has the right to blackmail parents to fall in line with any government education policy. It’s the other way around.

In my own state of Pennsylvania, opt out numbers this year were not as dramatic as in New York, but they still sent a message to state government.

The number of students opted out of state tests tripled in 2015, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. PSSA math opt-outs rose to 3,270 students from 1,064 in 2014. PSSA English language arts opt-outs rose to 3,245 from 1,068. Those are the largest jumps in the nine years of available data.

And it’s not only parents who are concerned. Teachers continue to speak out against high stakes standardized tests.

Thousands of teachers have told State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera that school accountability needs to be less about test scores and more about reading levels, attendance, school climate, and other measures, he said. They have concerns about graduation requirements and the state’s current system of evaluating schools.

It’s not like these criticism are new. Education experts have been voicing them since at least 1906 when the New York State Department of Education advised the legislature as follows:

“It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies.”
-Sharon L. Nichols and David Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, 2007

Corporate education reformers complain that testing is necessary to hold schools accountable. However, the results are not trustworthy, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, itself! In 2011 and now again in 2015, officials are cautioning against using test scores to compare student achievement from year-to-year.

“The 2015 assessment should not and cannot be compared to the 2014 and 2013 assessment,” Rivera said. “It’s apples and oranges. Schools are still working on aligning curriculum to standards. They’re still catching up to teaching what we’re assessing.”

Each year students and teachers are told to hit a moving target, which was the reason also cited for caution four years ago.

While Rivera laments the issue and his inability to change anything soon within the government bureaucracy, parents are not thus encumbered.

All you have to do to save your child from being part of this outdated and destructive system is opt out.

But don’t stop there. Talk to other parents. Talk to classroom teachers. Organize informational get-togethers. Go to the PTA and school board meetings. Get others to join you.

And if the government threatens to withhold funding, lawyers are waiting in the wings to start the class action suits. Withholding taxpayer money expressly put aside to educate children because those same taxpayers disagree with government education policy!? Just try us!

Governments are tools but we hold the handles. If enough of us act this year, there will be no testing next year. Functionaries can threaten and foam at the mouth, but we are their collective boss. If they won’t do what we want them to do, we have the power to boot them out.

A multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up around high stakes standardized testing. Lobbying dollars flow from their profit margins into the pockets of our politicians. But we are more powerful.

Because you can’t serve your corporate masters if you are voted out of office.