Why We’re Opting Out of Testing

19 Mar

Our oldest is in third grade in New York. This means Littlest Pet Shop and Shopkins have flooded her bedroom; fractions and division have overtaken number lines and addition; and she is growing faster than her pants can keep up. It is joyful (and for this dad, yes a little bitter-sweet) to watch her grow.

There is one thing in New York State that feels decidedly not third grade, however. Decidedly disrespectful of the eight and nine year olds’ developing minds and of the teachers who are guiding them through another year of transition in their mental, emotional, and social growth.

Third grade, like in many parts of the country, is the start of statewide standardized testing, the kind ushered in under NCBL more than a decade ago. The kind that, left unchallenged, will now be a part of her school year, every year, for the remainder of her schooling.

The kind that takes up well more than the smallish sounding “2% cap” the US Department of Education called for last year. Any teacher in a testing grade knows the additional weeks and months spent on test prep lessons, test prep books, practice tests “for stamina,” “Saturday Academy” for test prep for “struggling” test takers, and after school hours. Some schools make all of March a “Test Sophistication Unit.” Others find themselves in test prep on and off all year. I have even see textbooks and programs that added “bubble in the option” test prep questions starting as early as kindergarten.

This testing is the kind that since Race To The Top has been a primary factor in determining a teacher’s worth. Several years ago NYS released this cheerful, pro-Value Added “Growth Scores,” animated video to explain the then-new system and how it “allows every teacher to have a chance to demonstrate effectiveness.”

Of course, effective teachers already know that you do not “demonstrate effectiveness” with standardized testing. Instead, you find it by witnessing the developing relationships, deep thinking, joyful energy, risk-taking, and love of learning we support in our students.

Do Not Lose Hope: Act

There is a glimmer of hope and one we must grab in this moment. In a dramatic turn in policy, this past December the governing education body of New York State, our “Regents,” voted to temporarily remove test scores from teacher’s evaluations (at least through 2018-19). It was the first significant policy shift against testing or its reach.

Where did this shift come from?

Many sources, including The New York Times, draw the line to one major factor: Parents Opting Out. 2015 was the largest, to date, show of students refusing to sit for the test (this graphic from NYT shows the dramatic explosion across just three short years, 2013-2015).

In the months that followed dramatic actions took place at the highest levels:

Once again: where did these dramatic shifts come from? Voices. Voices standing up for children and the teachers who dedicate their lives to raising them.

So, my family has decided to join that chorus. For this first time we are able, we are joining the Opt Out movement and refusing to have our child take the NYS tests.

The word no made from jigsaw puzzle pieces

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan (under Creative Commons)

How to “Opt Out” of Testing

While not a tough decision for us, it was still one that made us feel nervous. How do we do it? How will the school react? Will they understand our reasoning? Luckily, there are communities of active parents across the country to help.

For example, in New York we turned to the NYS Allies for Public Education. Their website, www.nysape.org, contains resources, sample letters, and explanations of how to refuse the test and what to do if you face trouble doing so. I also spoke to other educators, parents, and educators-who-are-parents, for advice. Principals, teachers, and non-educator parents shared the steps they took. Here is what we did:

Steps to Take

  • Set a meeting with your child’s principal. It’s often nice to talk in person about your reasoning and it gives him or her a chance to respond. Be sure to share the ways your decision is intended to support educators and children. We also found it helpful to point out how the school already, without standardized testing, makes us aware of our child’s progress. We feel very clear on both of our kids’ growth because of the many formative assessments teachers give and their continued contact with us.
  • Follow-up with a formal letter detailing your request. This letter not only helps you be clear with your wishes, but in politically-charged districts gives the administrator and teachers “cover.” They can refer back to it if questioned.
  • Check-in shortly before testing. We will follow-up once again a few days before the tests begin and send our child to school with plenty of books to read and activities to do during the hours of testing.
  • Lastly, I would add: be vocal. The movement grows only by the voices of those involved.

 

The conversation with our child’s principal was terrific. She was open and curious about our perspective, gave us time to discuss our reasoning, she raised NYC Department of Education concerns about a child not testing, and then described for us the accommodations already in place to meet what NYC Department of Education, under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, stipulated in the Parent’s Testing Guide: “If a student is in school and refuses to take a State test, the school will make every effort to arrange for another instructional activity, such as reading or completing another project or assignment.

We left feeling like we were respected and heard, whether she agreed or not, and that we had a partner in raising our children in her and our school community.

Hope

In the years since NCLB, and then more dramatically since Race To The Top, our profession has been under fire and the shape of our children’s education dramatically challenged. Few people would question these initiatives if they delivered what they once promised. However, we have years of testing data without real solutions. Like getting a cholesterol check year after year that shows your levels are dangerously high, and then not investing in exercise and a better diet.

I hope that with further action, and more families committing to end harmful testing practices, we can further reduce the effects of testing on our children and colleagues.

Without the fear of evaluations built on the backs of a single test, schools and teachers can feel free to continue to open (or reopen) their curriculum and school day to arts, making, hands-on science, increased time for physical education, curiosity-driven math, and the kinds of reading and writing practices we know change students lives and skills but in many districts (including much of NYC) are pushed aside for textbooks that had promised “test-alignment.”

I also hope you will join me. Join this movement in progress if you have not yet or continue raising your voice if you have. Voices matter. The pioneers that came before us gave my family the strength and faith to take up this cause and action ourselves.

If you live outside of New York and have other resources to share, please feel free to add them in the comments section, or share your stories as a parent and/or teacher.

Thanks for all you do for children, for colleagues, and for this great profession! Together we build the future.

 

14 Responses to “Why We’re Opting Out of Testing”

  1. Carol April 3, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    Can some of you talk a bit about how you talked with your child about opting out?

    • Chris Lehman April 3, 2016 at 8:35 pm #

      I just told her: “we decided that you won’t be taking the state tests you have been hearing about. Some things are worth doing in school. But we, and lots of other people, think these tests don’t help kids or teachers. So we are having you not take them so we can let your school know and other families know that we think there are other things that are more important.” Then we just told her she’ll pack extra books for the six days of testing. She had a few questions but was mostly okay with anything we decided. Plus we are lucky her school support our decision and is making everything normal for everyone.

  2. Matt Renwick March 21, 2016 at 8:43 am #

    Thanks Chris for leading the way on this initiative. You are modeling integrity and values not only for other educators but also for your children.

    My son is also in 3rd grade this year. We are opting him out of the test too. This is a challenging decision, because I am the principal of his school. For starters, if we drop below 95% test participation rate, we stand to lose federal dollars at our school. This is even though the federal government has given states “choice” in how they want to address opt outs. Our DPI (Wisconsin) has said they will work with schools that do not meet this threshold.

    It is also a challenge because our school has performed well in the past with standardized testing. We have receiving a series of grants from the state because of our high scores. These significant dollars have helped bring in a dozen different schools over the past three years to visit our classrooms as a lab school. We’ve have also used these dollars to significantly increase our classroom libraries and provide excellent professional development for faculty. It’s a complex issue, as you can see.

    In addition, I think my son would actually do pretty well on the test. He sees these kinds of academic tests as challenges, so he might feel left out when his friends are taking the test. Therefore, I am helping him set up a digital portfolio via Google Sites. He will select the work he has completed this year that he feels best represents his various understandings and add these artifacts to his portfolio. The plan is this portfolio will stay with him throughout his school career, and he will continue to add to it throughout the grades. If other families do request to opt out, maybe they will consider this alternative assessment and opt in to it.

    Again, I appreciate your informative and brave post Chris. Best of luck during the “testing season”.🙂

    • Chris Lehman March 21, 2016 at 9:10 am #

      Love the idea of creating a digital portfolio for your child as a parent! What an awesome idea to share at PTA meetings or back to school nights. Then regardless if a particular teacher does this or not, you and your child have lots of work to show. I’m going to share that idea with my kids and with teachers I work with. Thank you!

    • sarahoeppner April 6, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

      Wow, Matt. I applaud your courage. That couldn’t have been an easy decision!

  3. Lisa Palmieri March 21, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    Thank you for sharing your letter and the information!

  4. Fred Ressler March 21, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    Bill Gates and Koch brothers have infected in a viral way the education system in order to have children replace parents with the state. The state will raise your children as you work to pay taxes for corporation’s war. Goes back at least as far as Plato wherein the state was supreme. Read Carl Popper “Open Society and It’s Enemies.” Plato the start of today’s totalitarianism. Trump= attempting to keep us in Plato’s cave.

    • Fred Ressler March 21, 2016 at 7:33 am #

      The supreme state goes back at least as far as Babylon.

      If you still think Plato had a right to be the permanent philosopher king and the right to ban artists. Read the words below of this self admitted “Nobel Liar” as are all chosen leaders.

      “The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace- to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.” (Plato of Athens).

      Everything has been great till now but if we continue conservatively we stand a good chance of annihilating life on earth- as is obvious.

  5. Karen Caine March 20, 2016 at 10:40 pm #

    Chris – thank you for writing this post. As parents and as educators it is of paramount importance that we share our opinions and concerns with others. We live in NJ and as you know we have PARCC testing here in our state. Last year, I had twins in 10th grade and I decided that they were old enough to decide if they should be taking the PARCC test. They did research on the issue and even went so far as to interview a friend of mine who works with teachers on PARCC test prep. They each had a meeting with me afterwards to discuss their findings and talk about their decision. Not knowing what the other twin said, they both started with the reasons for refusing testing – and there were many. When asked, what information made them think that maybe they should take the PARCC test, they both said plain and simply that there was NO evidence supporting reasons to take the PARCC. This year they have already refused, which I am happy about. What I find unconscionable is the amount of instructional time they are losing (even though they have refused testing) to prepare for testing. Administrators have been out of the building for days and days on end and teachers have been out of the building to “train” for how to give the PARCC and then for test prep days. It is actually quite awful.

  6. amyludwigvanderwater March 20, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this, Chris. When leaders such as you speak out, you give others courage. We send our children to a Waldorf school, so we opted out in a different way (no standardized tests). However, I wrote about this a couple of seasons ago just the same, based on what I see on my school visits. You can read the piece here if you wish – http://bit.ly/1kGhUEY

  7. Karen Szymusiak March 20, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    Chris,
    Thank you so much for this post. I fear what is happening in schools. It saddens me that teachers and children are under so much pressure. I respect and applaud your decision.

  8. Barry Lane March 19, 2016 at 10:50 am #

    http://www.unitedoptout.com has information for parents of all 50 states on how to do this. Thanks for this important post. Unfortunately the new law might end standardized testing in favor of standardized learning called “competency based education.” We must fight not just against the tests but the “drill kill bubble fill” assumptions about intelligence and learning they promote in order to profit from tax dollars

    https://barrylane.bandcamp.com/track/why-johnny-cant-stay-in-school

    • Chris Lehman March 19, 2016 at 10:52 am #

      Thanks Barry for link to United Opt Out. And also for your continued drum beat (often literally, an actual drum!) in supporting kids, families, and educators.

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