Testing Times

It is testing season in the United States and a nation-wide rebellion against the tests is under way as a huge opt-out movement has developed. Protests against testing have broken out in cities across the US. Politicians and policy makers continue to insist that the tests encourage better school performance but this is being increasingly challenged by parents and teachers.

The Washington Post recently reported that hundreds of students in New Mexico protested against what is called the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Common Core exam by walking out of school. Thousands of students in New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania and elsewhere opted out of the tests as the “opt-out” movement continues to grow. The New York Times says that nearly every state in the US now has an opt-out movement.

In Ohio, about 365 of the Tri-Valley School District’s 3,100 students opted out with the district superintendent publicly supported parents who decided to have their children boycott the tests. In Chicago, schools officials who earlier said they would not give PARCC test to all students bowed to state pressure and said they would even though the head of the school district said “that to administer PARCC this year is absolutely not in the best interests of our students.”

The US News & World Report said that tens of thousands of parents and students nationwide are engaging in civil disobedience by refusing to participate in federally mandated standardized tests. The National Centre for Fair and Open Testing has been documenting the extent of the opt-out movement across the US. It says that school districts and states across the US are being pressured by the growing rebellion to allow parents to opt their children out of the tests.

At the heart of the opt-out movement is concern that preparation and drilling for standardised testing is eating up too much classroom time at the expense of real learning. The US News & World Report quoted Tim Slekar, a leader of the United Opt Out movement in Wisconsin, as saying:

Opt-out is not an anti-testing movement. This is a movement to reclaim and do what’s right for kids in public schools. This is a movement to restore real learning.

The national administrator for United Opt-Out said:

Opt-out is an act of civil disobedience. The one way we have to vote for saving public schools is by refusing these tests. The truth is it doesn’t matter [what the state policy is]. It’s an act stating we reclaim our public schools. Opt-out allows us to vote in that way.

One parent who refused to let her children participate in Maryland’s tests told Fox News:

We’re not doing this willy-nilly because we’re a bunch of disgruntled soccer moms. This policy is harmful to our society, to our schools, to our teachers and to our children.

New York’s 2013 high school principal of the year, Carol Burns, wrote in the Washington Post that parents have no other recourse against standardised testing but to opt out.

Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in.

The Federal No Child Left Behind legislation requires public school students to be tested once annually in math and English in third through eighth grade, and again in each subject once in high school. In total, federal mandates account for 17 tests students take throughout their academic careers: seven for English, seven for math and three grade-span tests (once each in elementary, middle and high school) for science. Many school districts apply their own assessments, leading students to take an average of 113 standardized tests over the course of their K-12 careers, according to research by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization representing large urban districts.

Many believe that the tests are not even useful for teachers because the results are not available until months after the tests, when students are about to move on to another grade or school.

Also, there are concerns the tests are being pushed on students when they are not developmentally ready for them. Many states now impose standardized tests on kindergarten children.

Some states, such as Utah and California, allow students to opt out of annual testing for any reason according to a research brief published by the Education Commission of the States. Others, such as Oregon and Pennsylvania, allow students to be excused from testing to accommodate religious beliefs. In other states, such as Illinois and Ohio, opting out is not permitted. Still others have no policies on opting-out and leave it to school districts and schools to deal with the issue on a case-by-case basis.

The opt-out movement in the US has grown remarkably in recent years as parents increasingly take up the concerns of teachers and education academics about the effects of standardised testing on teaching practices and the curriculum. The protests seem destined to expand in the face of government resistance to change.

Testing season has also begun in Australia with schools already preparing classes for the NAPLAN tests in May. Most schools begin practising for NAPLAN early in Term 1 and it results in much disruption to school timetables. It means less time is devoted to other important areas of the curriculum such as science, history, physical education and arts and music.

Unlike in many US states, testing in Australia is not mandatory. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from NAPLAN, although several states and many schools fail to inform parents of this right.

The number of parents opting out of NAPLAN is growing rapidly, although it is still small. Last year, there were record withdrawal rates across Australia and in most states/territories. Withdrawal rates have increased in all subjects and in all Year levels tested since 2008. For example, there was a five-fold increase across Australia in the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from the numeracy test from 0.5% to 2.5%. The withdrawal rate for Year 9 students increased eight-fold from 0.3% in 2008 to 2.4%.

One of the reasons for more parents opting out of NAPLAN is that more and more are becoming aware that NAPLAN is not compulsory. This is acknowledged by the Chief Executive of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Robert Randall, who told the Senate Estimates Committee in February that the increase in withdrawals was because “there has been a bit more increased awareness and publicity about withdrawing”.

From the inception of NAPLAN, education authorities misled parents by pretending the tests are mandatory. Authorities refused to inform parents that the tests are voluntary and failed to institute processes for parents to withdraw their children. This is now changing. ACARA has had to acknowledge on its website that parents can withdraw their children from NAPLAN and state education authorities have been forced to better inform parents of their rights.

The opt out movement in Australia will continue to grow as more and more parents protest at the time spent in practicing for NAPLAN in class and for homework, the damage it does to good teaching and a balanced education, and the pressure being placed on their children to succeed.

Trevor Cobbold

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