Wave of Protest Against Testing

The new testing season in the United States has seen a wave of parent protests against testing in the last few weeks. Thousands of parents have opted to take their children out of statewide tests across the country.

There have been high-profile boycotts and rallies across the country, including in large school districts such as Chicago and New York, to promote the right of parents to withdraw their children from the tests. Parents complain that the tests are unnecessary, excessive, and are harming their children’s education.

A new national coalition called the Testing Resistance & Reform Spring was set up earlier this year to co-ordinate a campaign to reduce high-stakes testing. Its goals are to:
• Stop high-stakes use of standardized tests.
• Reduce the number of standardized exams and the time and money spent on them.
• Replace reliance on standardized tests with multiple forms of performance-based evidence of student learning.

It has been promoting community meetings, rallies, demonstrations, boycotts, opt-out campaigns, and petitions against high stakes testing.

Students across the nation have taken the lead by walking out of test sessions. About 30,000 students opted out of the New York state tests. Parents in the Harlem district of declared a Harlem Test Free Children Zone by opting their children out of the tests. Up to 2,000 students in Chicago public schools opted out of the Illinois state tests, although the number was disputed by education officials. Parents at more than 70 district schools submitted letters telling officials that they didn’t want their children to take the test.

Parent, teacher and student activists attended a recent United Opt Out conference in Denver to plan expansion of the movement and hear experts on standardised testing. Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard University and author of Finnish Lesson: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland? advocated a new system that relies less on standardized tests. He said:

There’s no successful education system in the world that has built its success on competition and standardized testing. My question often is, if the United States or Colorado is going to be successful with this, it’s going to be the first time in the universe when it happens.

Monty Neil, executive director of FairTest, wrote in the Washington Post that parent, student and teacher concerns include:
• There is too much testing. It crowds out other subjects, even recess, depriving children of an engaging, well-rounded curriculum.
• The tests are not useful to teachers, parents or students because they don’t assess important areas of learning, questions and answers are secret, and scores are not returned in a timely manner.
• Parents, teachers and students object to spending millions of dollars on testing and computer infrastructure for online testing while schools suffer increased class size and cuts to arts, sports, and other engaging activities.
• As a result of stress and anxiety, students are crying, vomiting and soiling themselves during standardized exams. Children fear that if they fail, their teachers will suffer. Some justifiably worry they will be denied promotion to the next grade or graduation.
• Computer systems around the country are crashing during test administration, often compounding the stress, especially for students less familiar with technology.
• The tests are unfair, particularly to students whose first language is not English and to students with disabilities, as well as students who attended ill-funded schools in low-income communities.
• Parents dislike the use of student test results to judge teachers. They know that federal mandates to evaluate teachers based on student scores produce inaccurate ratings, a huge increase in testing, and more teaching to the test.

Just as in Australia, the information and rules about opting-out of tests are vague and not well-publicised, and officials are misleading parents about their rights to opt out.

Education Week has reported that opting out is a murky and messy process in most states because few specific guidelines exist outlining what rights parents have to refuse testing on behalf of their children. In California , the education code explicitly grants parents permission to refuse the test on behalf of a student. In Illinois and New York, the student, not the parent, must refuse the test. Parent advocates say forcing students, some as young as 9, to refuse the test is unconscionable. In New York, some parents have resorted to pinning “I refuse” notes on their children’s shirts.

Other states claim that parents do not have the right to withdraw their children from the tests. For example, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Board of Education said that, under the state school code, parents do not have the right to opt children out of a standardized test.

The Federal the No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t allow or prohibit opting out of tests.

“It’s a bizarre game of semantics”, according to Jeanette Deutermann of the parent advocacy group New York State Allies for Public Education, about who can or cannot refuse the test. Ms. Deutermann believes the lack of explicit guidelines is designed to discourage parents from availing themselves of their right to opt out and that it often works.

Education officials are also using intimidatory tactics to stop parents and students opting out. A member of United Opt Out National, an organisation that offers help to parents wanting to opt-out of tests, said that schools and administrators were telling parents that schools could lose funding and have their reputations damaged if too many students opt out. Some Chicago parents have complained that that officials interrogated their children about why they were opting not to take the test.

United Opt Out National offers a “get tough guide” for parents to help them deal with school officials who try to resist their attempts to keep their kids out of testing. It looks like it will get a lot of use in coming years as the opt-out movement expands.

Trevor Cobbold

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