Why We Opted Our Child Out of State Testing

The NAPLAN tests are on again next month. The standardised testing season in the United States is also underway. While many parents in Australia are only just finding out that their children do not have to sit the NAPLAN tests, a huge opt-out movement has developed in the United States against tests. Newspapers across the country have carried many stories about the growing resistance to testing which are available on The National Centre for Fair Testing website. The Centre also has a website devoted to helping the resistance to testing. It has resources on why and how to opt out of tests and how to organise against tesing.

Diane Ravitch’s blog recently published the following article by a parent in New York City explaining her family decision to opt out of state testing.

This morning, our fourth grader refused the standardized tests.

After months of research, debate, personal grappling and weighty discussions with our 9-year old child, we have decided that for our family, this mindful act of civil disobedience is the right choice — right for our kid, right for our parental conscience, the right stand to take, the right message to send.

We are deeply concerned about the direction of education in New York City. Disproportionate emphasis on standardized testing, the influence of corporate interest, rampant data mining, and compromised student privacy are all issues undercutting the health and efficacy of our school system. But we believe the most urgent education issue we currently face is High-Stakes Testing; it’s ramifications are both broad and deep.

We are in favor of rigor and high standards, we’re not strictly anti-standardized testing or anti-Common Core, we affirm the need for some baseline accountability metric in our educational system. However, we strongly oppose the unique double whammy situation we face in New York City, namely: Pearson’s problematic new Core-aligned curriculum/tests, combined with the overblown significance attached to these tests because we live in a school jurisdiction where standardized test scores have been used to determine grade promotion and student placement/admissions, as well as to evaluate teachers, and also have dire implications for schools.

I have high hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s administration will rapidly bring much-needed change to education in NYC. I’m thrilled that he has spoken out against “teaching to the test.” Carmen Fariña was an excellent choice for Chancellor, and I’m very excited about her commitment to progressive principles, collaboration, and reworking Common Core in NYC. I recognize that they did not create the high-stakes climate, and to the extent that this situation reflects state and even federal mandates through Race To The Top, that it is not entirely in their control. We need more help from Albany.

NYC schools have been even harder hit by high-stakes testing than their statewide peers. Nowhere is “the tale of two cities” more evident than in our educational system, where the ever-widening achievement gap is only exacerbated by the deeply flawed Common Core roll-out and the weight attached to the corresponding tests. The most vulnerable student populations are hit hardest; children living in poverty, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities are inordinately burdened. But even in high-performing schools, the culture of data-driven and test-focused education is pervasive and damaging.

It is well established that the implementation of Common Core standards and curriculum in New York was hasty and reckless, and the resulting test materials convoluted, developmentally inappropriate, and inaccessible for most students. Teachers were ill prepared to implement the new standards, and the students given inadequate time to assimilate unfamiliar teaching methods, content, test format and language prior to testing. Due to insufficient and inferior field test methods, it is unlikely that this year’s exams will be much better.
“Our family is fortunate to attend a wonderful, nurturing school, with abundant arts and enrichment programs. We love and support our wonderful teachers and superb administrators, who are under unconscionable pressure from the city and the state. We stand in solidarity with our educators, and know they do not want our kids to endure an excruciating learning environment in the weeks leading up to testing. But even in our thriving community, the quantity and intensity of test preparation is overwhelming.

Chancellor Fariña’s letter to principals last week, which stated “Preparing for life is living it,” and advised schools to keep test prep in moderation, as well as yesterday’s legislation aimed at limiting test prep and decreasing the power of standardized tests, are encouraging signals that our leaders understand that change is necessary. But with all due respect, with testing beginning today, this comes too late to provide relief to our overwhelmed children, and the rather nebulous new guidelines fall short of eliminating the circumstances that have created the bubble of intensity which surrounds standardized testing. In fact, it seems that a most crucial point has been missed.

Multiple high-stakes factors compel schools to spend weeks in test prep, taking the focus off authentic learning, to instruct and drill students in strategies for a test that nobody believes in, just so students stand a chance of passing, and their teachers and administrators do not suffer disastrous consequences. Student promotion and placement policies, school rank, and funding issues have been and are problematically attached to testing, but the most insidious aspect of the high-stakes system is a too-crude link between teacher evaluation/job security and student test scores.

Realistically, the high-pressure classroom climate that surrounds standardized testing will never be relieved, schools will not ease up on test prep, nor will the agonizing anxiety of our kids be diffused, as long as our educators fear for their jobs in relation to a set of dubious tests. And no matter what we adults say, or how we “spin” it, if schools abandon broader, deeper learning to spend a month or more preparing for the tests, it sends the message loud and clear that the tests are what we care about. This dissonance leaves our smart, intuitive children conflicted and afraid, and brings distrust into the classroom.

The test preparation process is grueling and high-anxiety for all involved, and outrageous strain is being put on even our youngest, most vulnerable students. Many of them are suffering demonstrable stress — crying, illness, nervous behaviors, sleeplessness, irritability, shame and crippling self-doubt. It has diminished my son’s love of school and learning, and has eroded his relationship with his teachers. Furthermore, it’s teaching him that the keys to success are not curiosity, exploration, innovation, collaboration and passion for knowledge, but rather, the ability to use tricks to beat the system. This is of little educational value, and questionable ethics. Worst of all, because Pearson’s current Core-aligned standardized testing model rewards only one (very narrow) type of learner, it has caused our son to doubt his own abilities and intelligence, and not in any constructive way.

The test scores, then, are invalid not only because the tests themselves are so unsound, but because they in no way reflect what our children are actually learning in school, or how well the schools are really doing – only how effectively students have been taught to “game the test.

In a multidimensional sense, our children’s educational futures are dependent on worthless data. That this coercive and punitive system is unethical seems self-evident.

Until the situation is remedied, and in the absence of an official “opt-out” clause, many families, like our own, feel they are left with no choice but to refuse the tests. And yet, they face pressure to comply, and fears about what test refusal could mean for their schools. The right to protect one’s child from an abusive system is inviolable; no parent should have to refrain from doing what best serves their child due to the threat of repercussions for their schools and educators. This poisons school culture by creating competing interests for concerned parents and their conscientious-but-frightened teachers and administrators.

Test refusal is a nerve-wracking decision; a lot hangs in the balance and there are many unknowns. But all acts of civil disobedience are risky; it is risk that makes them powerful — willingness to take a stand against something that is wrong, even if it means venturing into uncharted territory. I would not have chosen to be in this position, but since we find ourselves here, it’s a worthwhile lesson for our children that living in a democracy sometimes demands this type of engagement.

We’re all in the position of having to make crucial decisions quickly, and tensions are running high. But whatever our collective adult stress surrounding standardized testing issues, our first priority must be to ensure that kids are not the victims of the debate. We need substantive legislative action and policy change to lift the burden of the High-Stakes Testing climate that reduces our teachers and our children to defective data, so that schools may return to the vital task of educating our children in a healthy, expansive learning environment.

Jenny Sheffer-Stevens

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