The movement to opt kids out of standardized testing is picking up steam, but my sons are still taking them this spring.
With the arrival of spring comes the focus of modern public education: standardized testing. Thanks to the growing popularity of the movement to opt children out of testing, increasing numbers of school and district offices are finding themselves fielding requests from parents eager to remove their children from the process. Despite my longstanding belief that standardized testing is probably the laziest way of measuring student achievement—and teacher quality—I’m not opting my own two sons out of them.
This wasn't an easy decision. When I read Penn State Altoona education professor Timothy Slekar's op-ed, where he wondered what would happen if he had his son opt out by writing "I prefer not to take your test" across the top, I had fantasies of my kids doing the same. Last August I wished I'd opted my youngest son out after his test scores arrived in the mail. He begged me not to open the envelope. “What if it says I’m not smart?” he asked. After dinner last night I asked him how he'd feel about opting out. His eyes lit up momentarily and then he said, "But then I'd be the only one not taking the test, and everyone would think it's because I'm not smart." Indeed, he has internalized the fallacy that high test scores equal intelligence.
"The tests [were] not really serving any purpose other than some sort of ritual hazing," says Orange County, California parent Ciaran Blumenfeld, creator of the popular website Momfluential. She made the decision to opt out her oldest daughter, who suffers from dyslexia and testing phobia, from the state exams. The questions on the exams and the way they’re administered, says Blumenfeld, simply aren’t a useful way of determining what her daughter actually knows.
BlogHer social media strategist Erin Kotecki Vest knows she's lucky that, unlike too many schools these days, her third grader’s California school doesn’t teach to the test. But last year, she and her husband still had conversations about whether her son should take them. He was excelling academically, so they were unsure if it “would help his self esteem or destroy it.” Ultimately, says Kotecki Vest, they decided to opt in and he ended up doing so well “it gave him an even bigger ego.”
There are real consequences if a student doesn't take the test. In the Chicago Public Schools, for example, since the district uses the score as a factor for promotion, an elementary school student can be held back a grade or required to attend summer school if she doesn’t take the state standardized test, the ISAT. By law in New York State, there is no opt-out provision and a student who refuses to answer questions can also be required to attend remediation classes.
The scores are also being used to track students into classes and special programs. In second grade, my now-fifth grader bombed the Los Angeles Unified School District's psychologist-administered test that’s supposed to determine whether a student is gifted. However, he was still classified as gifted based on his state test scores—he scored well above the 85th percentile in both reading and math.
As a result he’s now eligible to attend special high-quality, gifted schools and has access to special programs within the district. The tracking doesn’t end there, either. Last fall while visiting a gifted middle school to see if it would be a good fit for him, I was told that students would be placed on math tracks based on fourth grade state test scores. They don’t call these tests “high stakes” for nothing—at least with the SAT if you’re having an “off” day, you can cancel the scores.
Opting out has serious consequences for a school, too. If more than 5 percent of a school’s students opt out, the entire school’s results are invalidated. That means the school will fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress, a measure put in place by the No Child Left Behind Act. This sets the campus up for a series of penalties, including a loss of funding or being eligible for takeover efforts.
Blumenfeld says the teachers and administrators at her daughter’s school ultimately weren’t opposed to her decision to opt out. Since everyone else was opting in, they had enough students to ensure the scores were valid—and they felt that her daughter was “bringing down the averages and making them look bad,” she says. “It was never about my kid for them—which is sad.” Given that testing companies are raking in money hand over fist, I often wonder if the testing juggernaut is about anybody's child.
In the end, I’m scared of the consequences of opting my sons out, and I don't want their hardworking teachers to be penalized. Still, I hope the movement grows—whether through social media, community meetings, and school board, state, and federal elections—to challenge the influence of testing on our schools and put the emphasis back on learning instead testing.