The Right to Opt Out

There are many different things going on in education today, and they have raised concerns by a growing number of people from across the country. The dialogue has been heated as we grapple to understand the logic in things like the new Common Core State Standards, APPR, inBloom, corporate profiteering, and excessive testing. These things are all worthy of discussion and in my opinion work in unison to destroy an environment of authentic learning. They are all connected and the results have been disastrous with school closings, low teacher morale, kids dreading the school day, and parents kept purposely in the dark about the whole mess. But the latter is starting to change.

I’d like to focus this post on testing and your right to opt out or refuse these tests in New York State. As excessive testing and related pointless and time-consuming activities like test prep can consume up to 25% of our children’s academic year, it’s time for parents to rise up and say NO MORE! We cannot stand by and watch our kids disengage from learning, losing any deep and meaningful connection to their education. We cannot allow qualities like creativity and innovation to be replaced with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning and a ‘teach-to-the-test’ mentality driving the curriculum. Curriculum itself is being narrowed to cover only what is on the test and is largely concerned with areas of ELA and math, giving less importance to other subjects. It fosters superficial learning and rote memorization; Test prep* drives kids to retain information just long enough to pass the test, and then that information is easily forgotten and replaced with the next round of tested material. It does not foster deep thinking and creative problem solving skills. It also teaches kids that there is only one correct answer to a question in academics and in life, when we know that in real life this is rarely the case. It fosters a deeply seated fear of failure, when in fact making mistakes is a normal part of any learning process. We see kids with high levels of stress, reporting stomach- and headaches as a result. All of this together is a large reason why so many kids hate school these days. Standardized tests do nothing to foster a child’s natural love of learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Furthermore, these tests cost tens of millions in taxpayer money in New York state alone, and the additional mandates associated with them cut into our districts’ budgets and force us to make cuts to faculty & staff and other valuable programs. These tests use our children as pawns to judge their teachers and their schools, and they promote the idea that tests scores and data charts are more important than the individual student. Let us not forget that test scores are an unreliable way to judge students, teachers, or schools. And tests contain cultural biases that are generally unfair to students of color or non-English-language students. The list goes on and on.

There are so many different tests out there and the regime can vary from state to state and district to district. The majority of these are administered unbeknownst to most parents. The only ones that are widely publicized are the so-called state tests, which are administered in grades 3-8 in the spring over the course of 12 days. To be sure, these are the beasts that dominate education, causing chaos and fear among the school population and disrupting learning in many ways from endless test prep, to the tests themselves, to the time and money invested in grading them, paying for substitute teachers, etc. These tests are high-stakes tests that can make or break students, teachers, and their schools.

But what about field tests? Many parents don’t even know what they are or that their children are being subjected to them. Field tests use our children as guinea pigs so that testing companies can try out new test questions before marketing them on the ‘real’ tests. Certain grades/ subjects are chosen at certain schools and the children there are given an extra test. Field tests are even embedded in the spring state tests. Corporations like Pearson Education stand to make a fortune selling tests to states like New York, with whom it has a $32 million contract.

With New York state’s controversial APPR plan, schools must submit a detailed plan on how teachers and administrators will be evaluated. This plan, which must be approved by the state, includes SLOs (student learning objectives). At EngageNY, we learn that a Student Learning Objective is “an academic goal for a teacher’s students that is set at the start of a course. It represents the most important learning for the year…. It must be specific and measurable, based on available prior student learning data, and aligned to the Common Core… Teachers’ scores are based upon the degree to which their goals were attained.” If, as a parent yet unfamiliar with the all of these terms and going-ons, you find this hard to understand, you are not alone. Just look at the litany of links, videos, and how-to’s offered by NYSED (New York state education department) so that teachers can familiarize themselves with the concept. SLOs can be teacher-created, they can be part of the state tests, or they can come in the form of state-approved third party assessments. In many cases, our children are subjected to yet more testing to rate their teachers. And in most every case, you as a parent will be completely unaware that any of this extra testing is taking place. You might even find your child coming home one day saying they just took a test in gym class!

I mentioned state approved third-party assessments. These are computer-based tests that our schools must purchase. My school uses STAR, a product by Renaissance Learning. Often times these assessments are part of the SLOs in the APPR plan, but sometimes they are just part of the mandate that schools must administer a pre-test, post-test, and various benchmarks along the way to judge student progress. I am not opposed to teacher-created methods of assessment–authentic assessment–for their own use, but I have many reason to oppose third-party assessment tools for use in SLOs and progress-monitoring. You can read those here.

And there is more testing to come, with PARCC assessments for K-12 slated to roll out for the 2014-15 school year. This is going to affect our schools and our children.

*Test prep is big business, considered a commonplace key to success. It reinforces the concept that the test is the main goal, and with the right test prep anyone can succeed.  Not only is test prep replacing real learning in our children’s classrooms, it is being marketed to us as an ‘aid’ to help our kids ‘succeed.’ Take this site, where we are asked if our kids are “preparing for the New York State Testing Program, also known as NYSTP?” Or this one, where we are told that “some races are worth the extra effort” so you’d better get “the Kaplan edge.”

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One thought on “The Right to Opt Out

  1. Love this post! Thanks for writing and for also adding my blog to your “Blogs I follow” section in the sidebar. Appreciate it. Keep up the fight. We are making headway. -Brian

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