Is an “Opt Out” Letter on Your Back-To-School List?
With less than a month before a new academic year begins, it is time for parents to start preparing their children for a new classroom, a new teacher, and new learning opportunities. The back-to-school list might differ between grades, but there is one thing that should not be missing: A letter to your district opting your child out of reform-driven tests, (or at the very least a letter inquiring as to the tests your child will be facing).
Refusing to participate in state- or district-mandated testing has become a phenomenon across the United States, as more and more parents understand the harmful effects of education reform, Race to the Top mandates, and the new Common Core curriculum. This is an interrelated corporate takeover of public education that relies heavily on data and accountability. It aims to accomplish this with the use of standardized, often high-stakes, tests. Last year, record numbers of students in New York State, with the guidance of their parents, refused to participate in the grades 3-8 state tests, with opt out numbers topping 40,000. But the testing does not stop here.
Your child will most likely be tested the first week of school. These “pre-tests” are part of a system of accountability and so-called “progress-monitoring” where children are tested on materials they have yet to learn, so that they can be retested later on in the year to see how much academic growth they exhibit. Children may face “benchmark” testing throughout the year, particularly if they tested poorly on a previous assessment, or if they are special education students or students with learning disabilities. These assessments affect every grade level from prekindergarten children, who are as young as four years old, through twelfth grade. Last year, children came home after just one week in a new classroom feeling like failures because they didn’t do well on the pre-test. One mother reported that her kindergartner came home crying and said, “I guess I’m just not a good reader, Mama.”
Many parents are not aware of the intricacies of this testing culture, and by the time they realize the pointless nature of these tests, their children have already taken several. Assessments tied to teacher evaluations are being given in all subject areas including English Language Arts and math, as well as in subjects such as art, music, and physical education. NOW is the time to opt out, before your child even takes that first pre-test!
Unlike the state tests, which are given at the same time each year, to all students in grades three through eight across New York State, other tests might vary from district to district, depending on the details of a district’s APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) plan and the particular state-mandated and state-approved third-party assessment tool they’ve chosen to purchase. Many of these tests are computer-adaptive tests under names like Aimsweb, Star, Dibels, or Terra Nova.
As a parent, you have the right to know what tests your child will be facing and what those tests are used for. Many have nothing to do with a child’s grade, and do nothing to inform instruction. Many of these tests are corporate products that cost districts money, and drive instruction in a one-size-fits-all data-centric manner that reduce children to numbers, and unfairly judge teachers. With the use of computer-based testing on the increase, the cost associated with updating and maintaining computer labs alone can be staggering for many districts.
There are many questions you can ask your district such as:
- What assessments are being used, and for what purpose?
- Are these assessments listed as part of the district APPR plan? (You can find your district’s approved APPR plan here: http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/teachers-leaders/plans/home.html.)
- If there were no APPR, would you give this test?
- How often are the assessments administered and what are the scheduled dates for administration?
- What is the cost to the district of these assessments?
- Does the district have a protocol for refusal of local assessments?
- Are there any plans in place for eliminating k-2 local assessments? Eliminating k-8 local assessments.
Be aware that some districts will require that parents FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) much of this information. Because the information has to be collected via various sources and analyzed, some districts will prompt parents to FOIL it to justify the man hours and, of course, will charge for copying fees for the records. This information is important, however, and parents have a right to know and need this information to make informed decisions about test refusal. Details on FOIL can be found here: http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/freedomfaq.html.
Parents can also approach their Board of Education to express their concerns and to request that the BOE retrieve this information from the superintendent and building principals to be shared with the public. In this manner, one can avoid a FOIL. Board members should be made aware how important this information is and that it should be shared with stakeholder parents, whose decision-making regarding testing will benefit from all available information. These issues concern budget, curriculum, and instruction and assessment, and are clearly under the purview of a Board of Education. Parents can encourage their BOEs to become actively engaged in this discussion and actively involved wherever appropriate.
Other questions you can ask your child’s teacher (although many may not be completely truthful due to fear of potential ramifications for speaking out):
- Do these assessments give you useful feedback to inform instruction for my child?
- Are the assessments teacher-created?
- Are there alternate methods you can use to evaluate my child?
- If it were up to you, how would you choose to monitor the academic progress of your students?
- If there were no APPR, would you give this test?
More good questions for schools, superintendents, principals, school board attorneys, and BOE members can be found here: https://optoutorlando.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/questions-every-public-school-parent-should-be-asking-now/.
The decision to opt out of local assessments can be confusing, and should not be entertained lightly. There are many factors to consider. Some assessments are integral to the course, and end of year assessments might be considered as part of your child’s grade for that course, especially at the upper grade levels. Many of these are teacher created, and not inherently bad (although they might still be used as part of your district’s APPR to evaluate your child’s teacher). Some assessments might be state-mandated progress-monitoring assessments, but not be used for APPR. Parents of young children must ask themselves how comfortable they are with their children being formally tested in the lower grade levels, where these assessments are not used for grades or promotion.
To be clear, much of the insidious nature of this testing culture is found in the elementary grades. Much of the time, in middle school and high school, the tests chosen to fulfill APPR are chosen appropriately and do indeed benefit students and their teachers. We encourage parents to become informed and ask questions. Listen to what your district administrators have to say. Administrators who are open and honest will tell you why they think a particular test is beneficial. Don’t be afraid to ask how it benefits students or how it informs instruction. Be wary of any rhetoric that cannot be backed up in plain language and confirmed by both administration and your child’s teacher.
Teachers assess their students all the time, for the benefit of the student and to inform instruction. Some tests are useful tools that help a teacher gauge the progress of both individual students and the class as a whole. Some tests are useful diagnostic tools that help to determine if your child has a learning disability or if they require extra help. Some tests are mandated for graduation, such as the Regents exams. And some tests are simply end-of-course exams that are part of your child’s grade. You should not opt out of these.
What is becoming more and more pervasive is the use of standardized forms of assessment, including the various computer-adaptive assessment tools that are not teacher-created, and provide a narrow form of assessment based on data, not your individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. Parents must be aware that the new ban on “standardized tests” in grades k-2 involves a very narrow definition of the word “standardized” and does nothing to alleviate the testing being carried out through computer administered assessments. There have been many cases where students who test poorly are automatically put in AIS (Academic Intervention Services), even if they don’t need it. Conversely, students who need the extra help might not get it if they happen to test well. Teachers are the best-equipped and most knowledgeable persons able to assess students. When a system of high-stakes testing and accountability removes teacher autonomy and decision making from the process, we must be hesitant to blindly accept the overuse and so-called merit of standardized assessments in our children’s classrooms.
Parents have been opting out of local assessments for several years, but there is no “how to” guide and the variables are too great to discuss any one approach to this decision. Many parents decide that they cannot support APPR, and refuse to participate in local assessments that are not part of an end-of-course grade. Some parents disapprove of their children being subjected to computer-adaptive corporate tests in the early elementary grades, and may opt out even though the tests have nothing to do with APPR. Parents share many of the same concerns when it comes to the proliferation of various forms of assessment that are not solely used by the classroom teacher to provide individualized instruction to their children. Their concerns include the collection of data, the age inappropriateness, the heavy-handed interference by the state, and the unreliability of standardized tests. Many parents wonder if there is anything these assessments can tell their children’s teachers that the teachers don’t already know. They also worry about the reliance on data and how that might interfere with any individualized instruction their child might need.
The best course of action that any parent can take is to ask questions, and insist on answers. Becoming informed is your best weapon when it comes to making decisions about testing and opting out. Above all else, parents must fulfill their role as their child’s greatest advocate. If something seems wrong, it most likely is. Armed with information, you will be able to make an informed decision that is in your child’s best interests, regardless of the opinion of others or the rhetoric regarding the “usefulness” of all this testing.
Parents who question testing, both state and local, are not against authentic forms of assessment that truly benefit both student and teacher. Be polite and respectful when engaging in dialogue with schools and teachers, but be resolute in your insistence on real answers to your questions. And, if you still feel that the tests your child will face are not in their best interests, you have the right to discuss an alternative.
Danielle Boudet, Oneonta Area for Public Education
Jeanette Brunelle Deutermann, Opt Out Long Island
Chris Cerrone, NYStopTesting.com