A Fundamental Difference

When I started this blog, my son was in school and I was swept up in the fight against excessive testing and standardization in public education. I continued this fight passionately, well after we pulled our son from school and began homeschooling, a choice that is a perfect fit for our family and one that has quite surpassed all expectations. In short, the homeschooling journey has been extraordinary.

My voice in all things public education has diminished and lately almost wholly disappeared, namely because I felt like my opinions didn’t matter anymore. I mean, who am I as a homeschooling parent to tell public school parents and teachers what their business should be? I resisted the ‘our world/ their world’ mantra for quite a while, but over time became exasperated as the tension between these two worlds became too much and I realized that clearly the allies for whom I had been fighting did not see the unity between our two worlds as much as I did.

I still believe that all children, regardless of the type of educational environment they find themselves in, deserve a meaningful education in which they play a primary role in their own discoveries. I still believe that parents have the right to be fully involved in their children’s education, and I still believe that teachers ought to have the freedom to exercise their expertise in the classroom. But for me, the fight against testing and top-down control became just a tiny part of what does not work in public education, at least not for me or my kids. And I realize that, while my opinion might not mean much to those that choose to remain committed to public education, I am still entitled to my opinions.

Even now that I linger at the sidelines when it comes to discussions of public education, they surround me everywhere I go. Sometimes I feel like I learn more about how people really feel as a fly on the wall than I ever did as an activist leader of a major Opt Out group. Whether I’m waiting outside my kids’ gymnastics or getting my hair cut, everyone seems to be complaining about education.

There are many topics of discussion but one of the most common items of complaint is homework. I watch children being proctored by their parents in between activities at my local YMCA all the time, their tired faces and sighs as they fill in blanks and erase spelling mistakes. I hear parents talk amongst themselves how every night is a battle, how their kids are so tired, how they don’t see a point to homework for a first grader. One of the parents, who happens to be a kindergarten teacher, said if that happened to her kids she would refuse the homework. Another second grade teacher spends the hour waiting for her own children in activities, correcting the homework of her second grade students. Why has homework became such a contentious topic and one where parents and teachers feel they have no choice but to simply comply? Why are so many elementary teachers assigning homework and why aren’t more parents opting out of this distraction from life when experts assert that homework in the younger grades provides no benefits to learning and all parties see the chaotic fallout of the homework trend? See here, here, here, and here, to get you started. But it’s not just this anti-establishment homeschooling mom who is complaining! Teachers have begun to stop assigning homework, and parents who see the ill-effects are refusing to engage in the homework cycle.

Last year, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Alfie Kohn at nearby Walton Central School, where my my own pedagogical ideologies were confirmed as Kohn spoke of education without homework, without testing, and without grades. And this is where my journey, my deep philosophical beliefs about what education can and should be like for children breaks away heavily from business as usual in the classroom. It isn’t just about the excessive testing or whether Common Core math is good or bad. These issues used to be the big deal for me, and I couldn’t understand why parents did not opt out, or why teachers thought the Common Core was a good idea. I now see a more fundamental difference: whether one takes the tests or not, whether one likes close reading or not, whether addition takes two steps or ten, children are being forced out of their childhoods in an overly structured system that disallows the input of the learners themselves and sterilizes the entire process of learning.

I overheard another conversation between parents last week. The second grade teacher parent asked the other parents about registration for an activity that would structure her children’s spring break days. She then stated that after witnessing her kids “going crazy without structure” during a recent snow day, she couldn’t bear to think about an entire week of them being home “without anything to do.” Before I continue, let me state that my opinions are simply that: opinions. I make decisions that are right for my family and would never directly criticize another parent or teacher for making a different decision. We all parent differently, I realize, and the beauty of teaching is that all teachers  should be allowed to exercise their own unique teaching methods and personalities. But for me, hearing this conversation was shocking. To me it was the ultimate confirmation that the decision to homeschool is the right one for us. I don’t give tests; my kids don’t have homework; largely, they learn what they want and when, and are thriving academically, socially, and mentally in this environment! But the core of my beliefs stems from the notion that kids nowadays are being robbed from their childhoods and natural tendencies with a constant over-structuring that begins when they stagger out of bed in the morning, continues through the school hours, extends to the pre-dinner homework battles, and rolls over into any free time they might have had to themselves.

If my children were in school, I would most certainly opt out of testing, and say no to homework. That is my right as a parent. But how could I possibly preserve childhood without the freedom my children have at home to be themselves and make their own decisions?

Give the Gift of Opt Out

It’s Christmas Eve, and like many children across the globe who celebrate the holiday, my kids are excited that their long wait is coming to an end. My son and daughter are still young, almost seven and three respectively, and it’s easy to allow the perception of magic that fills their hearts to enter my soul this time of year. While it’s hard not to get caught up in the contemporary culture of all things materials, I’d like to pause for a moment of reflection at this day’s winding down to give thanks for all the non-material fortunes in my life, namely that my children are happy and healthy, and that we as a family are bound by love, and thriving from love’s energy.

While I give thanks for all that I have, I also acknowledge the incredible disparity in the world between those who have everything and those who have virtually nothing. Luckily I fall in the middle and am humbled. If you are like my family and your children wake up tomorrow filled with Christmas excitement, think of those who are less fortunate. We must, as a society, be willing and able to do something about poverty, and the generational disadvantages that affect many demographics.

But this isn’t a post about Christmas. Christmas is merely a perfect opportunity to reiterate the damage being stricken on our schools and the children who walk down their halls by the corporate elite who wish to profit from a privatization scheme that has been pushing Common Core standards, scripted curriculum, worksheet curriculum, test preparation materials, and of course, the litany of standardized tests themselves. School reform entities have weaseled their way into prominence because somehow they convinced us of the myth that our schools were failing and our teachers were incompetent. This is not true.

Our schools have become the target of reform because of poor performance on standardized tests, and we’ve been told that we are falling behind our international counterparts. This is also false. The reformers would have you believe their lies by leaving out important information. Poverty. Child poverty in the United States is staggering, according to a Washington Post article, with one in three children living in poverty in this country. Compare that to countries like Finland who traditionally score higher on international tests and one can see that their child poverty rate is much lower. When looking at test scores within the United States, it is clear that schools within economically advantaged communities score much higher than those within communities with high levels of poverty.

povertygraphic

The fact is that our schools and our children are being shortchanged based on a myth. In most cases, our schools are thriving. Those that are not are generally located in communities without the financial resources to compete with affluent districts. Ironically, it is these “failing” districts who are punished the most, given less funding, restructuring, teacher firings, and even school closure. The real problem is not school failure. It is not teacher incompetence. And it is not a lack of “rigor” or high standards. The issue is poverty and disparity, and until policy makers are willing to face this societal dilemma head-on, our schools and children will still suffer the cyclical illusion of failure because of something entirely out of their control.

What can one do about this as an individual? You can speak out. Speak truth to power. Every voice that dispels the myths is a voice of reason tipping the tides to policies and social programs that tackle the real problems and not the illusions. If you are able to speak out, you must. When it comes to education, you can give the greatest gift of all: Opt Out. Fight back against the myth based on test scores. Remove the data that corroborates the lies. Opt your child out of standardized testing and say no to the corporate takeover of our PUBLIC education system.

This Christmas season, as you contemplate all that you are thankful for, put test refusal on that list. You are your child’s best advocate, and opting out is a gift that every parent can give. It doesn’t cost anything and the rewards are infinite. Merry Christmas! And let’s wish for a New Year where the culture of testing is denied and our children and teachers can go back to real learning.

Is an “Opt Out” Letter on Your Back-To-School List?

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.

 

Contributors:

Danielle Boudet, Oneonta Area for Public Education

Jeanette Brunelle Deutermann, Opt Out Long Island

Chris Cerrone, NYStopTesting.com

Do Not Be Appeased!

I don’t know about you, but I am beyond outraged with the latest long-winded, vacant, meaningless, insubstantial, preposterous declaration by the Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department. Yet again, they exhibit the propensity to NOT listen to the parents and educators of this great state when it comes to our grave concerns about over-testing, inappropriate curriculum, joyless learning experiences for our children, and unfair expectations in the name of the MYTH of failing schools. Go ahead NYSED, let’s put another bandaid on this gushing mortal wound you call the Common Core.

http://www.regents.nysed.gov/meetings/2014/February2014/214p12hea3.pdf

Thirty-seven pages to acknowledge topics of concern such as state assessments, teacher evaluations, and curriculum. But most of this summary is just a rewrite of the same old Common Core rhetoric that goes something like this: Despite the bumps in the road, which we assure you we’re working on, the Common Core is exactly what we need to fix our failing schools and prepare our students for college as they were previously unprepared, and we know best, so let us throw you a bone while we blame schools for not properly implementing the Common Core and by the way it’s up to schools to eliminate unnecessary and redundant testing because it’s not our fault after all, and let us blame parents for not truly understanding how they can help their own children succeed, but rest assured we’re here to help and we will succeed, in fact we’ve got a plan that if we spend more money on getting parents involved, they’ll roll over with sincere thanks for us lending a hand at getting them involved in their children’s education, which is what they truly want so all that complaining they’re now doing will ultimately disappear once we, the truly magnificent declarers of educational needs, provide them with the proper resources to be good parents and good aids at home while their children become college and career ready, and nobody can say we didn’t ……. That had to be a run-on sentence because that’s how I imagine these people talking to one another while they’re perched over tables, breath sour from dehydration as they each in turn make important declarations, brows intently scrunched, listening to the wind being forced from their colleagues’ upper orifices, a forced air of gravitas in the room, ostensibly caring but with a real and not-so-hidden contempt for parents and teachers who they silently (and perhaps openly) curse for forcing them to this moment and forcing their hand to actually “do” something, their faces drawn into permanent frowns as they produce this meaningless paper that we’re just supposed to accept. And then what, possibly thank them for it.

This, coupled with Governor Cuomo’s ineffectual cherry-picked panel to review the Common Core, should be an insult to anyone out there who cares about education. Do not be appeased by these false offerings of salvation. It seems that someone is vying for our favor this election year. Someone wants to be viewed as education’s savior.

It’s all a farce, these panels, these committees, these official reviews. Perhaps the Governor, the Board of Regents, and the State Ed. Dept. are now pretending to respond to our concerns in light of the New York State Assembly Republican’s APPLE Plan, where this legislative body also offers it’s show of hearing parents and educators (which I believe to be sincere), and a collective of remedies to make things better. Perhaps they are responding to the valiant calls by legislators who claim, if the Regents don’t fix it, we will. Who will win? Who will we select as our savior?

If all this jargon isn’t a clear indication that this political and bureacratic rigamarole isn’t even coming close to addressing the concerns of parents, educators, and students, I don’t know what is. We’ve been patient, we’ve followed all polite channels with our grievances. And now it’s time to call “bullshit” loud and clear.

It is complete bullshit. These forums, committees, panels, and measures do nothing to improve education under RttT and Common Core. Do NOT accept these forms of “appeasement” from these jokers. Rebel and refuse. Opt out of ALL testing aligned with Common Core. Parental rebellion is the only way to break this down.  They are still blaming local districts for the additional testing by saying the state doesn’t require it. They put the burden on districts to “review their local measures of assessment and reduce any unnecessary or duplicative assessments.” WTF does that even mean? I’ll tell you how we can reduce assessments–REFUSE to participate in any of them. Opt out of the state tests! Opt out of ANY and ALL assessments, even progress-monitoring computer-based nonsense assessments if they are at all aligned with Common Core and are not used solely for the individual classroom teacher’s benefit in tailoring instruction to your child’s INDIVIDUAL learning needs. This NYSED and bureaucratic rigamarole has to stop. Parents, you have the power. Go all out and cause chaos in this nonsensical system that does NOTHING to foster engagement and authentic learning for your children. The time for hesitation is past. It’s clear that waiting for something else to fix this is not going to work. Exercise your parental rights and refuse ALL common core aligned testing. Resist.

Whatever you do, get involved  and stay involved, even if we are presented with a plausible “solution.”

If parents, educators and their communities were involved from the beginning in determining what was needed for public schools, would we be in the current situation? Would we see developmentally inappropriate standards, narrow, unreliable and invalid tests for students and teachers, violations of privacy rights and the overall cheapening of public education? I doubt it.

The point is this: it’s not about the standards, it’s about who controls them, who makes them, who enforces them. Fights over standards are really fights over who decides. That is the question any moratorium worthy of the public interest must consider. Because if the Core is defeated, yet the public remains excluded, you can bet Bill Gate’s tax exceptions another hair brained reform will soon follow in its wake, imposed more vigorously than the Core.

–Mark Garrison, from his recent blog post, “Failed Implementation, or Failed Governance? On the Possibility of a Common Core Moratorium”

Your Refusal is Needed this Testing Season

I almost can’t believe that it has been more than a year since I started this blog with my first post about opting out of testing. A lot has changed and nothing has changed.

What has changed? People are more aware than ever about the destructive effects of education reform. We know that excessive testing corrodes the type of authentic learning experiences we want for our children. It’s easy to see if a child doesn’t enjoy school, but now we know why. We know that our children are being forced to learn at a rate and a level that isn’t appropriate for many of them. We know that education has taken a cookie-cutter turn for the worse and that many of our children are not benefiting from this at all. We know that it is wrong for teachers to be judged based on our children’s test scores. And we are outraged that the state is planning to collect our children’s private data and that our pleas as parents are completely ignored.

We know that the reform policies of New York State aren’t working. Parents, teachers, students, and community members are uniting in an unprecedented way to challenge this agenda. Forums continue to be organized across New York State and are always well-attended. The majority, including those who attended King’s listening forums, are speaking out against the reform agenda. I’m still in awe sometimes at the passion and energy that is being exhibited by individuals and groups across the state as they fight to wrest public education from the hands of bureaucrats and non-educators.

Sadly, there is much that hasn’t changed. Commissioner King, the SED, Governor Cuomo, and the Board of Regents largely are not listening to parents or educators, and one has to wonder how one can be so void of human emotions after hearing the many personal stories that were shared by attendees of King’s listening forums. Testing is still the driving force behind public education, and the meager rotten bone we were thrown regarding the elimination of one eighth grade test is laughable at best. Although the upload of sensitive private information to inBloom has been delayed, it is still disturbing that New York State has not pulled out of this wretched scheme. APPR is a cruel joke. How can we expect more than a teach-to-the-test style of education when test scores account for such a large part of a teacher’s evaluation? We know that merit pay isn’t the answer and we should wholly reject Governor’s Cuomo’s proposal of merit pay for public school teachers.

Many problems still exist, but we are making progress and are on a united journey that must continue! I urge parents all the time to get involved. You must ask questions and find out more. You are your child’s best advocate. As parents, we already know how education reform is affecting our kids. They don’t enjoy school anymore; Some hate it; Some don’t even want to go anymore. Learning is no longer enjoyable. They’re stressed out because so much is expected of them. We’re stressed out because we can’t help them. 

The workload is inappropriate and the things they love are reduced–valuable programs like art, music, library, gym, recess, unstructured free-play–all things that are not only outlets for fun and creativity, but are also necessary for our children’s personal well-being, brain development, social development, and among other things, high academic achievement.

Education has changed. There is something wrong when the joy of learning is replaced with training to pass a test. There are more tests today than ever before, and as a result our kids are beginning to feel like failures. A kindergartner I know came home upset with a graded pre-test during the first week of school and said to her mother, “Mommy, I guess I’m just not a good reader.” More recently, when confronted by a parent about a classroom-related issue, her daughter’s kindergarten teacher replied, “I’ll have to look into that. I wasn’t there. I was out of the room testing.”

This is just a fraction of the evils associated with the testing culture dominating our schools. But it’s not our teachers fault.

Teachers’ hands are tied with mandates and they’re being judged on our kids’ test scores. Pressure is high to push kids harder and faster. Teachers are under immense pressure to get their students proficient to a certain level, regardless of whether or not all of the children are ready, or what their individual strengths and learning styles might be. Testing is creating a one-size-fits-all environment because the stakes are so high. Our kids are treated like products on an assembly line. But, teachers are doing a great job despite this, and we need to let them know that we support them and that we don’t blame them for this mess.

But there is something else parents can do. We can opt our children out of high-stakes tests! Only 31% of NY students passed the state tests last year. We know that this doesn’t represent their true abilities. These tests reduce our children to numbers and data points. They only measure a fraction of what is really important, leaving out things like creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, and more. They consume valuable days of classroom instruction and promote an environment of stressful test prep for months prior to the testing dates.  These tests are kept secret and the results are untimely. There is no useful information to help parents or teachers.

Opting out won’t hurt your child and it won’t hurt your school. An estimated 10,000 students refused the state tests last year even though schools were threatened with financial consequences for failure to comply. But this turned out to be more of a fear tactic than anything else. The situation is complicated, but there’s one thing you should know. Of the many schools across the state that had high numbers of opt-outs, not a single one reported any type of financial punishment. There is no harm in opting out.

But there is great harm in opting in as we perpetuate a test-driven type of education. The state tests are big ones–very high-stakes–but the testing goes beyond grades 3-8. There are other types of district-mandated assessments that are being used to unfairly judge teachers and drive instruction. As a parent, you have the right to know which tests your children will be facing and how they will be used.

Opting out can be confusing and there’s a lot to consider. Some tests are useful tools for teachers. Some help determine if your child has special learning needs. I’m not against useful and authentic forms of assessment that have real merit for the classroom teacher. But I am against any test that uses my child to unfairly judge teachers, or that collects his data, or that expects him to perform at a level that isn’t appropriate.

I won’t stand here and ask you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. My personal opt out stance is this: Opt out of anything that isn’t used solely to help the individual classroom teacher tailor instruction to your child’s particular learning needs, and that isn’t required for promotion or graduation, like the Regents. You can’t opt out of those.

Many have asked: “Isn’t it true that even if my child doesn’t take the test, he will still be subjected to test prep and inappropriate curriculum?” Yes… for now… but if enough of us take a stand and boycott these tests, the data becomes invalid, and the tests themselves carry little meaning. They might even go away if enough of us refuse! And that can have amazing consequences: Our teachers will gain much-needed autonomy; They can teach in ways that have our children’s best interests in mind; They no longer have to focus on the test; And a world of possibility for creative and authentic instruction opens up.

The Common Core deserves criticism. It was created without much input from real educators, and the corporate benefactors of all the testing and materials is very troublesome. Much of it is developmentally inappropriate, especially at the elementary grades. But it is all the testing it promotes that turns the Common Core into a monoculture of the mind. If we can remove the testing element, our teachers might actually be able to sift through and find the good while ignoring the bad. Then they can make it work for them and our children. That will never happen as long as so much is riding on test scores.

We cannot buy into all of this testing and let it become the norm. Imagine what teaching and learning will be like if we do. Imagine the door we will open to large corporate profits by companies who provide the tests, the prep materials, and the technological infrastructure to administer them. And just imagine the products and services we will be sold when our schools are unfairly proven to be institutions of failure based on the score of a high-stakes test.

The State Education Department isn’t listening to parents or teachers. They’re busy following a data-driven agenda. Let us band together and remove the source of that data by refusing to participate! If we do nothing, things are only going to get worse and our children will see even more tests.

There has been a recent concern that opting out is going to negatively affect your children’s teachers. First of all, it is untrue that students who refuse get an automatic 1 or 0. They get no score and are not used for accountability purposes according to NYSED’s SIRS manual. Secondly, there’s the fear that only top-performing students will opt out, leaving lows scores to affect teacher evaluations. But teachers are evaluated using “growth-scores” A teacher wants to show improvement in their students. The highest performing students plateau and have nowhere to go but straight across, so top performers do not help to show that growth. Finally, teachers have been reporting opt out from a wide range of student ability. 

I’ve been in this movement for over a year now, and without a doubt, there is one thing that everyone, everywhere agrees on– Parents are the key to change! Our teachers’ hands might be tied, but ours are not. We have the right to direct the upbringing and education of our children, and we have the right to refuse this harmful testing culture. Please consider sending your refusal letter (nysape.org, tool#10) today and join us in ending the testing madness in our schools.

It’s official… well, not really

So I finally found out which kindergarten class my son would be in at our local public school. And I finally called the school to have him removed from the roster. We’re opting out of kindergarten in an effort to preserve the important elements of his childhood. There are no NY state formal requirements for homeschooling until age 6/ first grade so I do not yet have to file a letter of intent with the school. He’ll keep learning, I have no doubts–That is what children do best! He just won’t be forced to learn anything for which he isn’t developmentally ready.

What kind of schooling will his future hold?  I have no idea really. I’ll play each year by ear and follow my son’s lead. If he shows an interest in going back to school, then we will certainly support this and do whatever we have to limit the inappropriate nature of Common Core standards, excessive testing, and unreasonable data collection. But right now, we’re just going to have fun. He learns by doing and by playing. He’s a bright little boy, with normal levels of excessive little boy energy! I don’t want it limited, or kept in check. He needs it. He’s at his best when he’s moving moving moving! I’m also aware of my son’s individual nature. Every time I have tried to force any type of “lesson” on him, he resists, shuts down, becomes obstinate. But when I just offer the ‘tools’ needed to learn, and allow him to discover largely on his own with only slight guidance from me, he tends to absorb what it was I wanted him to learn in the first place. This year will be interesting. And it will be fun. It will be what’s most needed for him right now.

If the latest Welcome Back issue of my school’s newsletter is any indication, we won’t be missing much. In only the second paragraph of our superintendent’s letter on the front page, he praises the positive results on state and local testing, and mentions that the staff are “adapting their curriculum to meet the more rigorous Common Core standards…”  The Principal’s note on page 2 offers five paragraphs devoted to NYSED requirements, and STAR assessments in particular.  Testing, testing, testing– that’s how important it is in a public school education! Or at least, that is what we are led to believe. We can even help by “continuing to encourage your child to do his or her best on the assessment,” by visiting the STAR website to learn more.

Last year, parents focused heavily on refusing the April state tests, with one informal estimate putting the number of refusals at around 10,000. There will be many more this year who will have had enough with the hyperfocus on testing and data. This year too, parents are waking up to many other local and district tests, like STAR, that are used to unfairly evaluate teachers and take away valuable instruction time.

Recently someone asked if there was a list of specific tests to avoid. Some are obvious like the state tests and field tests, that have absolutely no relevance for our children’s learning. The field tests use our children as guinea pigs to try out questions for future tests that generate profits for testmaking companies. The  state tests are poor indicators of our children’s actual performance and are unfair judges of their teachers and their schools, not to mention that the results take so long to come back that they cannot aid teachers in improving instruction.

But what about other tests? My suggestion to parents who are unsure is: Ask questions! Lots of them. Insist to know what tests your child’s school will be administering, what they’re for, if they are used to evaluate teachers, how much time they consume, what they cost (in the case of STAR, which I heard was one of the less expensive state-mandated third-party assessment tools, it still costs our district far more than we received in Race to the Top grant money). Some tests might seem innocent–they might not be used to judge teachers, or you might be told they are used to see if the students are learning what they should. But as a parent, please follow your heart. I, for one, can never support a mandate like STAR, which wastes district money while other valuable things are being cut back or eliminated, even if the teacher’s evaluation isn’t at stake. Part of the reason we are opting out of kindergarten is because I feel there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to even care about a child’s formal academic progress at such a young age. Yet it must be evaluated using STAR pre-and post-tests in both ELA and math. Tests comes in many different forms and there can never be a definitive list for every school or even for every parent. Although I personally believe that assessment does not have to come in the form of a test, I am not against a teacher using tests as a measure of formative or summative assessment for his or her own classroom use.

We as parents must arm ourselves with information. We must do what we feel is in the best interests of our own children. And that does not mean we have to agree on everything. Our actions need to fit within our comfort zones. But if your gut puts you on high alert, don’t be afraid to open up dialogue with your school. And don’t stop until all of your questions are answered. And if something doesn’t feel right, please do exercise your parental right to guide and direct the upbringing of your children, including their experiences at school. Be courteous and communicative. You never know how this might aid you in requesting an alternate form of assessment for your child.

These are just my humble opinions, mind you. The first step–information! Get it where ever/ however you can! And use it to make informed decisions. Most importantly, if you’re sure, don’t back down.