By Mariam G. MacGregor, author of Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens: Promoting Attitudes and Actions for Respect and Success
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once described backlash from parents against standards and the accompanying standardized testing as stemming from parents’ fear that their kids’ results might show that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
The fallacy here is that by the time state testing occurs—generally in late spring—if a student is found to have been struggling academically (is less than “brilliant”), receiving results in summer or early fall is useless. Parents know firsthand, and almost immediately, when their children are struggling by wisely relying on exams and projects designed and graded by teachers. Conferences with teachers also play an important role.
In my experience, arguments that state standardized tests for kids in third through eighth grade measure career and college readiness are also false. Working in higher education, I see the negative effects of years of standardized testing—that is, how not college- and career-ready students are. An increasing number of the students I work with have difficulty writing without a prompt, and they refrain from taking intellectual risks or initiative in projects. They struggle with critical thinking, hesitate to engage in complex discourse, and seek “correct” answers and instructional prescriptions. They want to know the right response and the right approach. Filling in the bubbles of multiple-choice questions has not prepared them for dealing with life’s gray areas.
Deciding to Opt Out
The decision to opt out of standardized testing is personal and private. My family keeps it low-key (well, until this blog post). Two weeks before official testing days, I write a brief letter to the principal and assigned counselor, letting them know that my kids are opting out. I highlight the tests as ineffective tools for measuring deep and authentic learning, student growth, and teacher talent. If you’re considering opting out, you likely have a litany of reasons from which to choose: results tied to funding and used as markers of teacher success, inexperienced test reviewers, excessive instructional time spent teaching to the test, publishing and grading errors, and the financial burden to public schools. All these reasons are well-articulated by educational experts nationwide. Some parents prefer writing a letter challenging that the length of time and number of days used for testing exceeds state law (in Texas, HB 743). For others, the pressure and burden put on kids is what drives their decision to opt out.
Even without state testing, kids take plenty of other tests. This past February, our daughter spent six out of ten class days taking local and district tests (called benchmarks). Two days involved four hours of testing each. Her butt hurt. Her joy of school waned during that time. The entire school ate lunch in silence and played quiet games at recess so no one could talk about the questions. (She found this dumb because “the last thing we want to do at lunch and recess is talk about tests.” Remember third grade? We were nine.) Still, even with the time involved, we expected her to take these tests because they were district-designed, results were issued in a week, and teachers encouraged questions afterward. These tests served their purpose by demonstrating to our daughter, her teachers, and us that she’s on track. That’s what matters. But by the second week of this school year, teachers had already communicated to parents that in addition to benchmark tests, the class would be getting ready for the state tests (Texas STAARs), which are scheduled in May! Despite teachers’ best efforts, teaching to the test is insidiously infiltrating the entire school year.
Until the emphasis on standardized testing is reduced, opting out can be an option that works for many. For parents considering it, many state and national resources can help you make your decision, for example, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing and United Opt Out National.
The Pushback Against Opting Out
In some states and school districts, choosing to opt out (or refusing the test) requires stamina. The Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation (CSAI) provides a report on state efforts to minimize opting out. If you read it the way I do, the takeaway is that policy makers believe they make sounder decisions than parents, kids, and the teachers who spend thousands of hours teaching kids do. Testing companies also work hard—spending millions lobbying for pro-testing policies—to increase state testing, or at least maintain the status quo, because testing is a $2 billion a year business.
Because state and federal policy makers issue accountability grades for school districts and tie funding to results, your local administration may push back on your decision to opt out. Off the record, teachers and administrators will express their disagreement with state testing and appreciate your decision. On the record, they’ll ask you to avoid saying you’re opting out or encourage you to reconsider. Friends may do the same. Your kids’ friends may rib them about skipping school, but openly wish their parents would opt out, too.
Our Family’s Decision
When talking as a family about opting out of the high-stakes state tests, we’ve framed it like this:
Your brain is a muscle—school is the workout, your teachers are the coaches. When your brain needs to stretch more, you can ask questions. STAAR tests are made by people who don’t know you or your teachers. You can’t ask questions, and you can’t learn more about what you don’t know. Plus, decision makers use STAAR scores to say how good or bad your teachers are without ever seeing them in action.
Then our kids choose. Our oldest took some tests through eighth grade because there were fewer, they took less time, and teachers weren’t forced to teach to the test all year. But testing has been more intrusive since we moved to Texas a few years ago, and our other two children have chosen differently. On state testing days, our kids don’t get the day off. Instead, they engage in authentic learning. They’ve learned about flight patterns from a flight control deck officer, evaluated wildlife feeding patterns and land conservation practices, and written and illustrated a short story before doing a live reading. Standardized test days aside, our kids are expected to be in their classrooms actively engaging as lifelong learners, completing coursework and reliable tests and assessment techniques used by their wonderful teachers.
Every year we receive state test scores when they come out. Surprise! Our kids score all zeros. As if we’re expecting anything else.
After eighth grade, all of our kids are expected and prepared to take certain standardized tests that are tied to college and career readiness. For example, in high school we expect them to take end-of-course or AP exams, ACTs or SATs, and local and district tests that measure specific knowledge benchmarks.
If parents, teachers, and school boards opted out/refused the test to the point that high-stakes testing was minimized in education, how would you reimagine the modern K–12 experience?
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., served as the school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school in Colorado. While there, she received honorable mention for Counselor of the Year. Now, she’s a nationally recognized leadership consultant who works with schools (K–12 and higher education), nonprofit agencies, faith groups, companies, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. She’s also assistant director of the Neeley Professional Development Center at Texas Christian University. Visit her website (mariammacgregor.com) for additional youth leadership resources.
Free Spirit books by Mariam MacGregor:
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