Opting out

Sassafras is barely halfway through kindergarten, but there is one thing I already know about her third grade year, unless I see major changes in American educational practices: she won't take standardized tests.

Usually initiated in the third grade (though every state has its own guidelines), children undergo a series of assessments supposedly intended to determine what they have learned during the school year. This is the way it is and has been done for decades in public schools, and I have a bone to pick with the Establishment.

Put up your dukes, Establishment.
  • As a parent, I am adamantly opposed to subjecting my child to unnecessary stress or anxiety. The testing conditions required for standardized tests heap pressure on kids (seats in arrangements different from their normal routine, absolute silence, even if they finish early they have to just sit silently-no reading or drawing, writing out explanations for responses-even math-writing in special boxes but not one stray mark outside the box or the answer document is invalid, bubbling in exactly the right answer in exactly the right bubble and with the bubble perfectly filled but stay inside the bubble lines or your answer document may not be scored correctly...for a start). It also places undue pressure on teachers; trained state or district monitors visit every school to make sure everyone is following the rules. As a teacher, failing to enforce testing conditions means loss of your certification and likely loss of your job. You are required by state law to sign an annual contract stating as much.  
  • As an educator, I wholly disagree with using one criterion-referenced assessment to make assumptions about a teacher or a child. We are repeatedly indoctrinated at the undergraduate and graduate levels that using one evaluation method is insufficient to paint a picture of what a learner knows, and furthermore is rather languid pedagogy. It is hypocritical to teach us that other, varied methods of evaluation are superior but then require us to administer standardized assessments every spring. I also find it revolting that the whole premise of AYP is that every student and even more so, every teacher, is held to a standard of perfection. This is wholly unrealistic and incredibly damaging to the profession. More on that another day. It's positively madness. 
  • As a taxpaying citizen, I am positively livid that the tests are largely political in nature. I won't delve into No Child Left Behind or the current Race to the Top, but suffice it to say that one is the Right's solution to a perceived problem in how American students compare worldwide and one is the Left's. For all their hem-hawin' in Congress, both NCLB and RttT look and feel the same for teachers and students in any American classroom today. It's a nasty little trickle-down that goes like this: 
    • Legislators make laws and place pressure on the state departments of education to ensure that public schools rate highly on the tests. They use certain types of funding as a threat if states' public schools do not meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals (which, by the way, stipulate that every child in the nation will score the highest level possible on their exams by 2014). 
    • State departments and the federal department of education ride individual school districts, with threats of citations if certain progress is not made on improved test scores. Funding is once again used as a threat, as well as pressure of state take-over if a district fails to progress. 
    • School districts hit administrators with the emphasis of how considerably important it is that their schools score well on the tests. Funding for the district and for individual schools depends on it. 
    • Principals pressure teachers and parents to do anything and everything, just shy of inventing a way to literally crack kids' heads open and pouring knowledge in, to make their students get every question correct on the tests. If they don't, the school might get a red box and funding might be affected or they might be labeled as a "failing school."For teachers, if they don't follow testing procedures to a T, they are threatened with losing their certification. 
    • Parents, for the most part, understand only that the tests seems to be pretty important, given all the school's talk about it. Kids are promised treats if they come to the school and do their best on the test, because, of course, 100% participation is a must. Miss any students and individual schools suffer citation. They might get a red box on their AYP status report, which manages to make headlines every single summer. 
    •  Teachers feel all this weight: from lawmakers, from the federal and state governments, from the district leadership, and from their administrators to do whatever it takes to prepare their kids for the tests. In 11 years of being an educator, I've never personally encountered a teacher who cheated, but it happens every single year.  Some teachers believe in standardized tests, others do not; regardless, in this issue you do as you're told and administer or proctor the tests or risk a memorandum of grievance from your superiors in your permanent file. I've never refused to administer a test and have no plans for doing so in the future; I just try to smile a lot as I read my scripted testing manual and encourage the students to breathe. 
I have studied the traces of standardized tests throughout American history and do agree that they were a valid response to the hot mess that was the 70s for public education. Those in favor of modern standardized tests do have some good reasons for their positions, but they aren't good enough to negate my concerns as a parent, educator, and citizen. As a mommy of three little girls who will attend public schools, it is the Captain's and my responsibility to do the research and make a decision about what is best for our children. For now, that means opting out.

What does it mean for yours?

Opting Out Resources

National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Opting Out of More than Just Standardized Tests

Testing: What Every Parent Should Know

Student "Zombies" Protest Standardized Testing

Dear Teacher

Opting Out: A Growing Movement 

Schools Matter

A Dream to be Free at Last

State by State Standards and Testing Practices

Books on my to-read list:

Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It 

The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don't Tell You What You Think They Do 

A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing

The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools