In my previous post, I explained (the shortened, less complicated version) what opting out is. In this post, I will publish an adaptation of my opt-out speech from the Nov. 6 education forum where I tried to articulate why opting out is one viable action parents can and should take as they advocate for their children’s education.
I spoke as a parent, to other parents. But I also spoke as an activist who has had the pleasure of communicating with thousands of opt-out parents across the state. We know it sends a powerful message that we’re sick of the stranglehold that excessive has over our schools and that we’re not going to sit back and take it. We also know that in most cases, schools were respectful of parental decisions to opt-out and worked with parents to accommodate the students who refused to participate. Although schools are required to administer tests according to mandates laid forth by the State Education Department, there is no law that requires parents to comply with something that is harmful and against our best judgement.
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 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 she said to her mother, “Mommy, I guess I’m just not a good reader.”
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 certain 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. 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. Around 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. Ichabod Crane middle school had an incredible 26% opt out rate! And guess what, no penalty. 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.
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.
We must join together and help each other navigate this issue.