No, You Cannot Test My Child

Dear Local Education Authority (LEA), State Education Authority (SEA), and Federal Education Bureaucrat (FEB?),

We are rapidly approaching the annual state-mandated testing ritual in public school, and it has become evident that all of you are a little nervous about that. I know this because you keep sending letters to each other about how important it is that every LEA test 95 percent of all children in every school and that every SEA make certain that LEAs know just how important this is. Last Fall, FEB Ann Whalen sent a dozen SEAs letters explaining to them just how important it is that they meet their testing requirements and suggesting a range of measures, both persuasive and punitive, if LEAs did not make their testing goals. This was followed by another letter to all states essentially reiterating the point. SEAs have been busy trying to impress upon their LEAs how seriously they take the federal requirement to test 95 percent of all students in all schools although with different approaches. In Connecticut, state officials have more or less threatened LEAs, while New York, home of the largest test refusal movement in the country, has tried to woo back refusing parents to the wonderful world of testing with a series of concessions on the use of tests for teacher assessment and the timed nature of the tests and a nifty "tool kit" to explain how awesome testing can be.

So, okay, I get it: A lot of you SEAs have been nervous about what the FEBs are saying, and you are pressuring your LEAs to use both honey and vinegar to convince parents to just up and let their kids be tested already.

You still can't test my kid.

I know that you are supposed to try to convince me, otherwise, and it is probably too much to ask you to save yourself the time. However, if you do feel the need to persuade me that the testing ritual is excellent and worthwhile, you should know that I have heard most of your arguments, and, frankly, you need new ones.

To begin with, I am actually aware that my children will take tests during their lives, and it is not my intention to keep them from ever experiencing a standardized test. The thing is that most of those tests will actually serve some purpose for their lives if and when they take them. While standardized test measures are of questionable quality for college, graduate school, or professional school admission, where they are required to pursue those goals, my children will take them at the appropriate time. You should also know that I expect my children to take teacher made tests throughout their education. Tests and other assessments are part of an education, and professional teachers know how to use all kinds of tools to see how well their students are learning.

But when tests used for a state accountability system take nine hours - 6 hours LONGER than the LSAT and and an hour and half longer than the MCAT - and when the tests have to be taken every.single.year - something is seriously out of whack. Of course, the tests themselves are not the only issue. Because of the incentives attached to these tests, districts and schools across the country spend far more time preparing for and practicing test taking than any scheme for school accountability can justify. Robert Pondiscio, Vice President of External Affairs for the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, gets this and has urged federal officials to back off the warped incentive systems that make standardized tests an end unto themselves. He's argued that as long as punishing consequences for schools and teachers are attached to testing, we will have this problem. So far, he hasn't been listened to much.

So I expect that my children will taken standardized tests - possibly many over the course of their lives. But when a state accountability test consumes so much time and is attached to stakes that warp my children's education, well, the cart is definitely in front of the horse.


Further, I already know that it is a matter of faith at the Federal DOE that without testing we can never look a second grader in the eye and tell her 'You're on track, you're going to be able to go to a good college, or you're not.' Frankly, if that is your goal for a conversation with a 7 year old child, then I'd kindly ask you to never visit a school, thanks, but beyond that, it remains a horrible failure of imagination to think that a state accountability test is our best and most essential way to check whether or not an individual child is learning. If you really want to increase the ability of parents to understand how well their children are doing, there are tools with far greater sophistication - that teachers could actually use in their classrooms - than an accountability test given in April whose results don't come back until the next school year is well underway. In fact, considering the amount of time in the school year spent scrambling to prepare for and to administer state tests, it is entirely counter-intuitive to think these tests are really good for telling me how my children are doing. And if we need to increase parental engagement with their children's education in all of our communities, what makes more sense? Investing in strategies and programs that are proven to help parents and guardians connect with school? Or a two page score report that doesn't include the slightest hint of what kind of test questions the test taker got wrong or how to learn from them?

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

I also understand that you want me to know that without a system of annual standardized testing with full participation then there will be no accountability for my local schools and they will be free to ignore the needs of minority children at will. This is certainly an argument that has been made with vigor, and it is one our friends the FEBs have insisted is the primary reason for testing every child in every year. I will admit there is something to this argument - not because annual testing has been a great force for making education for all students equitable. Fifteen years in and test-based accountability has been pretty wretched at that goal. It is, however, true that our school system has nowhere near the distribution of opportunity that would make the promise of a democratic school system a reality.

But test-based accountability has the whole thing reversed. We have a test-based "achievement gap" which reflects the opportunity gap that exists across communities all over the country. To suggest that the test measured gaps result in the economic gaps ignores every bit of nuance and complexity that we know about both poverty's impacts and how segregation by income concentrates large percentages of children from poor households into specific neighborhoods. The connection between poverty and tested results is so tight that Dr. Christopher Tienken and colleagues of Seton Hall University were able to use census data to accurately predict student proficiency scores on state tests in different communities. State accountability testing is telling us very little that we do not already know.

On the other hand, those same tests have been giving ammunition to policies that insist upon educational "improvement" without focusing upon the resources necessary to work successfully with high need students: smaller class sizes, wrap around services, teacher retention policies, facility improvements, extended programs and after school supervision - none of it is free and very little of it has been offered to schools and districts under threat because of lagging test scores. Instead of genuine investment in their schools and communities, these neighborhoods are offered the "creative disruption" of school privatization that saps resources from fully public schools without accountability - all justified by test scores. No wonder then that there is a small but significant and growing conversation among civil rights activists about whether or not annual testing is the tool it was presented to be in NCLB.

My family does understand the pressure you are under, LEA. The SEA, under a lot of heat from the FEBs, has been issuing dire warnings if 95 percent of all students are not tested. Most of that is just hot air, however, and as long as you do actually test the children whose families do not opt out, you have done what you can reasonably be expected to do. We've spoken as a family all together, adults and children, and we simply do not think that any of the arguments you have made or are likely to make in favor of annual testing are going to sway us. When there is a state accountability system that is rational and used as the basis for helping schools, teachers, and students, when we accept that community and school improvement have to happen together, and when we recognize that we cannot improve schools without committing the necessary resources, then we'll reconsider our decision.

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.