What Happened When I Opted My Kids Out Of Standardized Tests

By Lisa T. McElroy for Slate

Deciding to opt my two daughters out of Colorado standardized testing seemed like a no-brainer. We aren’t permanent Colorado residents -- we’re just here for one academic year while I’m a visiting professor at the University of Denver. My daughters, ages 13 and 14, are strong students. My husband and I see no educational benefit to the tests. My younger daughter experienced some serious test anxiety a couple of years back when taking Pennsylvania’s standardized tests.

And honestly, given three things -- that, according to what a school administrator told me, Colorado law allows parents to refuse the testing on behalf of their children; that the testing enrollment forms include an option to “refuse testing”; and that we currently live in Boulder, one of the most liberal, individualistic towns in America -- we truly didn’t think this would be a big deal.

Boy, were we wrong.

On Monday, about 15 minutes after I sent an email to the guidance counselors at the public high school and middle school informing them that I was opting my two daughters out, I got a call from the middle-school principal. I don’t know about you, but I can never get anyone from school to call me back in under a day or so. But here was the principal herself, instantaneously calling me in response to an email that I hadn’t even sent to her.

She started out very soft and calm. “Mrs. McElroy,” she said. “We’ve just received word that your daughter isn’t going to take the TCAPs. We are so disappointed. Won’t you change your mind?”

When I answered that I very much appreciated her call but was going to stick by my decision, she offered several reasons why my daughter should take the test. First, taking TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the relatively new set of state standardized tests) would help my daughter on the ACT. Huh. Given that she’s only in seventh grade, I wasn’t buying that one. The principal then said that the test would show us how our daughter was doing academically. But we get a report card every six weeks, and we can follow her progress in real time through an online school portal that lists her grade on every assignment, so we’re all set in that regard. One more try. The test results, she said, reward teachers by showing them that they are doing a good job. My reaction: And seeing their students’ progress doesn’t?

But when the lawyer in me started pushing back, pointing out to the principal that none of her arguments was especially convincing, I got nowhere. Including off the phone. The principal kept going on. And on. And on. My daughter really should take it. She was the only child in the entire school who was opting out. She might feel weird, being different from all the other kids.

I told the principal that was a risk that I was willing to take. And then I told her that I was on my only break of the day, trying to have a bite of lunch, and I was going to have to go now.

Next up: an email from the high-school principal. True, this one was not directed solely at me -- it was addressed to all ninth- and tenth-grade parents -- but I had to wonder about the timing, given that it arrived only hours after my email to the school. In the email, the principal said, “[P]lease know that I am requesting all ninth and tenth grade students participate thoughtfully in the exam and do their absolute best for both themselves and our school. We really need your support!” He went on to describe the ramifications of not testing, including that the school’s rating might fall if enough kids did not participate, kids who didn’t take TCAPs would not get “growth projections” (is that code for “placed in high-level classes”?), and kids who didn’t test would be marked absent and might not be allowed to participate in athletics or extracurricular activities that day.

The high-school principal also mentioned that the tests helped prep students for the ACT and SAT; his argument was perhaps more logical than the middle-school principal’s when applied to high-school students but still without the support of empirical analysis or other evidence.

The next day the schools informed us that the kids could not be on school grounds during testing. For my older daughter, this wasn’t a big deal because TCAP lasted all morning, and she could just go into school at 1 p.m. But my middle-schooler had to go to school for first period, then come home, then go back to school three hours later. For several days. No, she couldn’t sit and read or work on a social-studies project in the school library.

She had to go home? OK. We complied. Luckily, as a law professor, I have a flexible schedule; as a full-time student, my husband does too. And so, on the first day of testing, I arrived to pick my daughter up at middle school at 9:25 a.m. I went into the office and checked her out. She and I started walking to my car. It was just as I started reaching for my keys that we realized that someone was in hot pursuit.

It was the middle-school assistant principal.

He was running after us.

He called out. “Mrs. McElroy, could I speak with you for a minute?” My daughter’s eyes grew wide. She’s not the kind of kid who ever really sees the principal. But now we had the assistant principal chasing her.

“Mrs. McElroy,” he said, “I know you’re an educator.” (Oh, goody, I thought, he’s been researching me.) “And I know you care about education.” (Yep, accurate.) “So I really hope you’ll reconsider letting your daughter take the test.”

How would you have responded? On the sidewalk? With your child?

But then he continued. “We support her. Why won’t you support our school?”

I can admit, that was a good line.

I smiled, shook his hand, and assured him that my husband and I had thought carefully about this decision. And then I got my daughter in the car and drove away.

But just like the school couldn’t let it go, neither could I. I really wanted to understand what was provoking this reaction. And so, feeling very Michael Moore about the whole thing, I set out to find exactly what the schools’ resistance might be about. (It’s here that I will admit that, while my husband and I definitely thought through our decision to opt our kids out, we consulted our guts, not research.)

I started by posting on Facebook, admittedly not the best place to gather facts. Some of the reactions were what you might think: “I applaud you and your stance,” said one Facebook friend. “Good for you,” said another. “Fight the power! Stick it to the man! Up with kids, down with standardized tests!” said one more, only partially facetiously.

But then some others offered perspective. One commented, “My kids certainly don’t stress about standardized tests anymore, which I suppose may be useful.” Another asked, “Could this be budget related? Or perhaps they fear that when the professor’s child opts out, others will follow?” Several said, “They want your kids’ scores to up their averages.” Maybe.

And then, bravely, some friends went against the grain of the conversation. “Teachers’ continued job security and pay can depend on how the students perform on the test -- hence the panic.” “There is enormous pressure on the school. The school is not choosing to inflict these tests -- it is forced to.”

These friends were posting from all over the country. In fact, I’d gotten more responses on the two or three Facebook statuses about opting out than I had on pretty much anything else, ever -- including the blockbuster “I got tenure!” post. But what I didn’t know was how the responses applied to Colorado.

Time to call the Colorado Department of Education. Joyce Zurkowski, the executive director of assessment, explained to me that, in Colorado, as long as a school has 95 percent participation, a kid’s opting out has no effect at all on school funding. And as of right now, the test results don’t affect teacher evaluation at all -- although they will next year. But here’s the most important thing she told me: Despite the fact that the middle-school principal herself told me I had a legal right to opt out (and none of the players in this morality play ever told us otherwise, whether explicitly or implicitly), that’s not actually true. In Colorado, kids are required by law to test. The “refuse testing” option on the enrollment forms? It’s “being phased out” because it’s “confusing.” If kids don’t show up for school on testing days? Zurkowski told me that some districts have sent truant officers to their homes.

We’re on our second day of opting out of TCAPs as I write this, and nothing else has happened, except that one high-school friend of my older daughter’s told her that his mom tried to opt him out on the same day I did it, but the school said it was “too late.” We’ve still got several days to go. I’m bracing myself. Screening calls. Telling my kids that I’m proud of them. They’re proud of themselves because they’ve taken a stand on something they think is important. It’s a great feeling.

Except: What started as a personal, family decision carries so much more weight for me now, and it’s frustrating to know that our actions aren’t making a bit of difference, beyond our household. As a school administrator friend wrote to me, “I applaud parents who opt out and I really wish more would. However, to make a true impact on the system, thousands of parents (especially of high-achieving students) would have to opt out.”

In other words, my decision to opt my kids out might have no real effect at all here in Colorado, but on the other hand if I support friends in other states in opting their kids out, I might cause teachers to be downgraded and schools to lose funding. How does any parent weigh those very real consequences against her commitment to doing what’s best for her kids? As my friend Maria McKenna, the senior associate director of the education, schooling, and society program at the University of Notre Dame, said to me last night, “It renders parents powerless when we hear about the crushing impact that opting out has on teachers and schools. But of course, teachers and administrators are powerless, too. It’s insidious.” Do I stand on my principles, both personal and political? Or do I put the interests of the very important people and institutions that educate my children above those of my kids? And how can I help ensure that more parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, policymakers recognize the craziness that is our “accountability above all else” mentality?

For now, I’m opting out of making any permanent decision about my kids’ participation in high-stakes testing. But for those who say that these tests have no educational value, I disagree, at least to this extent: Opting out of them has been a real learning experience for me.

Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law.

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