Why We Chose to Opt Out

Thousands of children in our state are headed into schools today to take standardized tests mandated by the federal government under No Child Left Behind. Our fourth grade son won't be one of them.

Opting your children out of standardized tests is a very personal decision, and one that has been far more difficult to make than we originally thought it would be. There has been a lot of attention given in the media lately to children who won't be taking standardized tests and the parents who have chosen to opt them out. In response to this attention, those who have the most to gain from high stakes testing have begun to push back, even chastising parents for their personal choices.

Today's post is dedicated to explaining the personal decision we made to opt our son out of standardized testing. In writing this I don't hope to convince you to opt your own children out of future testing. In fact, that's why I waited until today to post this, to provide some food for future thought.

I'm an educator, an academic and a parent. In the current climate of education in the U.S. I have very little power over my kids' education in any of these three roles. As an educator I have watched politicians, corporations and wealthy philanthropists take more and more control over K-12 schools. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards are all examples of how education is guided by those with wealth and power rather than those with wealth of knowledge.

No Child Left Behind started us down this path in 2002 by tying federal money to standardized tests. Give the tests or lose out on millions in Title I funds that go to schools with the neediest children. President Obama used the billions of dollars that were part of his Race to the Top to program to double down on NCLB by enticing states to compete for grants. In return, states were expected to adopt a common set of college and career ready standards (CCSS) and institute teacher evaluation systems that used test scores to measure teacher performance.

In the future, these test scores will be based on the Common Core State Standards, a set of de facto national standards that were created undemocratically, were not written by single classroom teacher, endured absolutely no field testing, suffer from dubious developmental appropriateness, and were forced down the necks of states by the federal government during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

So its no wonder that we sometimes see schools and teachers losing their minds in order to make sure that their students do well on these tests. They are required to administer them, federal monies are attached to them, their performance evaluations depend on them, and the legislatures of some states are already looking for ways to make it easier to fire them. Standardized tests are a gun that is being held to the livelihood of every public school teacher in the United States. Knowing all this makes it easier to understand why some schools have turned to disturbing practices like DATA WALLS, forcing teachers to teach from scripted lesson plans that don't allow for differentiation, narrowing the curriculum to focus on tested subjects rather than a well-rounded education, and judging studentsby the numbers they produce.

Meanwhile, a $500 billion dollar national market has been created in education thanks to Common Core and the endless tests our states and schools purchase. The Education sector is now 9 percent of G.D.P in the United States. That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Money. And there is no shortage of "edupreneurs" who are jumping into that market to get their share of the pot. As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the "status quo" is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and "dumping the losers" are the way to get it done. The only problem is that none of this is true. None of it. Don't believe me? Read this. Or this. Or this. Good old common sense says these reforms will work. High quality research says they don't. In fact, we have been trying to "save" our public schools with standards, testing and reforms for so long that they've actually become the "status quo".

It is the test that binds all of this insanity together. Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with. Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states. Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners. Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are. Without the tests, there wouldn't be a target on our teachers.

But tests aren't really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used. Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve. When used for that purpose, tests are great. Still limited, but great. However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive. As long as high stakes standardized tests -- despite their limitations -- are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.

There isn't much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I'm allowed. But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that's exactly what my wife and I have decided to do. Federal laws clearly give us the right as parents to guide the education of our children. While the Secretary of Education has recently pushed for changes to those laws in order to give corporations as much access to your child's data as any teacher or administrator has, he hasn't been able to take away our right to decide what's best for our child. Not yet anyway.

So we're exercising that right. We're taking one bullet out of the standardized test gun that is being held to the heads of our nation's schools and teachers. It's only one bullet, and there's millions more left in the chamber, but it is OUR bullet so that's what we're going to do.

Some would say that our decision actually hurts our child's school because they NEED those test scores in order to stave off the federal government's punishments under NCLB. Schools automatically "fail" under NCLB if schools don't test at least 95 percent of their students each year. We prefer to take the long view on that issue. Educators have become so concerned with meeting short term testing goals in order to avoid punishment that many of them have lost perspective and a vision for the big picture. We are far more concerned about what will happen if the status quo is allowed to continue unchallenged. We will not allow our child's test score to be used to punish schools or teachers.

Others ask, "How will you know what your child is capable of if you don't have test scores?" The answer to that is pretty simple. We trust our son's teachers. The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student's progress is a relatively recent phenomenon. There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students. We believe this should still be the case. We don't need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of. Our sons' teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son's capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren't mandated by the federal government. Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer? Even students' writing will be scored by a computer. They'll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human's writing capacity. As an expert in how kids think and learn, I'll tell you that's ridiculous. Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles. Yet in in American public education, that's quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.

These are only a few reasons why we have decided to opt our son out of high-stakes and punitive standardized tests. We don't expect everybody who reads this to agree with us. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, opting out is a very personal decision. In fact, it is the personal nature of the decision that makes it a legitimate one in our eyes. We just hope that reading this will give you something to think about as you make your own decision about your own child.

Cross-posted from EduSanity.