When Stakes are High and Outcomes Questionable, Parents Should Resist

I am the parent of two grown children. Luckily, I did not have to face the challenges of high stakes testing while my children were in public school. I am quite sure, however, that I would have adopted the same philosophy that I used with other decisions affecting my children: Present them with challenges that are fair, that represent a "stretch," and are achievable with hard work. Protect them from experiences that are stacked against them, lack clarity of purpose and do not serve them well for the future. As such, I would be opting them out of the high stakes tests that are flooding classrooms throughout the country. My decision would also be informed by my role as a teacher, principal, superintendent and professor of education for 45 years.

I have been invited to speak about the tests to dozens of PTAs in my local area. My conversations with teachers and parents are heartening and heartbreaking at the same time. Many are courageous enough to take a stand and resist what they see as a program that is hurtful to children and others are fearful and confused about what to do. I honor the parents' struggle with this decision and make no judgements about what they finally decide to do.

Many do not know what to believe. They express a frustration and an impatience with the policy makers and the federal and state mandates that insist upon a one-size-fits all, highly standardized approach to teaching and learning. Several themes surface during these PTA meetings which are often attended not only by parents but by public school teachers, higher ed faculty and concerned citizens.

The spring rite in public schools in New York is state testing in ELA and mathematics. Tests are delivered to 700 plus districts across the state with a level of security and secrecy rivaling pentagon protocols. Teachers are instructed not to discuss the test details with anyone and students are made to think that if they violate testing rules they have committed a serious crime. This would be a cartoon version of education, but sadly this is no joke since the state officials are dead serious about consequence for those who disobey.

This heavy-handed approach would be an egregious violation of a school's contract with parents to protect and care for youngsters' developmental needs in school even if the tests were useful. BUT, these state tests will not yield valid information that is useable by any reasonable standard. Results will not be available for months, and then the particulars of individual student deficits will not be revealed. This information does little or nothing to improve instruction. The tests are based on the Common Core Standards, a set of standards that have not been successfully piloted and are widely seen as inappropriate for many children. Test results will be used to measure the success of teachers and administrators and schools. This outsize weight brings into serious question how much emphasis is put on test prep to the exclusion of other meaningful school activities. And there are other trespasses as well that aggravate and disturb parents who are paying attention.

The stress that is put on the whole system is troubling. The stress put on individual students is unconscionable. Reports of everything from pleas not to go to school to cries of "I'm stupid" to children hurting themselves to avoid testing are not just your everyday rebellions against school rules and regulations. Children are anxious beyond anything that we have seen in the past. And, we know that when children -- all of us for that matter -- are anxious, performance suffers. Again, even if we believed that standardized testing made sense, we are still not seeing results that reflect student potential.

Individual testing and ranking does not yield a college and career ready individual who will ultimately be successful in the world. Only through collaborative experiences, where mistakes are seen as opportunities, and in organized searches for creative outlets and new ways of thinking, does the classroom buzz with excitement. Preparing to bubble in test items creates a self-limiting approach to learning at best and a soul-crushing experience at worst. Children have genius to spare if we provide them with a fertile environment to nurture that genius. With the tests, as they are currently constituted, we amputate our children's individual genius and truncate the collective genius of our nation.

So, for many reasons, I would not allow my children to take the state tests. I admire those teachers who have taken a stand against the overthrow of developmentally appropriate education. I applaud those parents who have the courage to refuse to allow their children to participate in a system that is terribly flawed; I am sad for those parents who remain in limbo, not sure what to do.

For those who choose to refuse the testing there is one less talked about bonus -- teaching your children that they can say no when something is bad for them.

That's an education.