Who’s In to Opt Out?

Opting out is taking off. Parents, teachers, and now even entire state legislatures are saying they’ve had enough with high-stakes-testing and the damage it’s doing to education. I sat in a room with teachers here in Pittsburgh this week who told me that ten years ago they would have given one standardized test a year; now they are spending weeks upon weeks on test prep and test administration. But their students aren’t learning more. If anything they are learning less, while the high-stakes attached to the tests have radically changed what education looks like.

This radical shift was really brought home for me this week reading about Alan C. Jones, a former principal and teacher educator in Illinois, who accompanied his daughter in the search for a good public school for his grandson. After decades working in education, he reports that he was appalled at what high-stakes-testing had done to those schools he visited:

“Nothing could have prepared me for the mindlessness of the hallways, classrooms, and main offices I observed … I reviewed curriculum with no art or music and only sporadic attempts at teaching science. I followed a school schedule heavily focused on basic literacy skills. I found kindergarten programs with no recess. I observed classrooms where students were required to repeat state standards written on the chalkboard and spend hours completing mountains of worksheets designed to make children more test-savvy. … There were breaks in the day that amounted to forced marches to and from bathrooms. Following these brief breaks, students were led back to classrooms for timed tests, test-preparation games, and the distribution of awards for those who met the state standard for the day.” [Education Week, 1-22-13]

Teachers here in Southwest Pennsylvania will tell you what testing has done to their schools and their students. Ask them. Really. Go ahead and have a quiet conversation with the teachers in your local school. Most are not able to speak out publicly, for fear of losing jobs that feed their families. But ask a veteran teacher who was in the classroom ten or fifteen years ago to describe how the national obsession with testing has put handcuffs on real learning, narrowed the curriculum to math and reading, cut music, art, and library, labeled teachers and entire schools as failures, served as cover to close “failing” neighborhood schools, and cut budgets.

As you may recall, brave teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School voted two weeks ago, without a single ‘no’ vote, to refuse to administer a high-stakes-test. [See “What Education Activism Looks Like”] The student government and parent association also voted to support the action. As Garfield teacher, Jesse Hagopian, explains, “We at Garfield are not against accountability or demonstrating student progress. We do insist on a form of assessment relevant to what we’re teaching in the classroom.” [Seattle Times, 1-17-13] The district superintendent warned that the administration expects all teachers to administer the test. [Seattle Times, 1-14-13] Yet by its own admission the test results are not valid for high-schoolers and the former superintendent purchased the test for $4 million while sitting on the board of the company that makes it.

The threat to those teachers has led to a groundswell of support from leading educators all over the country. This week Brian Jones, a New York City teacher and doctoral student, drafted a statement supporting the teacher’s opt out movement and saying that, “High stakes standardized tests are overused and overrated.” University of Washington professor Wayne Au helped reach out to education researchers and says, “We contacted leading scholars in the field of education and nearly every single one said ‘Yes, I’ll sign.’ The emerging consensus among researchers is clear: high stakes standardized tests are highly problematic, to say the least.” [BrianPJones blog, 1-21-13]

Over the past few days, more than 230 educators have signed the fully researched and documented statement that demonstrates the ways in which high-stakes-testing actually hurts students. Among the signers are some of the most well-respected names in the field of education, including former US Assistant Secretary of Education and education historian Diane Ravitch, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, author Jonathan Kozol, professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige, and MIT professor and writer Noam Chomsky. Also on the list is urban sociologist Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University who has been assisting the Pittsburgh Public Schools with their equity plan this year. Dr. Noguera was just in town last week speaking with African American male teens about becoming “promise ready” to quality for a Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship. [Post-Gazette, 1-18-13]

If these are the voices supporting opt-out, we need to be listening and thinking about what they saying. Yinzercator Stacy Bodow, a Pittsburgh Public School parent, pointed us to a terrific letter written by parents Will and Wendy Richardson in New Jersey last year, opting their son out of that state’s high-stakes-tests. The Richardsons explain, “we are basing this decision on our serious concerns about what the test itself is doing to our son’s opportunity to receive a well-rounded, relevant education, and because of the intention of state policy makers to use the test in ways it was never intended to be used.” They added, “These concerns should be shared by every parent and community member who wants our children to be fully prepared for the much more complex and connected world in which they will live.” [The Daily Riff, 4-18-12]

And if that’s not enough, consider what happened in Texas this week: the Texas House actually proposed cutting all state funding for standardized tests! Speaker Joe Straus explained, “To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing, the Texas House has heard you.” The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the proposed budget is not likely to stand, since it would have to be reconciled with the state Senate’s, which already includes money for testing. However, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post points out that this action alone “underscores growing discontent with high-stakes testing in the state where it was born when George W. Bush, as governor, implemented the precursor to No Child Left Behind, which he took national when he became president.” What’s more, “Last year about this time school districts in Texas started passing resolutions saying that high-stakes standardized tests were ‘strangling’ public schools, and hundreds of districts representing nearly 90 percent of the state’s K-12 students have followed suit.” [Washington Post, 1-24-13]

It’s clearly time to think seriously about opting out. Who’s in?

10 thoughts on “Who’s In to Opt Out?

  1. Pingback: Who’s In to Opt Out? | Change the Stakes

  2. I’m the testing coordinator at a high school, and I’ll be the first to tell you the “high stakes” testing movement is detrimental to student learning. In principle, I love what the Seattle teachers are doing, and am very curious to see how it plays out. As a devil’s advocate, though, it does occur to me that the example being set by teachers defying democratically elected school board members/legislators etc. isn’t necessarily the best message for students. Where do you draw the line?

    • Dear Dan, that’s an interesting point. My oldest is just now in third grade, so I’m still trying to figure out what tests he will have to take. I am interested in joining the opt out movement. But my understanding is that most of these tests are imposed by federal and state legislation….and by No Child Left behind. So this to me seems more like classic Civil Disobedience in the Thoreau tradition, who refused to pay taxes because he did not support the US/Mexican War. I’ve also been thinking it might be good to start a petition drive here in Pittsburgh to pressure the Pittsburgh Public Schools via the School Board to “opt out.” Even if we fail I’d like to pressure our democratically elected officials to take the action that so many of us think is the right thing for our kids.

    • Dan,
      I respectfully disagree with questioning citizens who gather together with research and support to defy “democratically elected” anyone. When my son complains about lunch periods so short he cannot finish his food, I encourage him to lead the students in speaking out. Just because he is eleven and should “do as he is told” is no reason to squelch his right to speak out for what is right. As a teacher myself, I see this shortened lunch period every single day in every public school since “accountability” through testing has destroyed public education. The learning conditions are atrocious, and it is time that the students and teachers speak out for school schedules that honor their physical and emotional needs.

      Where do you draw the line? At policies and procedures that are ruining children and teacher lives. How do you make yourself heard? By defying democratically elected school board members who hire individuals that allow such atrocities and do not allow experienced administrators and educators to care for children in humane ways.

  3. I love the Thoreau connection.

    I would also say, “at policies and procedures that are ruining children and teacher lives” and “destroyed public education” is probably a bit much, and we need to put all this in the proper perspective. High stakes testing is a serious issue, and one that needs serious attention from all stakeholders. But, when I speak to my students who have immigrated from West Africa and Latin America it really puts things in context-our kids have fantastic opportunities here.

  4. As a substitute teacher, it is heartbreaking to experience the “mindless” rows of children traveling throughout the school. It is refreshing to consider the alternative to standardize testing. Thanks for your insightful post proposing schools where teachers are encouraged to teach, not hounded with test results.

  5. I have seen the handouts used for every subject to prepare for the test. The art, PE, music, library sometimes only every other week. These are subjects that balance education. These are the subjects that keep children at school. My own software engineer husband would not have made it thruogh school except for the music program. Standardized tests limit everyone and are not in any way an indicator of important knowledge. My virtual schooled grandson must take them but we put no value or power in the scores!!! I just say right up front the tests mean nothing to anyone who asks!

  6. How did any of us manage to complete high school, college and advanced degrees and hold any kind of jobs with any manner of success when we were denied the excellence afforded today’s kids by our wealth redistributing ed reformers? It’s a miracle any of us can walk and chew gum without all of that “special sauce” running out of our ears. Sarcasm is for amateurs, irony spoken here.

  7. Pingback: The Weekly Update: Cyber buck$, high stake$ testing and charter school$. It’s all about the children, right? « Seattle Education

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