Okay, so last spring we were in the midst of third grade testing mania, which I wrote about here and here. We ended up opting one of our children out of the Reading SOL, which we consider to be the least legitimate of the tests. Although the staff and faculty at our children's school were reasonable, kind, and accommodating, it was still quite a difficult process. We had to write an official letter (which I may include in a separate post), we had several conversations with testing coordinators, we had to accept that opting out meant a big fat "FAIL" on my son's score sheet, and we had to coach our son on how to decline to take the test.
In Virginia, or at least as far as we were advised, there is no code for parent opt-out, so our son was listed as "refusal/disruption" and also given a score of "0"/ FAIL. Luckily, there was no retribution for our son not taking the test. When I asked if he would be placed in remedial reading programs, the testing coordinator laughed and said, "Of course not. We know what strong reader he is." Also, while I've heard of different policies in other districts, according to our county testing coordinator, the policy was that if a student missed an SOL test (we kept him home that day), the school was (despite our letter stating that it was our wish that our son not take the Reading SOL) required to offer him a another chance to take the test. So, there was a bit of theater where someone came by and asked him to take the test and we coached him to say, "No, thank you. Please ask my parents if you have any questions." This was not easy for our son to do as he is not a defiant kid (not in school anyway) and scared to death of attracting any negative attention to himself.
Did we want to go through all of this again this year? Not if we didn't have to. For us, the decision to opt out is a complicated one and unfortunately people at both extremes of the conversation don't do justice to that.
I've heard test-based accountability enthusiasts say that opting one's children out of high stakes testing is akin to opting them out of vaccinations. This is an awful analogy. There is broad scientific consensus about the individual and public health benefits of vaccines (see here for a series of posts I wrote about vaccines a few years ago). There is no scientific consensus on the individual or public educational benefits of high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, if anything scientific consensus seems to be advising against our current regime of high-stakes testing (see here and here). Furthermore, there are ways for parents to opt their children out of vaccines if vaccines will be a threat to their health--think of, for example, children with compromised immune systems. There is no similar way to opt out from testing children who suffer psychological trauma or for whom high-stakes testing is wholly inappropriate. That's why we have severely mentally disabled children and hospitalized children being forced to take tests. But even if my child is not hospitalized or disabled or will not suffer psychological trauma, opting my child out I would not put the rest of the population at risk or pose a threat to public health.
On the other hand, I've heard some who favor opting out compare high-stakes testing to child abuse and collaborating with repressive dictatorships. Educators and public school parents/supporters are in a tough place right now. Do we really need to bash them more than they're already being bashed?
As I've said in the past, it can be hard to balance supporting our local public schools while being in opposition to the undue emphasis on standardized testing, which discourages good practice, erodes the professional trust that most teachers deserve, narrows curricula, and corrupts a rich and meaningful learning process for students. But schools are already judged in great part on standardized test (SOL) scores and this year, teachers in Virginia, including in our district, are being evaluated in part based on the SOL scores of their students. This puts us in an ethical pickle. Our kids go to a mixed-SES school. It is 50% FRL. As white middle class people, we come from a place of privilege. Our kids do well on these tests. We don't want our individual choice to punish the school or the other kids in the school. What good will it do if the school doesn't make AYP has had to be put on probation and then risk state takeover or closure. Why not leverage our privilege to help keep this good, mixed-SES school open? The school didn't choose to be evaluated this way. What fault of it is theirs? Why should we contribute to their (and our community's) potential sanctioning?
Second, is opting out fair to the teacher? Our children's teachers come to work everyday--they come early and they stay late. They are prepared for class. They give our children as much individual attention as is possible given rising work loads and class sizes. They are responsive to us, responding to e-mails late at night. They are caring. They are underpaid. Again, why should they have to contend with a "FAIL" on their record when they have not failed to do their jobs adequately, if not supremely, and when our children have been well-taught and cared for?
I appreciate that others may do this moral calculus and decide that opting out is for the greater good, but I could not in good conscience do this again given the above-stated considerations.
That all being said, I don't blame people for opting their children out. I think we should all have that as a genuine option and it makes me angry that we don't. When my studious, vigorously-reading children come home from a day of high-stakes reading testing wiped out, anxious, and fearful that they've failed "because many of the questions had more than one right answer," it is crazy-making and heart-breaking and can make me feel like a bad parent for not opting out. After all, we can opt out of family life education and other programs that we deem harmful or inappropriate. I am heartened when I see voucher and parent trigger advocates also advocate for parent choice about standardized testing. Unfortunately, this type of consistency is rare.
Sadly, it is not just the tests themselves that are problematic. NCLB dictates that that students be tested in reading and math every year from third through eighth grades and then once in high school and that schools meet certain benchmarks on those tests or face punitive consequences. The state of Virginia goes beyond that and requires SOL tests in multiple subjects. I believe those to be wrong but I acknowledge that individual districts and schools have no control over these mandates. I am also glad in a warped way, though deeply ambivalent, that at least the science, social studies and writing tests protect in some way the teaching of those subjects.
But then many schools go beyond simply giving students a brief tutorial in test format and then administering the test There is constant testing, test prep and test build-up: benchmark tests, multiple choice assessments in the same format of the SOLs, practice tests, test pep rallies, prizes for receiving certain scores on the tests, and skipping art, music, PE, science, social studies, foreign language, and sometimes recess to do test prep or because of testing. Paul Bruno wrote a good post about how schools build up testing and contribute to test anxiety. They are trying to motivate students and to engage them in the process and to normalize testing, but they are really just normalizing the anxiety.
The best education is one that involves a rich and diverse curriculum where kids learn lots of stuff and read lots of books. Good leadership or bad, America's public schools students largely aren't getting that right now. Test prep and practice does not facilitate a rich and meaning full education and what's more, it doesn't even facilitate a meaningful boost in test scores.
So, by all means lets protest and work to end poor education policy and end high-stakes standardized testing. In the meantime, I am mostly willing comply with what is required. But I vigorously protest all the rest; it's not necessary, it doesn't work, and it's poor practice.