Education Opinion

Opting Out

By Nancy Flanagan — September 01, 2011 3 min read
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My son had a horrendous experience in the third grade. It’s a long, heart-breaking story, complicated by the fact that I was a teacher in the same district, but in the end we

dragged him through the school year, beaten down and--no other word for it--miserable. One of the options we considered was homeschooling him in 4th grade--getting him out of a toxic atmosphere and investing a year in his emotional and academic well-being.

For a number of reasons (including prospective loss of income), we ended up sending him back to 4th grade in the same school. The good news is that he had a warm, understanding teacher who helped rebuild his self-esteem and recapture learning he missed in his lost year--and even excel. Knowing how stressed he was, she kept tabs on him all year, reporting frequently on his academic and social progress. He caught up, moved forward, and successfully finished high school in the same district. But it was dicey for awhile.

I have some empathy for parents who find their public schools a bad, damaging fit for their kids, over the long term. And--my children did not attend elementary school in the post-NCLB era, where standardized testing has changed the daily norms of the classroom and instructional goals dramatically. Nobody is more pro-public education than I am. In the end, however, I believe parents have absolute justification to take control over their children’s schooling.

Which means empowering parents to make bold decisions, beginning with exercising their right to pull their kids out of destructive and unnecessary standardized testing. According to Dr. Yong Zhao, it would take a 6% opt-out rate to make state standardized test results invalid; when less than 95% of any student population takes a test, the data is incomplete and not useable, under NCLB. It also means the school’s AYP rating is threatened.

Think about that, for just a minute. Schools want all kids to take tests, because not taking the test could cause negative publicity for the district. Doesn’t have anything to do with the only valid purpose for testing children--to tell us what kids know, to inform further instruction. It’s all about preserving a school’s public standing, in the shame/blame game created by a reviled federal law.

It’s also a giant waste of public resources. Our tax dollars. One-third of a billion dollars has now gone into mere development (not roll-out, printing, training or scoring) of Common Core assessments alone, which will in turn render useless the billions already spent, state to state, to develop, print, administer and score standardized tests tied to state standards and curricula. All so we can have what Arne Duncan calls the same goalposts--essentially, measuring all kids by the same punitive yardstick.

Somebody’s making a lot of money on testing. And producing very little of lasting value. What would happen if we spent even 10% of that money on improving educators’ assessment literacy? Or increasing parent satisfaction with the schools we already have--providing or restoring the arts and other neglected curricular areas, reducing class size, creating new programming options to better meet the needs of 21st century kids?

There are now national movements to encourage and support parents who opt their children out of standardized testing:

The Bartleby Project begins by inviting 60,000,000 American students, one by one, to peacefully refuse to take standardized tests or to participate in any preparation for these tests; it asks them to act because adults chained to institutions and corporations are unable to; because these tests pervert education, are disgracefully inaccurate, impose brutal stresses without reason, and actively encourage a class system which is poisoning the future of the nation."

Strong words. And a project that will never get off the ground unless 6% of all public schools parents decide to take their children’s lives and education seriously enough to engage in some modest civil disobedience--and to understand that they’re not pushing back against public schools, but against a destructive law.

One at a time. I imagine parents saying “I think third grade is too young for testing; I trust his teacher’s judgment on his academic progress. Just for this one year, I choose not to force my child to take the state tests.” Then, feeling empowered, making that decision--test or no test?--annually.

We’re always looking for genuine parent involvement--what could be more important than that decision?

Photo: Alex Flanagan

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.