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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School District Stands Up AGAINST Testing

By Peter DeWitt — April 11, 2013 5 min read
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The Saratoga Springs City School District in upstate, NY is a high performing school district that has an outstanding reputation in academics and athletics. Their high school girl’s cross-country running team has won nationals more than a dozen times over the past few decades. The City of Saratoga is known for being the “August Place to Be” due to their world-famous thoroughbred race track.

In education circles, the school district will now be known for telling the federal and state education departments to back-off where state assessments are concerned. Dan Levy, a reporter for WNYT (News Channel 13. NBC) wrote, “The Saratoga Springs School Board did something extraordinary Tuesday night: they told the State Education Department to bud out and let them educate their kids the way they see fit.” Dan Levy

Educators and parents in New York State have an issue with the length of the exams as well as the fact that they are being tied to teacher and administrator evaluation the first year they are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. “Students are being tested on a curriculum they have not had the opportunity to learn,” asserted Karen Swift, president of the Saratoga Springs Teachers Association, “Teachers have not had the opportunity to teach. It’s like building a house on the wrong foundation.”

More and more school districts like Saratoga Springs City School District are standing up against testing because the weight of accountability and mandates have become heavier and heavier every year. Last month, the New Paltz Central School District voted on a resolution telling the NY State Education Department to decrease the amount of testing done to children. The focus on testing takes an educator’s focus away from good teaching practices and puts it on test prep.

The reality is that, even in the best districts, testing affects the social-emotional growth of students; especially high stakes testing which is so politically explosive. Testing is forcing a narrowing of the curriculum that is covered in classrooms, which hampers creativity and academic freedom.

In a recent N.Y. Times article, Bronson and Merryman wrote (2013)

Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child's academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated. The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial."

This year high stakes testing is connected to teacher and administrator evaluation across the country, which makes the test less about the student and more about the teacher. It’s a fear many of us have had for many years since our school scores began showing up in newspapers. Many educators used to think their school’s scores being published was the worst it would get.

Opting Out
Many states do not offer an option for parents to have their children opt out of state assessments but there is also no law that forces parents to make sure their child takes an exam. However, there are Commissioner Regulations which do require schools to make sure every child takes an exam. Actually, schools need to prove that at least 95% of their student population takes the exam. If they meet that requirement, states cannot cut their funding...this year.

Opting out is a serious consideration these days. Parents just need to make sure that they understand that the school has rules as well. If parents send their children into school but tell them to refuse the exam, they need to make sure that their child can sit quietly for the length of the exam. Other students are taking it and need to be provided with the best testing environment possible.

Opting out is a viable and attractive option for parents but states are making it harder and harder for schools. They are requiring schools to enforce rules for testing, such as making the child sit in the testing room even if they are not testing. States are also making sure that schools hit that 95% mark, because if they don’t, they will have serious consequences.

In the End
Parents with means have other alternatives for their children. There are options for parents who have money and do not want their children to be exposed to testing and one-size-fits-all mandates. Some of these parents are rightfully choosing private schools while others are choosing Montessori Schools.

Why wouldn’t they?

There are many private options that are not held to the same standardized accountability that the public school system is held too. Even the Commissioner of Education in New York State chooses Montessori over the public school system he leads.

Montessori Schools are often known for their academic freedom and lack of standardized testing. Something the public school is no longer known for in the U.S. Isn’t choosing a Montessori School merely a wealthy way of opting out?

School districts across the country should learn some lessons from schools like Saratoga Springs and New Paltz and the countless other school districts around the United States that are choosing to write board resolutions. Until state education departments hear the collective voices of students, educators and parents, they may never change.

If parents choose to have their child opt out but send them to school, please consider the following:
Civil Disobedience - Make sure your child understands that if they are attending school on the day of the exam, they are required by the state to sit with a test in front of them. Most schools allow students to read a book quietly after the exam is finished. What is there plan when your child refuses to take the exam?
Compliance vs. Non-Compliance - Is not taking the test better than taking it? Meaning, will a child feel as much stress and anxiety not taking the exam as they do actually taking the exam? This is only a question the parents and teachers can answer.
School Response - Parents who choose to opt their children out of an exam will most likely receive a formal letter from their child’s school stating that there is not an option to opt out of the state assessments. In some cases, schools have gone so far as to threaten that they will call Child Protective Services (CPS). This is clearly ludicrous and CPS has more important issues to deal with than opting out of state testing, like dealing with physical and emotional abuse.
Future Plans - If parents are choosing to opt out for the first time, what will their plan be next year? Will this be the only year they opt out? Or is this the beginning of a long history of opting out? What exams will their children be able to take? Parents should make sure they have a plan for the future and make sure it is clearly articulated to their children.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.