I am a middle class parent, my kids test well, and I opt out.
A few days ago, I published a blog post called “I am pro-child, and I opt out.” It detailed some of the reasons why I believe opting out of high stakes standardized tests is the right decision. In response, I have received several hesitant, interested-but-not sure yet questions from people who I consider to be my peers: they are middle class parents whose children attend stable, strong public schools.
These parents know and support their children’s teachers, and they do not want to do anything to make teachers’ jobs harder. They feel welcome at their children’s schools, and often volunteer there. They have children who do well on such high stakes tests as the MCAs (which are being given now in classrooms across Minnesota) and the MAP test (which may be given up to three times a year, from kindergarten on up). They are good people with good values, and they support their public schools.
The fact that they are now coming to me with questions is thrilling. It means cracks are forming in the iron curtain of standardized testing. It means a dialogue, a discussion, a debate is taking shape, where there has mostly been only silence and complicit acceptance of the perceived necessity of standardized testing. Those of us whose children are least likely to be deeply affected by these tests are now starting to see that they may not be good for children, and that we who are the most empowered and powerful parents in the public school system have an obligation to speak up and raise questions about the pre-ordained dominance of the test-based accountability craze defining our schools.
Let me take on a few of their questions here, along with some answers I have come up with:
- Kids need to learn how to take tests, don’t they? I don’t know, do they? Why? In our adult lives, do we really take tests? Do we take tests that we cannot see beforehand? Do we take tests that may or may not relate to our lives or what we are currently doing for work? Sure, lots of adults do take tests from time to time, and they may be high stakes tests, such as for a driver’s license, or a job-related skill. Does year after year of high stakes testing, as a child, help prepare one for such infrequent tests, which are often accompanied by study materials, and are demonstrably relevant to one’s quality of life? What do you think? But, parents say, what about the SAT and the ACT test? My oldest child is not there yet, but parents of older students have told me that these tests are taken more than once by most students, and that parents with means often pay a lot for test prep classes in preparation for the tests. So, again, how would year after year of testing, from kindergarten on up, prepare a child for the day when they take the ACT or SAT? What is the connection? If anything, I worry that all of the testing we put our kids through will mean they arrive in high school pretty burned out on testing. (Also, more colleges than ever are not even requiring ACT or SAT scores for entrance. Shh! Don’t tell Pearson!).
- My child does well on these tests, and I like seeing their scores. I know. I get it. I like getting concrete information about my children, too. But what if it turns out that these tests are pretty meaningless? What if we have put a tremendous amount of stock in a series of tests that have a high margin of error (the MAP test is notorious for this) or have been prone to mistakes and problems (last year the MCA tests were something of a joke, as the computers crashed repeatedly during testing)? What if these tests just aren’t that great? What if they are poorly written, biased, or just very limited in scope? My children—because they are middle class, white children without any known learning disabilities whose first language is English—have always done pretty well on these tests (this is our first full year of opting out). But what about the child sitting next to mine? Last year, my sixth grader expressed concern about another girl who had just arrived at the school a few weeks before testing season. This new girl didn’t speak English well and didn’t understand all of the test questions. The teacher was not allowed to help this child on the test. Should I feel glad, then, that my daughter is rewarded with good test scores, for being who she is, while the other child probably received low scores, because of who she is? I believe we must recognize that testing punishes the most vulnerable children among us. We must argue for more comprehensive, responsive, and holistic forms of assessment that challenge and reward our own children, and do the same thing for other people’s children. Also, this carries over to teachers. Because standardized test scores for students are now being used as part of an evaluation process for teachers, those who work with the most vulnerable students will be unfairly labeled as poor teachers. Or, will they buckle under pressure and try to drill their students on test-taking skills, so that they, and their students, will not be labeled failures? Did I mention that students in low-performing schools often have virtually no recess time, because their test scores are low?
- My children attend a diverse community school. Won’t opting my child out, who will perform well on the tests, hurt this school? I understand the root of this question. Good parents who have stayed in the city and who send their children to neighborhood schools as a show of support, despite the school’s low test scores, do not want to hurt the school by opting out. On the surface, this is valid. But, let’s dig a little deeper. A few teachers I know who teach at higher poverty schools have told me that “green” kids (the Minneapolis school district’s name for students who are proficient on standardized tests) get the least amount of test prep during the school day, while kids in the “yellow” (close to proficiency) and “red” zones (below proficiency) get the most. The children who do well on these tests (one kindergarten teacher I interviewed told me that these are the children who arrive at school already at the “green” level) get more of a “free pass,” then, when it comes to the most punishing effects of our test-crazed culture. They can sit and work on a creative, independent project while the lower-performing children are sequestered off in a corner, or even taken out of the classroom, for test-focused interventions. Are we really prepared to say that what these tests measure is so important that some children simply must be drilled on how to perform well on them? Higher performing kids may cause a school’s overall test scores to look a little better, but they won’t save the lowest-performing students from having their education narrowed and defined by their test scores. Opting out may, in fact, help our whole country have a new conversation about fairness, equity, and civil rights when it comes to education. If we don’t stand together, for the betterment of all children, then who, really, are we helping? The testing company’s bottom line?
This is but a sample of the questions I have received from parents. I welcome all questions, because it means our eyes and ears are opening to the restrictive, punishing, anti-child reality of high stakes testing. We do, as parents, have the right to refuse these high stakes, inefficient, and often flawed tests, and demand more for our children—for everybody’s children.
The other day, my twelve year old asked me if the state MCA test was used to place students in math and English classes for high school. I said yes, maybe it was, but that it shouldn’t be. She said, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. My friend was telling me that she couldn’t opt out of the test because then teachers wouldn’t know which high school classes to put her in. But I told her that it was okay to opt out because then teachers would have to look at all of her work and test scores over the whole year, and that that would be a better way to figure out which classes she should be in next.”