Letters from the opt out movement
To test or not to test? The growing national opposition to standardized testing has led to a slew of powerful opt-out letters written by parents. Read two of those letters here.
The future of public education hinges on high-stakes standardized testing. Starting May 2015, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) will replace the 40-year-old Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) and mandates that:
With exam results influencing school rankings, teacher evaluations, grade retention, and student placement, standardized tests — which are driven largely by corporate interests — have generated rifts between parents, students, teachers, and education reformers. Can the effectiveness of teachers or the maturation and intelligence of a child be quantified?
Opting Out/Refusing the tests is a burgeoning movement that aims to reclaim schools with the belief that refusing tests supports teachers and children. As a part of this movement, thousands of letters have been written from parents who want to opt out of this testing process. With permission from United Opt Out Michigan, The Periphery presents two of those letters.
Note: This is an actual letter sent by a Michigan parent to an elementary school principal to opt her son out of standardized testing. Minor edits have been made to protect the identity of the family.
I write to you with a heavy heart. I know the funding for our schools is based on standardized testing, a political injustice I find nauseating. I know that my son's wonderful teachers are evaluated based on his performance on these tests: a ludicrous measure, not based on any reliable scholarship or research regarding the abilities of educators. I know you didn’t make the rules, and I do not want to make your professional life difficult. But tonight, I declare, enough. Enough.
My son was sobbing this evening, refusing to read a short sheet his teacher sent home, because, as he haltingly told me, he had taken the NWEA “practice test” today and could not understand the “40 questions” after reading. I did not know how to comfort him. He asked me if there was any way he could stay home and not take any more tests. My son has drunk the Kool-Aid that these tests “measure his brain,” and he knows he doesn’t understand them, so he thinks his brain is not big enough. My heart is broken. Enough.
My son will not be taking any more of the so-called “Common Core” focused tests designed to quantify his educational progress. These tests do not, and never will, measure his brain, his talent, the quality of his education, or his potential. I will no longer allow these instruments to impose on my son the feeling that he is “below grade,” “stupid,” and not learning. I will no longer tolerate the anxiety these ridiculous legislatively-imposed measures have caused my son. He has never, to my knowledge, been told the results of his testing, but he feels it in the environment of his school — his cherished school — the place he has come to love and a place he felt safe and loved. Enough.
We are opting out. My son will not be participating in state standardized testing during the current school year. I ask that no record of this testing be part of his permanent file, as I do not wish my child to participate in standardized achievement testing for promotion, graduation, or school/state report cards. Enough.
Contrary to the idea that these tests measure my son’s brain, this is what I know. Forced, high stakes testing:
Is not scientifically-based and fails to follow the U.S. Government's own data on learning
Fosters test driven education that is not meeting the individual/intellectual needs of students
Presents a racial and economic bias detrimental to second language students, impoverished students, and students of color (and our elementary school has busloads of all of these groups!)
Violates fiscal fairness in funding schools
Elevates corporate interests above democracy-based public concerns
Fosters coercion over cooperation with regards to federal funding for public education
Promotes a culture of lying, cheating, shaming and exploitation within the school community
Has used the achievement gap to foster a “de facto” segregation that has resulted in separate and unequal education for minorities
Fails to recognize that students with identified learning differences and developmental disabilities are acutely aware of these differences, and testing simply highlights them, singling out students of differing abilities and talents for less than “average” performance
Federal law provides each parent the right to refuse standardized testing when such testing violates beliefs. My beliefs are firmly rooted in a moral code that embraces equity and fairness; I believe such testing is not in the best interests of my child. I believe that not everything that can be measured matters, and that everything that matters can’t always be measured. I believe this testing fosters competition instead of cooperation, contributes to separate and unequal education for minorities (both racial and developmental), and ignores my son's intellectual, creative, and problem-solving abilities. Both the NWEA and the MEAP present a fictitious picture of the gifts imparted by my son's individual and cherished teachers: perhaps the greatest injustice of all delivered by the swallowed-whole idiocy of standardized testing. If the school district does not see these truths, I do, and I opt out for my son.
Our state is required to provide my child with an education in a least restrictive environment that does not force us to go against our core beliefs. My son should proceed to learn and develop at an individual pace following education standards that are imparted under the guidance of education professionals, not market-based political ideologues. Students - who mature at vastly different paces – should not ever be measured by a mass-produced blunt instrument. I will no longer allow my son to be a part of this mythological construct of modern education.
Principal, we love you, we love our elementary school and all it has given my son. My son will be able to complete his elementary education at this wonderful school. I call on you to speak against this hurtful and unscientific measurement of education. If you had been here tonight, in my home, and seen my son sobbing and refusing to read because he thought he would fail, I believe you, too, would join me in opposing this politically-imposed (and profit-centered) oppression of my sweet son.
Please consider this my formal request for alternative, appropriate learning activities during the testing window, as my son opts out of standardized testing. I love him too much to allow this regular assault on his psyche.
A Michigan Parent
Note: This is an actual letter sent by a Pennsylvania parent to opt her son out of standardized testing. Minor edits have been made to protect the identity of the family.
Dear School Administrator,
Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child excused from any State standardized testing because of religious and philosophical beliefs.
During the time when other students are taking State standardized PSSA tests (including make-ups), I would like my child to be provided with real learning opportunities at his school during test time (I have my clearances and would be willing to volunteer for this at Liberty). Or, if you would prefer, I could keep my son at home.
My philosophy about education is based on the simple belief in social justice and human rights. I believe every child has the right to an education filled with rich learning experiences that encourage creativity, critical thinking, taking risks, making mistakes and having independent thought. High-stakes standardized testing like the PSSA exam is not consistent with these beliefs and consequently result in the following:
The PSSA has high-stakes for students and schools. Pittsburgh Public Schools has made and will continue to make decisions to close schools based on the results of this test. Therefore, the stakes are the highest for schools that already suffer from the inequities in our schools; high teacher and principal turnover, concentrations of students living in poverty, inadequate resources and institutionalized racism.
The PSSA has high-stakes for teachers, and soon, principals. Test-based teacher and principal evaluation systems are gaining popularity as evidenced by current state legislation. (Act 82 of 2012) Unfortunately, there is no research available to prove these evaluation systems work to improve student learning. There is evidence though that the reliance on high-stakes testing, for the purpose of evaluating teachers, has caused a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test and an increase in cheating. Additionally, testing companies have admitted that these tests were not developed for the purpose of evaluation and should not be used in that way.
High-stakes tests are not a diagnostic assessment of student learning. I am not against all assessments. I do understand that teachers need ways to assess if students understand what has been taught. The PSSA exam is not this kind of assessment. In fact, results from the PSSA exam are not available to teachers until the next school year. Therefore, high-stakes standardized tests have no value to the teacher to assess student learning.
High-stakes tests cause student fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. In my home, we place a value on learning and the love of learning. We encourage our kids to learn from making mistakes. You can understand why I would be upset when my son in 2nd grade adamantly refused to answer a homework question (with 2 possible answers) because he was afraid he would get the wrong answer.
I was also upset to learn from a science teacher that her students, when asked to write a hypothesis, hesitated to write it until they knew it would be ‘correct’. Even though she explains to them that famous scientists have made great discoveries precisely because their hypothesis was "wrong."
Recently, a student at Pittsburgh Obama wrote in the school newspaper about high-stakes testing, “These standardized tests have become increasingly stressful for the teachers and students. There is too much at stake on one test that you take once a year. It has gotten to the point where the tests are a disruption to learning.”
High-stakes tests cause a narrowing of the curriculum and undermine the quality of instruction. Classes and subjects that are not tested have been increasingly eliminated in PPS. At Liberty (a Spanish magnet) students previously had Spanish every day. No more. The time allocated for Spanish has been replaced by more ELA and Math because Spanish is not tested.
Liberty is fortunate though, we still have a full time art and music teacher. Some schools do not, because they have even more ELA and Math. Schools that perform poorly on the PSSA have art and music instruction once every six days and schools that perform better on the PSSA have full-time art and music instruction.
Children identified as "low performers" on the high-stakes PSSA are given more frequent assessments and are subjected to drill and kill methods of instruction. Simply for the purpose of enabling them to achieve higher standardized test scores. This is not quality instruction nor is it learning.
At a community meeting at UPREP Milliones, I learned that a decision was recently made to ensure that students can pass the Keystone Algebra 1 Exam (a high-stakes test). Students at UPREP will have 2 years worth of instruction in Algebra 1. But, as a result, Algebra 2 (with no high-stakes test attached to it) will be taught as a double block in one semester. Cramming a years worth of curriculum into one semester is not a best practice for teaching and learning.
High-stakes tests cause poor school climates. The use of high-stakes testing has turned our schools into test prep centers. This increases barriers to real learning and student engagement.
Students themselves, like the Obama student I quoted above, report high levels of stress and anxiety associated with their performance on high-stakes testing.
The fear that some students or subgroups will bring down test scores contributes to a hostile and stressful school climate. This creates animosity between racial and economic groups. Students with disabilities are often vilified because they disproportionately score lower on high-stakes tests.
Since the beginning of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the focus on results of high-stakes tests, suspensions rates and expulsions have increased and graduation rates have decreased. Colleges and Universities have reported that students are less prepared for the challenges of higher education (academic and non-academic).
High-stakes tests may not accurately measure learning and achievement. Why do certain subgroups disproportionately score lower on these tests? Is it possible that the PSSA has a racial, economic and ability bias build in that is beneficial to certain subgroups of students?
Racial, economic and ability gaps in testing outcomes exist but I refuse to call it an "achievement gap." Our students are achieving every day — we just don’t have a system in place to measure and celebrate these learning achievements. Parents are told that this is the EASIEST way to measure learning, not the BEST way.
The overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing has the unintended consequence of INCREASING INEQUITY and violating all childrens’ civil rights to a free and appropriate education. Inequity in Pittsburgh Public Schools has increased in the following ways:
increase in student suspensions (students being pushed-out of learning)
high turn-over of teachers and principals in low performing schools (as measured by the test results)
punitively closing schools in communities of color and low income
teaching to the test for specific students
elimination of rich curriculum for specific students
Do you know how much of our limited resources and precious time is spent on high-stakes testing in our District? A recent Bill has been introduced in the Oregon Legislative Assembly (HB 2664) related to standardized tests calling for an evaluation of the use of standardized tests in the public schools. The evaluation will include the fiscal, administrative and educational impacts of these tests with respect to the impact on instructional time, curricula, professional flexibility, administrative time and focus, and budgets.
My vision for excellent Pittsburgh Public Schools includes real equity; schools in all of our neighborhoods, small class sizes, support for whole child, rich, engaging and culturally-responsive curriculums, professionally trained, developed and experienced teachers, time for teachers to collaborate, and resources available to support the needs of students and teachers.
I will continue to advocate for educational policies and programs in Pittsburgh Public Schools that reflect my religious and philosophical beliefs based on equitable education for all children. Test-score driven educational policies, including high-stakes testing, have no place in my vision for a high quality education.
A Pennsylvania Parent