Why I am opting out – a guide for parents

I am a public school teacher in California and I am opting my 5th grader out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Tests this year.

Here is a link to the Opt Out form for San Francisco Unified.

Here is why:

The tests will not help my child’s teacher know my child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Test scores will not be out until the summer. My child’s current teacher will not be able to use the information to improve instruction in any way for my child this year.

My child will lose many hours of instruction in order to prepare for and take the SBAC tests. This time could be used for more meaningful instruction, such as doing an interesting reading project, a social studies, math, art, music or science research project or doing an end of the school year play.

The computerized test interface is clumsy and frustrating for students, and not based on cognitive development. It’s not likely that younger students can type as fast as they can handwrite; the multiple tabs and windows are difficult to navigate, and students at different schools will be taking the tests on a multitude of interfaces, thus rendering invalid the test results. Taking the test on a desktop with a large screen, on a small laptop and on an iPad are different experiences. Here is my blog post about taking the SBAC practice test. Here is one from a fourth grader’s dad. And here is one from a parent in Seattle. While computer skills are important, the skills needed for taking this test do not match how professionals use computers in their work lives, nor how students learn and best demonstrate learning. Children learn to read more quickly, generate more ideas and retain information better when they learn to write by hand.  And college students also learn better when they write notes by hand instead of on a computer. 

Standardized tests do not help poor, minority, English language learner and special ed students. These groups of students historically score low on standardized tests, in addition to particularly bright students who will often “overthink” answers. Low scores on standardized tests have created schools serving large numbers of these students into reward and punishment test prep centers, with fewer opportunities for enrichment and engaging lessons that higher socio-economically advantaged students have access to. More and more African American and other educators are defending the Opt Out Movement as an antidote to the systematic racism in our society in which poor and minority children receive fewer educational dollars and resources, and are viewed as “deficient”. Check out these powerful articles: this article or this article or this article or my own blog post on the issue.

Barack and Michelle Obama, along with many other well-educated and wealthy parents, have opted their children out of the national standardized tests by sending their children to private schools. Private schools offer smaller class size, enriching project-based curriculum, individual learning plans and a well-rounded education that includes humanities, arts, sciences, maths, world languages, physical education, extensive field trips, and community projects. Teachers and parents in these schools are not requesting that students take more standardized tests such as the SBAC, and they do not publish the scores of the tests that they do take. Public school students should have access to the same educational models that our most advantaged citizens have. Here is the beautiful Sidwell Friends school that the Obama children attend.

My child’s teachers may be rated on the outcome of how their students perform, regardless of school demographics and regardless of how much I believe my child has learned (or hasn’t). Although my child’s teachers will never see my child’s test to learn from it, they will need to take time from other essential instruction to teach students to perform on this test. Educational researchers have stated that the tests should for diagnostic purposes only, and should not be used to rank and sort teachers. Race to the Top (RTTT) mandated under the Obama administration coerced states into accepting a teacher evaluation system based in part on how their students do on the state assessments. This and other merit based plans do not improve student learning as borne out by research, but do lead to higher incidences of systematic cheating, questionable teaching practices and a narrowing of the curriculum.

There is no evidence to support that high stakes tests improve student learning. The accountability system set up by No Child Left Behind did not boost achievement, according to the National Research Council and many other peer-reviewed educational research. Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, has written books on the misuse of standardized testing in China and in the United States. He predicts that the U.S will lose its creative entrepreneurial edge by subscribing to the merit of standardized tests. He states, “we will see a further narrowing of the curriculum and educational experiences. Whatever innovative teaching that has not been completely lost in the schools may finally be gone.”

The cut scores are arbitrary and set with a political vision rather than an educational one. Last year, 70% of NY State students scored below proficient on the PARCC Common Core tests. This was a political decision aimed at making more families question whether public schools were doing their job. It backfired, NY changed the cut scores, and many New Yorkers are opting their students out of this year’s tests.

The SBAC are an experimental attempt to assess student proficiency on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). However, the CCSS themselves are still experimental and controversial in many regards. Very few teachers were involved in creating them, and many of us are quite skeptical of their claim that they can do what they propose: “to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live.” The standards were never tested on cohorts of students before their exceedingly quick implementation. Here is a detailed explanation of the 24 “work group” committee members who developed the standards. Here is a nice sheet about their how they were developed and the money behind them. 

Opting Out is a great democratic tool to fight the corporate takeover of public education. Many articles and books have been written about the loss of public school management, curriculum, and the overuse of testing due to well funded corporate interests.  Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, said it this way, “This growing struggle over the future of American education may be proxy for the future of our democratic republic.”

Love the Common Core standards or hate the standards, when new standards are forcibly implemented by top-down federal initiatives without proper time to develop them, you end up with shoddy teaching, shoddy materials and shoddy tests. This article is about Jason Zimba, one of the authors of the CCSS math standards, who despises how his daughter is learning math with the new standards in place. He spends his weekends reteaching her so that she will love math as he does.

Opting out of the SBAC tests can help politicians understand that parents want well-funded schools, well-prepared teachers, small class sizes and respect for children. It may feel like an act of disrespect toward your child’s school or teacher; on the other hand, it is likely that your teacher will applaud your decision to support a better public education system with better funding, better teacher support, and fewer distracting standardized tests that eat up instructional time.

Ask your child’s teacher about opting out and providing an alternative project during testing time. My child will be reading books with younger children, writing stories, and working as a Junior Coach. Talk to other parents about your decision to opt out. There is a huge movement that is growing from all sectors of society. Get familiar with alternative educational resources for standardized testing:

United Opt Out

National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Authentic Assessment – Fair Test

Alternative Assessments – Washington Post

Linda Darling-Hammond on standardized testing in the implementation of the Common Core

Diane Ravitch’s blog – a resource on public educational issues

Retired Oakland teacher Anthony Cody’s educational blog

Thank you for reading,

Maestra Malinche

“High-stakes testing is America’s Faustian bargain.” Yong Zhao

A Call for Congressional Hearings on the Misuse of Standardized Testing

This is a great article on the excesses and misuses of Standardized Testing in the United States. Please read and pass it along!
Maestra Malinche
Partial text of article:

“Are tests harmful to students with disabilities? Over the past few years, there have been numerous instances in which children with significant health situations, even undergoing life-saving procedures, were pressured to complete required tests – even from their hospital beds. Children with severe brain disorders have been compelled to take a state test. Recently in Florida, an eleven-your-old boy who was dying in hospice was expected to take a test. Such behavior defies common sense and common decency.

How has the frequency and quantity of testing increased? Testing is taking significant time away from instructional learning time. In Chicago, elementary school students take the REACH, the TRC, the MAP, the EXPLORE, the ISAT, and DIBELS every year. In North Carolina, third-grade students are tested in reading 36 times throughout the year – in addition to other standardized tests. Middle schools students in Pennsylvania may take over 20 standardized tests in a single school year. High school students in Florida can have their instruction disrupted 65 times out of 180 school days by testing. In New York, the time taken by state exams has increased by 128%. When so much time is devoted to testing instead of teaching, students have less time to learn.

Does testing harm teaching? Now that test scores are linked to principal and teacher evaluations in many states, teachers engage in more test prep because they are pressured and afraid, not because they think the assessments are educationally sound. Principals are nervous about their school’s scores. Many educators have admitted they are fearful of taking students on field trips, engaging them in independent projects, or spending time on untested subjects like science or history, art or music because it might take time away from test prep. As a result, the curriculum has narrowed and students have lost their opportunity for a well-rounded education.

How much money does it cost? It is difficult to calculate the entire costs of standardized testing – including the many classroom hours spent on test prep. But it is well known that nearly every state is spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to develop more high-stakes tests for students, and requiring local districts to spend hundreds of millions more to get their students ready to take them. In addition to the cost of the tests and the interim tests, there are added costs of new curriculum, textbooks, hardware, software, and bandwidth that new tests require. There are also opportunity costs when money allocated for testing supersedes other education expenditures, such as libraries, art and music programs, social workers and guidance counselors, and extra-curricular activities.”