Click here to read about how a student in Hartford opted out of the Connecticut Mastery Test.
The phrase “academic performance” is inaccurately used here, when “test performance” would be more appropriate. In a recent conversation with a member of the Hartford Board of Education, I asked how our students were being assessed beyond the standardized tests. His response: they are only assessed by these tests.
Students who test poorly, regardless of their knowledge, are assessed as being part of the problem. Others, who have strengths and talents outside the very narrow skills being tested, are not given credit for having multiple intelligences. Nonetheless, the message students and their parents are given is that if they do not take the tests, there will be consequences.
The “real consequences” threat is used again and again, along with the word “required,” to exhort students into taking exams which benefit them in no meaningful way. In Connecticut, what this means is that schools will be dubbed “failing schools,” and lose federal funds, but with so much of the academic year now pivoting around these standardized tests, one wonders what is gained beyond payment for preparation, administration, and grading of the CMT.
People who have power do not always recognize this; others refuse to utilize their authority out of fear. Still, others criticize some forms of resistance, favoring “letter writing” and finding all other tactics to be too radical. Yet, years after No Child Left Behind was adopted, it remains wildly unpopular, but not looking like it will be disappearing. Have those letter writing campaigns worked?
Here are some of the things people around the nation are saying and doing about the high-stakes “mandatory” standardized tests which have reduced educational opportunities for students, caused undue anxiety, and destroyed creativity in much of this up and coming generation.
The most vulnerable group is also the most powerful.
Some students are able to fill in the “opt out” bubble, but this choice does not exist in all states.
Others stay out of school entirely during testing.
Some have decided to sabotage the test data, not by cheating but by playing games with the results. The Bartleby Project is one of these. As John Taylor Gatto explains, students can exercise freewill in a simple, non-dramatic fashion that gets the point across– writing “I prefer not to take this test” on their standardized tests. Others have written essays about defying the tests. A small group of eighth graders in New York decided, after realizing the standardized tests did not have any bearing on their actual grades, to write test essays about squirrels. Some are leaving tests entirely blank while others seek to give the wrong answers.
As Caridad — the student from Hartford who said “no” to the state standardized tests — mentioned, students should understand what these tests are about, and then make their own decisions about whether or not to participate.
It’s been reported that in some states, children must be the ones to refuse the tests, while in others, youth are not allowed to make such decisions themselves. In these places, parents need to sign waivers, and in some cases, such notes remain in the student’s permanent file.
In other locations, it’s not as simple as saying “no.”
In Pennsylvania, parents are being told that the only way they can have their children “opt out” of standardized tests is by claiming religious objection. Two sample letters making such objections have been published on the Daily Kos. Another sample form letter, which includes wording demanding that the school not retaliate against the student, is also posted online. In fact, there are a number of sample opt out letters available, ranging from the succinct and diplomatic, to those that refuse to mince words. The site United Opt Out National has a compilation of practices in each state.
In Texas, some parents have organized to keep their children home on “State Test Day.”
Numerous Facebook support groups have popped up, many created by parents, and which include information about opt out policies in various states. In these spaces, parents have been asking for guidance from others who might have experience in making the tough decisions they are thinking about. These are also venues for them to vent anxieties about the possible consequences, such as loss of custody, arrest, prevention of graduation or promotion, and retaliation/bullying by teachers and administrators. Usually, the negative consequences, if any, are minimal.
While some in power claim to have their hands tied, others are taking initiative to create change.
Some do this merely by speaking out. “Two Angry Teachers and a Microphone” from California have produced the following video:
Another teacher has commented on the Save Our Schools website about how she would support parents or students who decide to opt out, saying:
I truly believe that “using” our children to generate hollow and meaningless statistics which purport to measure something they cannot possibly measure is unethical according to the ethical guidelines for human experimentation.
Teacher organizations have been vocal . The National Education Association calls for an end to “the obsession with high-stakes, poor-quality tests by developing high-quality assessment systems that provide multiple ways for students to show what they have learned.” One of the criticisms of standardized tests is that they are rigidly designed and essentially penalize students with diverse learning styles.
This organization has collected statements from various teachers across the country. Here are a few samples of what Connecticut teachers have said:
Teaching to the test is not the way to ensure that our students will be able to contribute [to society as productive citizens].
Yet another writes:
I do not believe that every child’s needs, or those of the schools were taken into consideration. A child with an IQ of 70 is not going to read on grade level. It doesn’t matter what kind of funding or magic you promise, it will not happen.
The Teachers College at Columbia University published a piece in 2009 asserting that:
Despite spending nearly $2 billion to help states comply with the mandate of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that every student have a ‘highly qualified teacher,’ the federal government has made little progress in substantially improving teacher quality.
This statement was based on information provided by Susan Neuman, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Some teachers have moved beyond talking and are taking action.
A teacher in Wisconsin refused to administer the state standardized test. Many of the parents who are having their children opt out also identify as teachers or working within the field of education in other capacities. Another, this time in North Carolina, refused to give tests to special education students.
Teachers have certainly faced negative consequences — poor reviews to job loss — for taking action, but in the meantime, many teachers are leaving the field because they can no longer bear to deal with the NCLB-version of education.
Board of Education
Not every school board in the nation is gutless.
One in Illinois refused to administer standardized tests to the ten percent of district students who were still learning English; that district’s superintendent had the courage to speak against the tests, saying: “While there may be consequences for the adults in the organization, we shouldn’t ask kids to be tested on things they haven’t been taught.”
Those who have been elected or appointed need to own the fact that they have power; the question, however, is if they have the political will to use it.
On the state-level, there is and has been resistance to the No Child Left Behind requirements.
Minnesota is appealing to the federal government for release from two NCLB provisions; Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas (reapplying, after initial request was denied), Virginia, Utah, Nevada, South Carolina, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, California, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Michigan are some of the other states seeking (or expected to apply for) waivers. The CT Mirror also reports that Connecticut may be looking to waive some NCLB provisions.
The Save Our Schools March in July received national attention, thanks to Matt Damon. A month after the protest in D.C., the website and Facebook group associated with it remain active.
Caridad is just one of the many students in our city whose time in the classroom, whether she takes the CMT or not, is being used in preparation those exams. She has demonstrated the rare ability to maintain her grades, interest in school, and explore varied extracurricular interests, but not all students are fortunate enough to have a strong family and good teachers who foster those qualities. Many students’ parents are not as involved in their academic lives, let alone informed about the right to refuse standardized tests.
Caridad’s mother was careful to say that the decision to opt out was not about “sticking it” to anyone. Instead, the decision was made to opt out of the “mental manipulation” that she said comes with NCLB and high stakes testing.
As for the threat of losing federal dollars if students opt out, Caridad’s mother said this: “So? Attach the funding to something else.”