I Opted My Kids Out of Standardized Tests. Then My Education Began.

Snapshots of life at home.
March 6 2014 12:50 PM

I Opted My Kids Out of Standardized Tests

Then I learned a thing or two.

(Continued from Page 1)

But just like the school couldn’t let it go, neither could I. I really wanted to understand what was provoking this reaction. And so, feeling very Michael Moore about the whole thing, I set out to find exactly what the schools’ resistance might be about. (It’s here that I will admit that, while my husband and I definitely thought through our decision to opt our kids out, we consulted our guts, not research.)

I started by posting on Facebook, admittedly not the best place to gather facts. Some of the reactions were what you might think: “I applaud you and your stance,” said one Facebook friend.  “Good for you,” said another. “Fight the power! Stick it to the man! Up with kids, down with standardized tests!” said one more, only partially facetiously.

But then some others offered perspective. One commented, “My kids certainly don’t stress about standardized tests anymore, which I suppose may be useful.” Another asked, “Could this be budget related? Or perhaps they fear that when the professor’s child opts out, others will follow?” Several said, “They want your kids’ scores to up their averages.” Maybe.

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And then, bravely, some friends went against the grain of the conversation. “Teachers’ continued job security and pay can depend on how the students perform on the test—hence the panic.” “There is enormous pressure on the school. The school is not choosing to inflict these tests—it is forced to.” 

These friends were posting from all over the country. In fact, I’d gotten more responses on the two or three Facebook statuses about opting out than I had on pretty much anything else, ever— including the blockbuster “I got tenure!” post. But what I didn’t know was how the responses applied to Colorado.

Time to call the Colorado Department of Education. Joyce Zurkowski, the executive director of assessment, explained to me that, in Colorado, as long as a school has 95 percent participation, a kid’s opting out has no effect at all on school funding. And as of right now, the test results don’t affect teacher evaluation at all—although they will next year. But here’s the most important thing she told me: Despite the fact that the middle-school principal herself told me I had a legal right to opt out (and none of the players in this morality play ever told us otherwise, whether explicitly or implicitly), that’s not actually true. In Colorado, kids are required by law to test. The “refuse testing” option on the enrollment forms? It’s “being phased out” because it’s “confusing.” If kids don’t show up for school on testing days? Zurkowski told me that some districts have sent truant officers to their homes. 

We’re on our second day of opting out of TCAPs as I write this, and nothing else has happened, except that one high-school friend of my older daughter’s told her that his mom tried to opt him out on the same day I did it, but the school said it was “too late.” We’ve still got several days to go. I’m bracing myself. Screening calls. Telling my kids that I’m proud of them. They’re proud of themselves because they’ve taken a stand on something they think is important. It’s a great feeling. 

Except: What started as a personal, family decision carries so much more weight for me now, and it’s frustrating to know that our actions aren’t making a bit of difference, beyond our household. As a school administrator friend wrote to me, “I applaud parents who opt out and I really wish more would. However, to make a true impact on the system, thousands of parents (especially of high-achieving students) would have to opt out.” 

In other words, my decision to opt my kids out might have no real effect at all here in Colorado, but on the other hand if I support friends in other states in opting their kids out, I might cause teachers to be downgraded and schools to lose funding. How does any parent weigh those very real consequences against her commitment to doing what’s best for her kids? As my friend Maria McKenna, the senior associate director of the education, schooling, and society program at the University of Notre Dame, said to me last night, “It renders parents powerless when we hear about the crushing impact that opting out has on teachers and schools. But of course, teachers and administrators are powerless, too. It’s insidious.” Do I stand on my principles, both personal and political? Or do I put the interests of the very important people and institutions that educate my children above those of my kids? And how can I help ensure that more parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, policymakers recognize the craziness that is our “accountability above all else” mentality?

For now, I’m opting out of making any permanent decision about my kids’ participation in high-stakes testing. But for those who say that these tests have no educational value, I disagree, at least to this extent: Opting out of them has been a real learning experience for me.

Lisa T. McElroy is an associate professor of law at the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law. Follow her on Twitter.

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