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.

Young woman working on a standardized test
She's smiling because she knows taking the test may very well be easier than opting out.

Photo by iStock/Thinkstock

Deciding to opt my two daughters out of Colorado standardized testing seemed like a no-brainer. We aren’t permanent Colorado residents—we’re just here for one academic year while I’m a visiting professor at the University of Denver. My daughters, ages 13 and 14, are strong students. My husband and I see no educational benefit to the tests. My younger daughter experienced some serious test anxiety a couple of years back when taking Pennsylvania’s standardized tests.

And honestly, given three things—that, according to what a school administrator told me, Colorado law allows parents to refuse the testing on behalf of their children; that the testing enrollment forms include an option to “refuse testing”; and that we currently live in Boulder, one of the most liberal, individualistic towns in America—we truly didn’t think this would be a big deal.

Boy, were we wrong.

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On Monday, about 15 minutes after I sent an email to the guidance counselors at the public high school and middle school informing them that I was opting my two daughters out, I got a call from the middle-school principal. I don’t know about you, but I can never get anyone from school to call me back in under a day or so. But here was the principal herself, instantaneously calling me in response to an email that I hadn’t even sent to her. 

She started out very soft and calm. “Mrs. McElroy,” she said. “We’ve just received word that your daughter isn’t going to take the TCAPs. We are so disappointed. Won’t you change your mind?”

When I answered that I very much appreciated her call but was going to stick by my decision, she offered several reasons why my daughter should take the test. First, taking TCAP (Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the relatively new set of state standardized tests) would help my daughter on the ACT. Huh. Given that she’s only in seventh grade, I wasn’t buying that one. The principal then said that the test would show us how our daughter was doing academically. But we get a report card every six weeks, and we can follow her progress in real time through an online school portal that lists her grade on every assignment, so we’re all set in that regard. One more try. The test results, she said, reward teachers by showing them that they are doing a good job. My reaction: And seeing their students’ progress doesn’t?

But when the lawyer in me started pushing back, pointing out to the principal that none of her arguments was especially convincing, I got nowhere. Including off the phone. The principal kept going on. And on. And on. My daughter really should take it. She was the only child in the entire school who was opting out. She might feel weird, being different from all the other kids.

I told the principal that was a risk that I was willing to take. And then I told her that I was on my only break of the day, trying to have a bite of lunch, and I was going to have to go now. 

Next up: an email from the high-school principal. True, this one was not directed solely at me—it was addressed to all ninth- and tenth-grade parents—but I had to wonder about the timing, given that it arrived only hours after my email to the school. In the email, the principal said, “[P]lease know that I am requesting all ninth and tenth grade students participate thoughtfully in the exam and do their absolute best for both themselves and our school. We really need your support!” He went on to describe the ramifications of not testing, including that the school’s rating might fall if enough kids did not participate, kids who didn’t take TCAPs would not get “growth projections” (is that code for “placed in high-level classes”?), and kids who didn’t test would be marked absent and might not be allowed to participate in athletics or extracurricular activities that day. 

The high-school principal also mentioned that the tests helped prep students for the ACT and SAT; his argument was perhaps more logical than the middle-school principal’s when applied to high-school students but still without the support of empirical analysis or other evidence. 

The next day the schools informed us that the kids could not be on school grounds during testing. For my older daughter, this wasn’t a big deal because TCAP lasted all morning, and she could just go into school at 1 p.m. But my middle-schooler had to go to school for first period, then come home, then go back to school three hours later. For several days. No, she couldn’t sit and read or work on a social-studies project in the school library.

She had to go home? OK. We complied. Luckily, as a law professor, I have a flexible schedule; as a full-time student, my husband does too. And so, on the first day of testing, I arrived to pick my daughter up at middle school at 9:25 a.m. I went into the office and checked her out. She and I started walking to my car. It was just as I started reaching for my keys that we realized that someone was in hot pursuit.

It was the middle-school assistant principal.

He was running after us. 

He called out. “Mrs. McElroy, could I speak with you for a minute?” My daughter’s eyes grew wide. She’s not the kind of kid who ever really sees the principal. But now we had the assistant principal chasing her.

“Mrs. McElroy,” he said, “I know you’re an educator.” (Oh, goody, I thought, he’s been researching me.) “And I know you care about education.” (Yep, accurate.) “So I really hope you’ll reconsider letting your daughter take the test.” 

How would you have responded? On the sidewalk? With your child?

But then he continued. “We support her. Why won’t you support our school?”

I can admit, that was a good line.

I smiled, shook his hand, and assured him that my husband and I had thought carefully about this decision. And then I got my daughter in the car and drove away.

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