Real Advocacy for Change or Feel Good Measures?

I have to admit something here. There are times when I just don’t get it. I don’t really understand all the “activism” on Facebook and Twitter. When people change their profile pics or link a picture that indicates a stance, what difference is that really making? I guess it raises awareness, right? I’m all about thinking for ourselves, taking a stand, working to make a difference. But sometimes we go about this in ways that are convenient or make us feel good but aren’t really going to change a darned thing. We need to be thoughtful about what actions we can take that will really influence the people with the power to change things.

Take “opting out” of State tests for example. If you haven’t heard about this, it’s been talked about for a couple of years. I’ve been reading about it on Twitter and in the news, WIVB did a story on it recently and we had one parent inquiry about it here at school. I understand that it’s about parents trying to send the message that we have too much focus on testing in our schools, that our children aren’t just a number, that the testing is all about corporate reform and making more money for Pearson and other vendors.

You know what opting out does? It just counts your child as absent. There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now, but I’m telling you, our guidance from the New York State Education Department indicates it counts as an absent. If we as a school district fall below a 95% participation rate, it becomes a factor in determining if we’re a school district in good standing.

Look. Everyone is frustrated with the amount of testing right now. It’s a complicated issue which requires a real look at the APPR plan and all that it entails. I just don’t think that telling our youngest students, our grades 3-8 children, that they are going to opt out of testing is the way for us, as adults, to get it done. Especially in the elementary grades, our children want to please their teachers, to do well in school, to achieve. What a hard thing it must be for the little fourth grade girl who has to look at her teacher and say, “I’m refusing to take the test Mrs. Smith.” It feels to me like we’re using our children as pawns to fight an adult fight, to join an adult conversation.

Kids take tests throughout their entire school careers. We did too; don’t you remember those reports coming home to your parents? I never remember it being a big deal. Our students have taken the 3-8 tests (formerly the 4th and 8th tests) for decades. We want our students to do well on the assessments because we want them to learn as much as possible throughout their 13 years with us so that they really are college and career ready. And even if parents “opt out” from testing for their children, the curriculum is still there—students are all learning the content that prepares them for the state assessments. Why not take the tests?

Now, all these pre and post assessments for the Student Learning Objectives in EVERY subject? That’s another story. But I have to believe that the increased attention to the state testing (that we’ve had for a long time) is intensified because this is really a story about teacher accountability—and all of the new provisions for the APPR. Let’s not use our kids in ways they don’t understand to make a difference that won’t change anything at the State level.

12 Comments
  1. I opted out my sophomore. She is tested at every turn in a large AP, test happy school. After 8 years of “the test makes me feel stupid, Dad” (a kid who scores in the high 90 percentiles) I’ve had enough. She’ll take ’em as a junior ’cause that’s the year it “counts” for participation rates. They serve no purpose for her or her instructional program, make her feel dumb, and have little relevance to her future potential as a human being. I refuse to let a test steal another 6 hours of her childhood. She made the decision with me and is happy. I’m telling my school – and more importantly the DE and legislators – that they can easily predict her score with great accuracy. Simply take the last 8 years of scores that didn’t fluctuate more than +/- 3 and use whatever valid statistical tool you want to estimate this year’s score. This isn’t a school problem, but so long as we simply go-along we are giving in to the idiocy and letting people mess with our children. Small acts of non-conformity is how all great movements start.

  2. I’m going to disagree with you on this one. Take a look at Garfield High in Seattle or the Chicago Public Schools teachers strike. The only reason parental opt-out of standardized testing tends to be a ‘feel good measure’ instead of something more substantial is the low numbers of parents willing to do so. If significant numbers of parents opted out (as they did at Garfield High), it would be much more impactful and less difficult to ignore / blow off as meaningless. And the only way to grow a movement is to begin it…

  3. Kim,
    I agree with your comment on aligning curriculum with tests and how those can be helpful for that purpose. But I am more concerned with the State level standardized tests. Teachers should be able to assess on the class level and determine where students are and what they need to in order to succeed, if they can’t create appropriate assessments than they need to be trained or let go. The over reliance on test results from a bubble sheet is scary. In Michigan, we are moving toward the Smarter Balanced Assessments which offer a better option in my opinion are still going to be used for some good and some bad reasons. Not all assessments are bad but many times how the results are used is bad.

    On a side note, I appreciate your post on the subject and am glad that you as a superintendent are open to conversations like this.

  4. @Cheryl Yours is the most heartbreaking response to the testing of any possible. It’s the possibility that worries me and of which I’ve engaged in heated discussions with my own colleagues at meetings and conferences. I have said, “what if the testing does nothing for some of our students but convince them that they’re stupid or incapable or less than?” It is reprehensible if this happens and we as leaders have to make sure that it does not. If you were a parent in our district, I would want to know this immediately so that the principal and I could intervene. You describe a teacher who lacks instructional strategies and is making terrible decisions about curriculum and instruction. I wish we could scoop up you and your son and move you here to Randolph so that we could care for him and educate him properly. Kids only can feel this way about school when we as the teachers create that environment. I’m so sorry this is your experience. This is the worst of all of the changes.

  5. @Kris I fully support your right to make decisions for your children–as every parent is a child’s strongest advocate. My purpose in writing was simply to offer another perspective, one from a small rural superintendent who spends time in our classrooms–our teachers continue to do a wonderful job with our children while teaching a more challenging curriculum and using their incredible expertise to get it done. The testing has definitely changed things–but in good ways too. I realize that the ‘opting out’ supporters are vehement in their beliefs. Isn’t there room to hear that it’s not such an extreme response in every classroom?

  6. @Danielle When you put it like that, I get your point. When I think about the 3-8 testing, I’m seeing it as just a part of all of our other efforts. When I write here, I’m thinking about the audience of our teachers and parents, who know what many of those efforts are. From my point of view, a school system in which we follow the same curriculum within and across grade levels is good for our students–there isn’t such a random path for each child. We have been working across grade levels and giving interim assessments three times per year prior to the NYS tests and identifying students who need help based on the data for two years now. The changes have also pushed us to really focus on what our students need to know at each grade level. For us, the 3-8 testing is just the culminating event of that focus AND the results, along with the classroom grades, teacher’s judgment, and interim testing—help us identify what students need for the next year. Our 7th/8th grade Math teachers have students who are being remediated for concepts they should have mastered in the earlier grades. This will help us avoid that in the future. I don’t see teachers here at RCS who are adopting bad teaching practices because of the testing—their strategies are their own.

    In regard to opting out sending a message to the State decision makers–I have to tell you that as an admin with access to those people, I just attended a four session strand with State Ed and heard our commissioner at my March Supt. conference, I don’t see any sign that opting out or anything else is going to deter them.

  7. Kim,
    Unfortunately, adults haven’t been allowed to be part of the discussion. Not parents, not teachers, not administrators. The Common Core and tests have been forced upon us all. Yes. I remember taking state tests in school. The current tests are NOT comparable. They lack reliability, validity, as well as a purpose for the kids. They are all about punishing teachers and making profits for the testing company. My daughter is the fourth grader you’re talking about……. The way I see it, if she takes the test she is a “pawn” because the test has no real purpose for her. She is learning a valuable lesson about democracy and peaceful protest and I might add is Very relieved she doesn’t need to participate in these stressful exams!

  8. You may not remember the tests being a “big deal” but I can assure you that my 3rd grader won’t feel that way. My son’s teacher has felt the need to teach from nothing but Pearson math and reading texts all year. They’ve done no Science, no Social, no hands-on activities of any kind, they haven’t even read one novel. My son has been allowed to fail every one of his 6-page-long weekly, developmentally inappropriate, reading tests, all as a desperate attempt on his teacher’s part to prepare his students for the State tests. While I understand his teacher’s worries, he’s a teacher in an inclusion classroom with several kids who will very likely get a 1 or 2 on the tests, it’s been an extremely damaging year for my son. I am refusing to have my son take these tests this year, not to make myself feel good, but because I refuse to set him up for any more failure. He’s had more than enough this year!

  9. If the state standardized tests actually measured student learning and if they were useful in informing instruction, then I would still call for FEWER tests. The reality in the classrooms is that these tests have taken over what used to be real learning, and replaced it with one-size-fits-all, hurry-and-learn-all-these-skills-so-you-can-pass-the-test-because-my-job-depends-on-it teaching. Parents realize this for the most part. What we also realize is that it won’t change–in fact, it will probably get worse–unless we boycott it. We’ve tried to talk to our superintendents, but their hands are tied. We’ve tried talking to our state leaders, but they’ve been paid in full already. Now, we’re using our power as parents with a voice to change this damaging trend. Opting out or refusing is the most democratic and respectful way we know of to boycott the policies that we see hurting our children.

  10. I don’t understand how these end of year high-stakes tests help inform teaching/ learning as teachers aren’t even allowed to see which questions their students got wrong. These tests are kept under lock and key and nobody gets to see the questions in real detail or how the students have answered them. If Math teachers already know what their students cannot do, why do they need a test to improve their students’ performance? I am not a proponent of the Common Core to begin with. But if we truly want to claim the supposed high standards and rigor of the Core, we absolutely have to remove the testing element. It is the testing that forces teachers to adopt bad teaching practices and narrow curriculum. I understand we have different viewpoints, but perhaps you can see that there are masses of us out there that feel so strongly against the current climate of education reform that opting out of these tests is much much more than simply “feeling good.” In an educational world that is so data-driven, with focus on scores and numbers, we feel that testing is the language spoken most fluently by the state. Therefore opting out sends the most powerful message that we disagree. Letters and commentary are also a good way of voicing opposition, but destruction in their world of data… that they hear.

  11. Danielle–thank you for commenting! There’s also a vigorous discussion on Twitter right now. The more we talk to one another, the better we’ll be. I think there is a point to the testing. I see the alignment of our curriculum leading to improvements in teaching and learning. Our students haven’t done well enough in Math–ask our 7th and 8th grade Math teachers what our students cannot do. The core curriculum helps each grade level teach what’s necessary so our kids can learn more, do better and succeed. The testing lets us know where we stand at each grade level so we can improve. I agree there are some problems with so much testing, especially in every subject with the APPR requirements, but the testing in core subjects is having some positive effect too.

  12. [It feels to me like we’re using our children as pawns to fight an adult fight, to join an adult conversation.] That’s just what we’re doing when we make them take these pointless tests that do nothing for their real learning and are mostly used to judge their teachers and their schools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *