School is back in session for many students across the country. As parents spend the equivalent of a paycheck on school supplies and students prepare to wake up at the crack of dawn to start their day, I have some advice for parents: consider opting your child out of your state’s standardized tests.
A national movement is growing to make parents aware of their rights to opt out of these tests. As educators continue to lose the battle over corporate reforms, many are trying to engage parents to fight back against the monopoly that standardized tests hold over the public school system. The only way public schools can loosen the grip of the testing industry is to take away its most valuable weapon : your child’s test scores.
What qualifies as a standardized test? Any test that all students in a school or a particular grade are expected to take. As use of these tests continues to grow, many educators and parents are asking if the benefits outweigh the damages inflicted by such exams. The potential harm of standardized testing can include narrowed curriculums, increased student stress, and a paved path toward the privatization of public schools. An examination of these negative outcomes will hopefully lead many parents to ask another important question; who benefits from standardized testing?
Narrowing the Curriculum: Teaching to the Test
Assessing student learning is fundamental to excellent teaching. A successful teacher must have knowledge of what their students know and what they need to know in order to plan and implement effective lessons. To gain this knowledge teachers implement a multitude of assessments throughout the school year. In addition to pencil and paper tests, teachers use observation, evaluation of student written work, and cooperative learning rubrics to measure how well a student is progressing in the classroom. Assessment results often inform the curriculum as a teacher makes plans for what comes next based on what was learned.
Standardized testing has changed what once was standard practice in most classroom and the results of these tests have gained a national level of importance. States, schools, teachers, and students are being evaluated based on the results of one type of assessment. Schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress are in danger of losing precious funds and are vulnerable to the threat of state takeover. To prevent such outcomes, the test has become the curriculum. Schools are spending more time and money preparing students to pass one test. If students take a standardized test in the third grade, then they likely take a practice test in second grade, which means they may need to take a practice exam for the practice test in the first grade. And the next thing you know you are a kindergarten teacher being told to prepare your students for the practice test. When this happened to me I knew I could no longer be an effective early childhood educator and I left the public schools.
Some of you might be wondering what is wrong with teaching to a test if the test is designed properly. But you must ask yourself this, can qualities we want in a successful student be measured in standardized tests? For example, if you are a small business owner and you are looking for an employee who is a fast learner, knows how to analyze problems, and can work collaboratively with others, how do you measure these traits using a standardized test? You can’t. Skills that are often coveted by managers are the ones impossible to measure on a multiple choice test. Yet the standardized tests are important. So important that nothing else matters. Teaching students to pass the test becomes the objective. Anything that is not tested is deemed less important. This includes music, art, physical education, social studies, and science (which led some folks from other disciplines to demand standardized testing in their subject to insure the material would be taught). Gradually the test becomes the curriculum, designed by the test makers and given to the teachers in the form of professional development (also known as “test coaching practice”).
Close Failing Schools: The Goal of Privatization
As this vicious cycle continues, standardized testing is gaining even more importance in the national education debate. Test scores are used to demonize teachers and schools that fail to improve while those who do well on the tests are exemplified as model learning institutions. Failing schools continue to focus on raising the test scores by any means necessary, which as we are learning, often includes cheating. Repeated failure in attaining adequate yearly progress (AYP) leads to school closures. Once the school is closed it becomes easier to try “alternatives” such as for-profit charter schools. A flyer for parents produced by United Opt Out National gives an interesting description of how standardized tests lead to privatization:
“Eighty percent of all schools are anticipated to fail meeting their AYP goals by 2014. Schools that are shut down are bought out by private sector charter schools. Tax money from federal government intended for public schools gets funneled to for profit businesses to run charter schools. (www.unitedoptout.com)
For those who want to dismantle public education this might be a favorable alternative, but for those of us who want to invest in public schools we refuse to rely on one measure of assessment, namely standardized tests, to determine the fate of thousands of schools.
No Child Left Untested: The Stress of Standardized Tests
As standardized tests become high-stakes testing, meaning they determine if a student can graduate or be promoted to the next grade, students begin to feel the pressure of doing well on these tests. In the past students did not have to take the tests seriously because they did not affect their grades but those in the testing industry have since found a way to make the tests matter. Students now spend countless hours preparing for the test in and out of school. This additional stress can lead some children to opt of schooling entirely, or even worse become depressed and turn to suicide, as chronicled in the documentary A Race to Nowhere.
Given the instability of our economy and our high youth unemployment rate, today’s youth have much to worry about. Stressing about one test is not going to prepare them to face the challenges of the nation and the world. If the United States is to remain competitive in the global economy we need to develop young people who are equipped to find innovative solutions to complex problems. Standardized tests will not help us in this important endeavor.
So as you prepare to send your child back to school this year, consider opting out of standardized testing. All parents have the right to opt out of the tests, and until more parents make that choice your children will continue to be seen as nothing more than a data set. Children are more than test scores and education is a journey, not a race to the top.
What YOU Can Do
For more information on how you can opt out of standardized test visit the following Web sites:
Denisha is currently finishing her Ph.D from Indiana University in Curriculum and Instruction. She is a former kindergarten teacher in the District of Columbia, and is completing a Future Faculty Fellowship at Howard University.