By Kelly Wallace
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
(CNN – April 17, 2015) — Since one of my daughters is taking the public school state tests for the first time this year, I thought I paid fairly close attention to the debate surrounding the tests themselves, and the concern that schools are too focused on “teaching to the test.”
I heard that some parents might engage in a form of civil disobedience and “opt out” — they would refuse to let their children take the tests. I thought only a few were making that stand.
But then I learned from a friend whose daughter attends a Long Island school that only two kids in her third-grade class took the test. That means 20 or more of her classmates didn’t.
I saw local media reports about similar stories in other schools on Long Island, in New York City and its surrounding areas, and in upstate New York.
Something bigger is going on, I thought.
Just how many students opt out this year won’t officially be known until this summer when the state education department releases test scores. But, according to one of the groups leading the opt-out movement here — the New York State Allies for Public Education — 156,000 students refused to take this week’s English exam, and that’s with just from 50% of the districts reporting their numbers.
With approximately 1.1 million students eligible to take the tests in grades 3-8 in New York, that means at least 14% of students are projected to sit out this year. According to the state education department, last year about 49,000 (4%) didn’t have a known valid reason for not taking the English test and 67,000 (6%) didn’t take the math exam.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Bianca Tanis, a co-founder of the New York opt-out group. “I guess I’m not really surprised, because I think we could all feel this coming.”
“For the past two years, parents have been lobbying the governor, the Board of Regents, the legislature, demanding a reduction in high-stakes testing, demanding to have their classrooms be returned and we’ve been ignored, and enough is enough,” said Tanis. Her children, ages 10 and 14, are not taking the tests.
Adding to parents’ anger and frustration were reforms pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would evaluate teachers more heavily based on test scores.
“So we were really left with no choice,” Tanis said. “Rather than responding to parent concerns, he doubled down on the use of testing.”
The Board of Regents says the tests provide an “important source of objective information” to see where students are and what help they need but should never be the only measure of students’ progress.
“Those who call for ‘opting out’ really want New York to ‘opt out’ of information that can help parents and teachers understand how well students are doing,” said Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, in a recent statement.
“We cannot go back to ignoring the needs of our children. It’s time to stop making noise to protect the adults and start speaking up for the students,” Tisch said.
Opting out across the country
New York is not an isolated case. Examples of the fallout from rigorous annual testing are popping up nationwide.
Earlier this week, some Atlanta educators were sentenced to prison time after a massive cheating scandal. Administrators and teachers were convicted of racketeering and other crimes related to inflating test scores of students from struggling schools.
In New Jersey, lawmakers recently approved a measure that would require schools to accommodate parents who opt out of testing by providing alternative activities such as independent reading for their children.
And in Indiana, the state’s 2015 superintendent of the year recommended that parents home-school their children during the testing weeks instead of having them take the tests.
“We’ve heard from almost every state in the country there’s opting out going on,” said Monty Neill, executive director of the testing reform advocacy group FairTest. “Last year, we probably heard from half.”
Neill chalks up the growing movement to an increasing number of parents who believe there’s too much testing and that’s it’s not educationally helpful.
“There’ve been a number of surveys in states as well as national surveys that are showing (frustration with testing) as a reaction among parents and the public generally, so there’s a sense that this testing has just gone round the bend,” said Neill, a former educator and school administrator who has been leading FairTest for nearly 28 years.
Also in the mix are parents’ frustration with more rigorous academic standards called Common Core, which have been implemented in 46 states and the District of Columbia, and upon which the state tests are based.
Tanis, who is also a special education teacher, said there is “no flexibility” in the standards. And, she says, given the high stakes of the testing, “you are saying to teachers, OK, you have to fit in all these standards by April, and so the test starts driving the pace of instruction.”
Speaking out on social media
When I posted on my Facebook page that I was interested in hearing from parents who opted out and promised I would share their comments without identifying them, I got an earful: They say the tests are developmentally inappropriate, too long and difficult, and shouldn’t be used to evaluate teachers.
“To me we are setting our kids up to fail. The reading passages are three levels above the child’s current grade level,” said a teacher and a mom of two who has opted out her kids for the past two years. “Many teachers have posted that their students were crying because they did not have enough time to finish the test and bubbled in random answers.”
Another mom of two, who also opted out, argued that the tests don’t benefit the children — they only benefit the industry behind Common Core and the tests themselves.
“Unfortunately, these tests have nothing to do with determining the effectiveness of teachers,” she said. “The more research I did, the more disgusted I became. It’s all about money and our kids are pawns. It’s very scary and it’s unfolding before our eyes.”
Tanis, the New York opt-out group leader, said the movement is not “anti-testing. We are anti-these tests.”
Tanis said she got involved in the movement after she tried to keep her younger son, who has autism, from taking the test two years ago.
While he loved school and had terrific teachers, he was still far below grade level and she didn’t think it made sense to put a test in front of him that he couldn’t read, “let alone even cognitively understand exactly why he was being given a test that was so far above his grade level.”
She said that at every turn, she was told her son was absolutely obligated to take the test. The law is the law, she was told. It wasn’t until other parents started refusing to have their children take it that she felt free, too, to refuse for her son.
“I think the awareness of how flawed these tests are, and the ramifications, have taken time for everybody to understand … but the fact that these tests are abusive for students with disabilities and English language learners was really easy for people to see.”
To that point, Tisch, of the New York State Board of Regents, has said that the tests actually help the most vulnerable children in our schools, whose needs were too often disregarded in years past.
“Without an objective measure of their progress, it was easy to deny special education students and English-language learners the extra resources they need,” she said. “Opting out could cost us much of the progress we have made and damage the work that still needs to be done for our most vulnerable students.”
In the middle of the debate are parents and teachers who feel there could be improvement to the Common Core and that schools should not be teaching to the test, while also believing the standards and the tests help kids learn to solve problems and think in ways many of us didn’t when we were growing up.
“It’s really a way of making children think for themselves and have teachers speak less and students become more responsible for their learning,” said a teacher and a mom of two who didn’t want to be identified. “I feel the teaching has become better because of what’s expected. Where we go wrong is understanding that the Common Core is a guideline and we still have to meet the needs of the students where they are academically.”
She also said parents — rather than educators — too often are the ones putting too much stress on students about the test.
What happens if students don’t take the tests?
Under federal regulations, if fewer than 95% of students at a school participate in the state tests, that school could lose federal funding, according to the New York State Department of Education.
That message was reportedly conveyed by some school districts in letters to parents that said state aid could be withheld if too many children boycott the tests.
But Neill of FairTest says people don’t believe that will ever happen.
“They don’t believe the loss of federal money because it’s basically not really true,” he said. In fact, no school district to date in New York has lost money for not meeting the 95% requirement for student testing, according to a state education department spokesperson.
“They’re trying to basically bully parents into toeing the line and at least in a lot of places, it’s not working,” Neill said.
How can we compete globally?
I posed the question to Tanis: If we don’t have difficult tests and tough standards, how will we compete globally, against children from countries where rigor is the norm?
The United States has the largest number of patents per capita in the world, she noted. “So we are an extremely innovative society, and the system that they’re imposing diminishes innovation, diminishes creativity.”
That may be the heart of the debate — a debate that is likely only going to intensify because the opt-out movement is gaining in strength, and that means at some point lawmakers may have to start listening.
Do you think there is now too much of an emphasis on testing in public schools? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.