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Standardized test backlash: More parents pull kids from exams as protest

For parents fed up with the growing numbers of tests and the increasingly high stakes, 'opting out' is now the popular form of protest. Critics say it aims at the wrong target and ignores importance of data gleaned.

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    Teacher Debbie Cruger-Hansen assists fourth graders at Mira Vista School in Richmond, Calif., in March. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write, and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived this month with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.
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It had never really occurred to Chantal Kovach to keep her fifth-grade son from taking Colorado's new annual assessments, until an e-mail started circulating among parents.

Ms. Kovach became concerned that the test would be measuring material her son's class hadn't covered yet, that the results wouldn't be available to his teacher until the fall. She also was worried that the class would have to devote significant hours to taking the test, and then more hours later in the spring taking other tests on the material they had studied.

But it wasn't until she went to the teacher, wondering if it might still be useful to her son as practice, that she made up her mind.

"The feedback I got was that only when an educated group of parents takes a stand against this colossal waste of time will anything change," says Kovach, who kept her son home in March and will do so again next week and in May, and says many other parents at her Boulder, Colo., elementary school are doing the same.

For a segment of parents fed up with the growing numbers of tests and the increasingly high stakes placed on their scores, "opting out" is now the popular form of protest. And in certain states and communities, the movement is gaining steam, with large percentages of parents and students sitting out required exams. With schools required by current federal law to test at least 95 percent of their populations, the burgeoning opt-out numbers raise the possibility of federal sanctions.

But what some see as important grass-roots protest against a testing regime they say has become too onerous and that has negative effects on children and education, others say is misguided, a protest that stems from understandable frustration but that aims at the wrong target, and that ignores the important information gained from such tests.

"I don’t think [the opt-out message] gets to the heart of what is really concerning large numbers of people," says Sonja Brookins Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice for the Education Trust, which works to reduce the achievement gap among US student populations. Ms. Santelises acknowledges that there are too many tests and in some cases too much rote test prep – but says those are issues that can be solved by reducing unnecessary state and district assessments and with effective leadership that encourages real learning, not teaching to the test. And she sees the federally mandated annual assessments, which she and others say have never been better, as important tools that shine a spotlight on growth and on achievement gaps.

"We need a measure that allows us to get a snapshot that is consistent across communities and zip codes, that allows us to see where we are missing the mark for some groups of kids as opposed to others," says Santelises.

But parents choosing to opt out say the current tests cause unnecessary stress and harm to their kids, aren't useful diagnostically, and are pushing instruction and education in a direction they disagree with. Many, though not all, of them also disagree with the new Common Core standards and are unhappy with both the standards and with tests that they say are too rigorous and developmentally inappropriate.

The opt-out movement has surged in pockets, often concentrated in relatively affluent communities (hence Education Secretary Arne Duncan's infamous gaffe that "white suburban moms" were the ones unhappy with new tests) and in states or districts with policies more friendly to opting-out parents. (State and district policies vary wildly with what they mandate when it comes to testing.) But nowhere has seen higher rates of concentration than New York State, especially on Long Island.

"We are the epicenter," says Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She calls the opt-out movement in New York an "act of civil disobedience that parents and teachers are engaging in because the schools that we love are being undermined by test-based reforms."

When the state gave its exams earlier this month, at least 200,000 students – out of the 1.1 million eligible students – opted out. That was up from about 60,000 last year, 30,000 of whom were from Long Island. In Ms. Burris's district, more than 70 percent of parents chose to have their children sit out the exam, she says, and in another Long Island district, the opt-out rate exceeded 80 percent.

"We knew the numbers had to be high enough that they can’t ignore it," says Jeanette Deutermann, a Long Island parent of a 3rd and 6th grader who founded Opt Out Long Island and is the co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, which is advocating against high-stakes tests.

Ms. Deutermann says her concerns began when her older son, then in fourth grade, started having anxiety about the approaching tests and had an abrupt shift in his attitude toward school. The more she learned about the tests, the more her concerns grew.

"These tests are not diagnostically useful in any way possible," says Deutermann, describing stories she's heard of 8- and 9-year-olds experiencing significant distress after multiple hours of tests. Getting nearly a quarter of all the state's eligible students to opt out is going to force a conversation, Deutermann hopes, noting that the state has already pushed back some of its plans to factor the tests even more significantly into teacher evaluations and is being forced to deal with thousands of teachers who won't have a "growth score" this year. In her third grade son's class, just two children took the test.

"That was the idea," says Deutermann. "To disrupt the system so they have to come up with some solutions and strategies.... The fallout is now starting."

What's still unclear is if, or how, the federal government may respond to districts and states that don't meet the 95 percent participation rate decreed by No Child Left Behind.

Its options range from the mild, issuing a formal request for compliance, to the most severe, withholding all or a portion of a state's federal Title I funds, with several options in between – all of which the Department of Education outlined in recent letters it sent to Illinois, Delaware, and New Jersey, among other states that requested guidance on their assessment obligation.

So far, the federal government has never withheld funds because states "have either complied or have appropriately addressed the issue with schools or districts that assessed less than 95 percent of students," says Dorie Turner Nolt, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

When asked about the issue at a recent conference convened by the Education Writers Association, Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed sympathy for the idea that "there is too much testing,” but reiterated the importance of having all children take annual assessments, particularly for equity reasons and to ensure that all students are making progress. Secretary Duncan didn't threaten explicit sanctions, but if states refuse to hold schools and districts accountable for testing at least 95 percent of their students,  he said that "we have an obligation to step in."

Many defenders of the need for assessments agree with Duncan that some compromise might be found in reducing the quantity of assessments students take that are not federally mandated, and working to make sure there are good reasons for the tests that are given. But doing away with yearly testing completely – perhaps moving to "grade-span" testing, in which students are tested once in a span of years, as some people suggest – would mean backtracking in certain important areas, they say. It would be impossible to measure year-to-year growth of individual students and less attention might be given to the gaps that exist for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

And one reason the current tests take so long, they add, is precisely because they're better tests, ones that aim to assess cognitive ability, and they take longer than the old bubble tests.

"Our state accountability assessments have probably never been better than they are in 2015," says Chris Domaleski, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit that aims to improve assessment and accountability practices. He understands parents' frustration with lengthy tests, says Mr. Domaleski, but also thinks the quality of data they gather is better. "As a field, we’ve got to find that balance point," he says, between quality and length.

The opt-out movement may force some productive conversations about how to build better, more efficient assessment systems, says Domaleski, but he also worries about the negative effects of having so many students skip the exams. "If it gives us less information, than that is going to impugn our efforts to improve education," he says.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a testing-reform group that supports the opt-out movement, says he's not convinced the new tests are significantly better – and he also takes issue with the equity arguments for mandatory annual testing.

"More testing has been proven not to be closing those [achievement] gaps," Mr. Schaeffer says, saying the gaps were closing more rapidly before the onset of No Child Left Behind. "We don't need to measure [the achievement gap] more, we need to address it," he says.

He and others say the groundswell of such large numbers of parents refusing to let their children take the test is already having an effect on policymakers, and he hopes it leads to even greater change.

"The message is, 'Enough is enough,' " says Schaeffer. "It’s a three-part message: too many tests, too high stakes, and we need better assessments."

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