Resisting High Stakes Testing: Advocating for our Students and Children by “Opting Out”

As another spring is upon us, so brings another season of state-mandated testing in K-12 schools all over the country. As advocates for authentic instruction and assessment, as teachers burdened with the pressures of producing high test scores, and as parents of children coming home with the array of emotions that high-stakes testing creates, we have concerns over the role of testing in education. To help you understand some of the current legislation and options regarding opting your children out of testing, we are bringing back an article originally written in 2014 by two of the founders of Writers Who Care: Sarah Hochstetler and Mark Letcher.

The authors’ references to Chicago’s testing controversy are several years old, and the language has been revised slightly from the original post to reflect the passage of time. However, as in many states, testing remains a contentious issue in Illinois, especially as it pertains to the transition from the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) to the Common Core-aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test (which itself has recently been scrapped). Teachers and parents in that state are finding a range of productive ways to push back, and this toolkit might be a valuable resource for teachers in other states facing similar issues.Picture of a row of pencils. One pencil is higher than the others and has a broken point

“I don’t want to fail.”  -Ellison, 3rd Grade

“The teacher said we have to do well.”  -Erik, 4th Grade

“But why are they important?”  -Christopher, 2nd Grade

We’re on the cusp of spring, and with the change in season comes another cycle of high stakes testing (HST) in our schools. In this post we build on Kristen and Troy’s report about the effects of testing on writing to make the case that “opting out” of high stakes testing, while not an easy decision, may be an opportunity to advocate for students, teachers, and the value of authentic writing.

The sad truth is that these children quoted above–children we know and love–are not alone in their anxiety about high stakes testing. And while we find ourselves telling them to ignore the rhetoric of high stakes testing and simply do their best, the assessments do matter, in ways many young test-takers could never realize. Standardized testing takes away valuable instruction time from students and teachers, and places undue stresses on school faculty and administrators. Ultimately, testing impacts communities: pay and promotion have been linked to student test scores, and the success of individual schools and districts are often measured by the results of high stakes tests. On the classroom level, testing often influences the way teachers approach their disciplines, particularly writing; the classic “five paragraph theme” is the essay model most highly valued on standardized tests, so many schools and teachers overemphasize that genre in the hope that students will score highly on the tests’ written portions as a result.

For students, time spent in preparation for testing or in the act of testing is time away from engaging, relevant curriculum.  A recent study of two mid-sized urban school districts indicates that the time individual students spend taking tests ranged from 20-50 hours per year in heavily tested grades, and 60-110 hours in test prep in high-stakes testing grades.  Loosely translated, Ellison, the third-grader quoted above, may spend twenty minutes per day in school in test-related activities, because third graders are typically among the grades tested. Imagine the impact if that time was refocused toward inquiry-based learning in the form of writing for authentic audiences, or writing for self-exploration, or writing for pleasure.

What are the Options?

It turns out there are several options for pushing back high stakes testing (see below), but we must also consider the potential “ripple effects.” Choosing not to participate in high stakes testing can have consequences for students, teachers, and schools, and those effects may vary widely depending on the school in question. Several years ago, teachers at two elementary schools in Chicago faced real and significant threats from administration for refusing to administer the ISAT, Illinois’ high stakes test. For parents, resisting state assessments can invite related pressures, like those explained by one parent in a Slate article. The conflicts surrounding these assessments are many, and they can influence everyone involved.

While we still believe strongly that removing students from the actual tests is the most impactful way to resist high stakes testing, and that speaking back to these tests in a loud, united voice works to protect our classrooms and our children, these decisions are not made lightly or without effect. If you are considering taking your children out of testing, as some of us are, you should gather as much information as you can about the specific tests and allowances for, as many call it, “opting out” in your home state; resources in this post can help with that. In addition, be prepared to enter a conversation, rather than a confrontation, with school administrators about these issues. We are parents and teachers, and we know our children’s teachers and administrators as friends and community members. We must walk the line between advocating for our children’s educational and emotional well-being, and respecting the good work our schools are doing beyond testing. Above all, if we make the decision to resist in some way, we should stand by that decision, even in the face of the challenges some students, parents, and teachers are reporting. That’s where other examples of resistance, and additional resources, can be of use.

Saying “No” to High Stakes Testing

In recent years we’ve heard about a growing grassroots effort called the “opt out movement,” which promotes the idea that everyone has a choice in how they participate in high stakes testing. A major group in this movement, “United Opt Out National,” defines opting out as “a refusal to ‘buy into’ something–in this case the stranglehold that high stakes testing has on public education. We believe that the quickest, swiftest, and most effective way to end the destruction of HST is for parents, students and teachers to refuse to participate in these mandated high stakes tests.”  And there are a growing number of examples that illustrate what this can look like.

Perhaps the first organized, and most highly profiled, instance of opting out occurred in 2013 at Garfield High School, in Seattle. In this case, the resistance came from teachers themselves, in response to the district-mandated Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. The Garfield High faculty were supported by other teachers within the Seattle district, as well as nationwide. As a result of the boycott, the test will no longer be required for high school graduation, but will still be administered at the elementary and middle school levels. Similarly, in February 2014 teachers in one Chicago Public School voted unanimously to boycott the ISAT. The flat refusal to administer this test gained traction among parents and activists who showed their support for the expanding group of Chicago teachers who pushed back.

One of the first steps for parents and others in supporting teachers or initiating our own localized opt-out movement, is to inform each other and our neighbors, as thoroughly as possible, about the tests students are required to take, and how those tests are used by our school districts and states. Very often, we have found that parents simply don’t know the nature of the tests, or how they are being used. Asking questions at the school and district level can help, as can bringing concerns and questions to your school’s PTA or PTO. We can write letters to administrators and others, compose op-eds for local newspapers, create resistance groups, or choose to opt out fully and boycott the test.

If we arrive at the decision to opt our children out of standardized testing, it is important to realize that different states have varying procedures for doing so; from our investigation, it appears that some states include specific language in their laws that provide these options, while others do not. The Indiana Department of Education, to use one example, does not have any rules pertaining to opting out; state law dictates that all students must take the state assessments. However, parents have opted students out using prior Supreme Court rulings as justification, rulings which uphold the rights of parents to guide their children’s upbringing.

Finally, our actions should be focused on impacting the way testing is understood and moving toward changing district rules and state laws around high stakes testing for the benefit of our children and schools. You don’t have to be a parent or teacher to oppose high stakes testing. Concerned citizens can engage in the opt-out movement by supporting it on a local, regional, or national scale. Community members who care about the place of public schools in their cities and towns should take an interest in this debate, and engaging in the dialog here is one step toward the goal of advocating for our students.  Below is a brief list of resources for starting this important work.

If you have stories about participating in the opt-out movement, please share them in the comments section.

Quick Links for Taking Action

FairTest Fact Sheets: Organized by subject, these quick resources focus on topics such as the nature of standardized assessment, their use by schools, and the laws that govern their implementation.

State-by-state opting out resources: Collected by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, these resources outline the laws that govern (or remain vague on) removing students from testing situations.

Opt Out of the State Test: This Facebook group, currently at 8,000+ members and counting, provides a wealth of resources related to resisting the culture of standardized testing in schools.

Save Our Schools: This organization, which supports the opt-out movement as well as other initiatives toward improving education, includes resources like lists of books, films, and other media to help inform readers about high stakes testing.

Parents Across America: This group organizes parents and other stakeholders interested in critiquing educational issues like privatization, the role of poverty in learning, and high stakes testing.

Why Opt Out?: A compelling essay from former Secretary of Education and Opt Out advocate Diane Ravitch.

Sarah Hochstetler is an Associate Professor of English Education at Illinois State University, where she teaches writing methods and other pedagogy-focused courses.  Prior to her work with teacher candidates, Sarah taught high school English in Southern California.

Mark Letcher is an Assistant Professor of English Education at Lewis University, where he teaches a variety of methods courses. A father of three, he is utilizing the resources in this post to explore opting out his son from upcoming elementary school testing.

One thought on “Resisting High Stakes Testing: Advocating for our Students and Children by “Opting Out”

  1. In my own experience, I had to take many state mandated tests. However, unlike students today, I did not have the choice to opt out of them. I’m not sure if I would have opted out of them since I had done all of the preparation work in my classes. I understand why people feel so strongly against them, and I also understand why people are in favor of them. These tests can be extremely anxiety-inducing for many students. Many teachers understandably oppose these tests because they unfairly assess their performance based on their students’ test results. I think that it should be the students’ decision to make with the help of their parents. As long as state mandated tests are in effect, we will be faced with this issue.

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