Opt Out! The Harm of Standardized Tests

Image courtesy of  morguefile.com

Image courtesy of morguefile.com

Around the country, school districts are frantically preparing for the annual standardized test. In southern California, where I live, those tests are administered in May and June. At our last PTA meeting, our school principal said that our version of the test, the CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress) will be administered during the last couple of weeks in May. As a family, we’ve decided to opt our children out from all assessments that fall outside the normal formative and summative assessments (in-class quizzes and tests) that their teachers administer and that count toward their school grade. Fortunately, California Education Code 60615 allows parents here “to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the assessments administered”. So why do we opt our children out?

According to FairTest.org, “testing overuse and misuse is damaging public education by eating up classroom time, narrowing curriculum and driving many students out of school." They go on to say that "it perpetuates a false narrative of failure by putting schools in low-income communities at risk of closure or privatization”. In our family’s Opt Out letter to the school, I made sure to include that “I believe our teachers are our children’s benchmark, and only they should have the skills and training to do what standardized tests cannot.”

Let's be clear, I fully support public education because a robust public education structure is a founding pillar of an equally robust democracy. Standardized tests, however, create standardized thinkers. As a college professor, I see and hear my students struggle more and more to try and answer simple questions like: “What do you think of such an issue?” or "Can you say that in your own words?" This is a very recent phenomenon, and very much unlike when I was in college, just a couple of decades ago. So it is time to ask the question of whether our public education system is being adversely affected by standardized testing. Fortunately, I am not alone in my refusal to make my children take these tests.

There is a movement being spearheaded by United Opt Out, a grassroots organization committed to informing people on what to do in order to end the privatization and corporate influence on public education. They see standardized testing as a distinct element of the trend because it takes testing out of the hands of teachers and into the hands of testing corporations. Dr. Diane Ravitch in her blog discusses the use of tests to dismantle our public education system. You can read about her warnings to “not feed the machine of state testing" in her well-publicized 2014 Huffington Post article.

Teachers themselves, are also standing up for the education of their students. For instance, Dr. Wendy Bradshaw, an elementary school teacher from Polk County Florida, who’s resignation letter went viral after she wrote: “Developmentally appropriate practice is the bedrock upon which early childhood education best practices are based, and has decades of empirical support behind it. However, the new reforms not only disregard this research, they are actively forcing teachers to engage in practices which are not only ineffective but, actively harmful to child development and the learning process.” You can read Dr. Bradshaw’s letter here.

Another example is from history teacher Jesse Hagopian, at Garfield High School in Washington State, who writes about standing up against standardized testing in schools, among many other issues. In his letter to his son’s school explaining why the child will be opted out, Jesse writes: “We are opting him out of standardized tests because we have seen the way an over-emphasis on scores has distorted what matters most in elementary education-such as creativity, being a good friend, communicating emotions, and problem-solving.”

I had a discussion recently with a fellow parent at our children's school about the upcoming standardized tests. She was distraught because she wanted her son to do well but didn’t know how to help him prepare for the tests. I reminded her that these tests were not tied to whether he advances to the next grade. Her response, “then why is he taking them?” Good question. United Opt Out has a list of the Top Five Myths of Standardized Testing. One of those myths is that “opting out does not prepare children for the real world” because testing is something they will need to do their whole lives. The argument that children will be taking tests their whole lives, and therefore need to practice them over and over, is false. Human beings do not take tests their whole lives – they take a handful of tests and the rest of the time, they are expected to be engaged critical thinkers that are compassionate, responsible, and engaged in the world around them.

Let me be reiterate, I am not against all tests. I just will not allow our children to be trained like mindless beings to be test-takers at the expense of so many other things they could be learning. The world our children will inherit will require them to understand big ideas, be critical thinkers, know more than one language, appreciate art and music, and be able to interact with different kinds of people and situations. Standardized tests point children in the wrong direction, and consequently puts the the burden on them for one more of our many mistakes: standardized testing.