As the school year draws to a close and the echoes of the final bell are still fresh, there’s a collective sigh of relief amongst students who have just navigated yet another round of high-stakes standardized testing.
We often advise our children to revel in the joy of learning, to seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and to embrace their unique intellectual journeys.
They must study hard, go to bed early, and eat a healthy breakfast. These instructions, while fundamentally sound, are not aimed at fostering a genuine love for learning — or optimal physical health. Instead, they are strategically designed to prepare children to perform optimally on The Test.
The Test — a single, standardized assessment — becomes the epitome of their academic life, a barometer of their worth and potential. Experts say the disproportionate focus on standardized testing undermines the diverse, multifaceted potential of our children, reducing their learning journey to a stress-ridden, high-stakes sprint toward a solitary finish line.
For many students, the stakes are indeed high. According to the Education Commission of the States, at least 10 states have enacted legislation where student promotion hinges primarily on standardized test scores. An additional six states have adopted a hybrid model, where promotion decisions are determined by a blend of test scores and other influencing factors.
But many parents have had enough. They’ve joined the national opt-out movement and are exempting their children from the drill and killing the stress of standardized testing. They’re also asking questions about the direction of our educational system: Is the integral role of comprehensive student evaluation being undermined by an overemphasis on test scores? And in our pursuit of standardized measurements of student progress, are we risking a more holistic, nuanced understanding of a student’s abilities and potential?
Harry Feder, executive director of Fair Test, works to combat the overuse and misuse of standardized tests. He says although implementing tests was intended to serve students, it disproportionally impacted Black students instead.
Standardized Testing and Black Students
“The idea was that if we test kids every year, every grade level, in various disciplines, that it would benefit Black kids,” Feder says. “Why? Because it would tell us — what we knew already — but it would provide the evidence, that Black kids are being underserved because they are not performing as well.”
The use of standardized testing is said to be a gateway into other opportunities for children, along with indicators of educational attainment and progress, but in reality, for many groups, it does more harm than good.
“There are several problems with this model,” Feder says. “The first is it makes the schools, particularly in communities of color — particularly for Black kids — all about test prep, and what doesn’t get done is the kind of rich learning and deeper learning we want our kids to engage in.”
Part of understanding the relationship between standardized testing and Black students is to also understand the roots in which they were created, both good and bad.
“The data is very clear that there are inherent biases in standardized tests. The concept of them are kind of born in racism and eugenics, but it is definitely a way of ranking and sorting that does not do justice to poor kids and kids of color,” Feder says.
The opt-out movement became nationally prominent in 2015 after parents used it as a way to boycott the controversial Common Core learning standards. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) recognizes parents’ right to refuse to test in states or districts with opt-out laws.
The act also requires districts to inform parents of state law and policy regarding test participation, so they understand their participation is voluntary. It also mandates 95% test participation but leaves it up to each state to decide what to do if a school or district does not reach 95%.
No school or district has ever lost federal funding because of opt-outs, according to Fair Test.
The entire opt-out process can be confusing for parents, especially for those who raised children in a nation where testing has always been mandatory.
New York City resident Alexandra Dormoy, 42, decided not to pull her first-grader or 12th-grader out of testing this year.
“Both my kids are fairly great test takers, I like for them to push and challenge themselves for that A+ every time despite all the factors built against them, and standardized testing in general, “she tells Word In Black. “I just wish there was a way to make that level of excellence both achievable and fair for all students,” Dormoy says.
Dormoy says she moved her children from a traditional public school to a charter school so they can prepare for the academic level of undergraduate and graduate learning required.
In May Los Angeles mom Robin Norman, a single mother of two, told Spectrum News she moved her children from public to homeschooling three days a week for a more well-rounded education.
“You can catch your kid up really quickly with one-on-one attention. It’s very, very hard for them to hide when it’s just you and them, “ Norman said. “Like, if it’s a classroom of 30 kids, it’s easy for them to hide and skip through the cracks.”
But Fair Test has four clear reasons why parents should make opting their child out of standardized tests an option.
For starters, it sends a message to schools to rework their teaching model to encourage more interactive learning versus test prep.
They also recommend pulling students from standardized tests to prevent the unfair use of test results against school workers and to protect your child, a teacher, a school, or a district from the harm of testing overuse and misuse.
“Many parents opting out together send a unified message that students’ time should be spent learning, not filling in bubbles on a test sheet. Urban parents can opt out to demand an end to school closures based on test scores and protest how testing fuels the school-to-prison pipeline,” according to Fair Test.
How to Opt-Out
For those that want to opt their child out, parents should send the principal a letter saying they don’t want their child to take the tests.
According to Fair Test, the letter could be as basic as: “I want to let you know we do not want our child, [name], to take part in the [name the standardized exam] this year. Please arrange for [him or her] to have a productive educational experience during the testing period.”
Other requirements vary by state and district, like filling out a specific form. But in eight states there are protected laws that allow opting out. No states have laws prohibiting it.
“There should be no high stake consequences to standardized tests. They should not become the focus of schools, they should be almost like an occasional service stat as best,” Feder says. “What we need to focus on is developing the kind of deeper, richer tasks that allow students to learn skills and to demonstrate skills and knowledge that is authentic to their learning, and classrooms.”
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