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Standardized tests: Time for a national opt-out

Here's an update to a clichéd philosophical question: If a test is scheduled and no one is around to take it, will this test matter?

The new school year for many public school teachers begins weeks before students arrive. Educators attend hours of workshops to discover that the newest acronym is simply a substitute for an older one. More importantly, piles of test data are pored over to both assess the previous year and to fully appreciate what is to come with a new crop of students.

With every new testing mandate, combined with recent scandals chipping away at the once impossibly smooth veneer of test-based education reforms, many teachers, parents and administrators are getting frustrated. Where have market-driven and data-obsessed policies taken us over the last 10 years? Are public schools necessarily better off than they were when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was initially greeted with bipartisan support?

Another important question: What of education have we lost as a result of strict adherence to standardized tests? Many are answering, "Too much — and enough is enough." The result is that more and more parents and educators are mulling what was once unthinkable: opting children out of state standardized tests.

For example, Tim Slekar, a professor of education in Pennsylvania, opted his son Luke out of his state's tests last school year to "make my community aware and to try and enlighten them of the real issues." This parent and professor's plea is simple and forceful: "Stop treating my child as data! He's a great kid who loves to learn. He is not a politician's pawn in a chess game designed to prove the inadequacy of his teachers and school."

In July, a large group of public school advocates organized the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C. to protest the continued, and in some cases stronger, embrace of standardized testing. Even amid budget shortfalls, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on things like researching newer exams, test security, investigating lapses in that security, and manufacturing data collection systems. Meanwhile, schools must contend with smaller staffs and larger class sizes.

Educators are frustrated by the exclusion of teachers from the larger debate on education reform and policy in the United States. Individual classroom teachers and researchers have been highlighting for years the deleterious effects of focusing solely on success or failure with regard to standardized tests. And even now, with the revelation that high-stakes environments are perfect breeding grounds for desperation and resulting dishonesty, the dispiriting march through another year of test preparation must continue.

In a political and cultural environment that at best feigns listening to educators and at worst demonizes them, the most active public school advocates — like Mr. Slekar — are beginning to feel that opting their children out of completing the state tests is the only message that will get through. Those who began their research into the issue are finding it remarkably easy to do, despite the dissembling of school officials when asked for information.

Parents considering opting their children out of state testing are aware of the implications — that a diminished level of participation will affect the school's ability to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). But the threat of no AYP does not appear as ominous as it once did. What is more, the Department of Education's hemming and hawing over the reauthorization of NCLB, plus this whole business of granting waivers that states don't even want, could mean that the punitive era of education reform is slowly coming to an end.

Growing groups of parents and public school advocates have decided to hit the contemporary reform movement where it counts by taking away the privilege of collecting coveted data. They realize that their children are more than just test scores. They now understand that a laser-like focus on testing and test preparation comes at the expense of numerous other facets of an engaging and well-rounded education. Most of all, these same folks are slowly but surely grasping the power that eluded them during the height of the NCLB era. Despite being largely locked out of the conversation on public education, parents, teachers, and parents who are teachers know they don't have to give up the data any longer.

Opting-out groups are turning to social media to organize. A Florida-based Facebook group, "Testing is Not Teaching," boasts more than 12,000 supporters. A similar, fledgling group called "United Opt Out" claimed 600 national members after just a few days of existence online. Local numbers for Maryland are elusive, and it's too early to tell whether pressing the "Like" button will translate into actual opting out of test taking.

So, to come full circle: If tests were scheduled and no one took them, would it matter? It would probably be the exact opposite of the proverbial tree falling with no one around. Fewer students filling in fewer bubbles would sound an alarm akin to 1,000 trees falling in the forest. This time, one could not ignore hearing it. And the sincere grievances public school advocates have about the dominance of testing might finally receive an attentive audience.

Shaun Johnson is an assistant professor of elementary education in the College of Education at Towson University. His email is spjohnson@towson.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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