Sunday, April 12, 2015

My Journey to Opting Out.

I grew up in a large family – the middle child, youngest girl – in a family of seven brothers and a sister.  My parents, who were post World War II pioneers in the Second Great Migration, moved our family to Buffalo from Louisiana in 1947.  They left behind family and friends in search of economic opportunity, social and political equality and access to educational advancement for their children.  While neither completed high school, their belief in the power of education as a means to a better life was communicated to us through their expectation that we would adhere to school dictates and strictly enforced by their authoritarian parenting style. So I grew up always pushing through educational challenges and stoically persisting in following the rules, even those that seemed unfair or questionable. Opting out was not an option.

This week, beginning on April 14th, hundreds of thousands of students in the 3rd – 8th grades, across this State will begin a three day cycle of test taking in English Language Arts.  The following week, those same students will take the standardized tests in math.  During this period, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of their classmates will refuse these tests.  Their parents have decided to opt-out of the “high-stakes testing” mill.  They are pioneers in a Movement that is growing, not just in New York State but in states throughout this country.  They are opting out, not because they don’t value educational assessment; not because they don’t believe in setting standards for educational achievement; not because they don’t think their children should learn perseverance in the face of difficulty and not because they don’t have high expectations of their children.  They are motivated by principled opposition to the use of these tests for purposes that are not validated and the intense focus on teaching to the test.

Blogger, “Lace to the Top”, offers an analysis of the upcoming ELA test for 3rd graders.  He states that given the length of the passages and the questions that students will have to read, they would have to be able to read 75 words a minute, at least, to complete the test.  EngageNY, the website for information about the ELA and Math tests provides the following guidance about this year’s test:  “many of the questions on the 2015 Grade 3 Common Core English Language Arts Test are more advanced and complex than those found on prior assessments that measured prior grade level standards.  Answer choices will not jump out; rather, students will need to make hard choices between “fully correct” and “plausible but incorrect” answers….”  Is there a plan to trick students?  Why?

As a school board member and educator, I have followed the high stakes testing debate.  Last year I wrote an article entitled “Are you smarter than a 3rd grader?”, that cited reasons why these tests are not true measures of our children’s abilities:  1) they are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) the tests are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target student learning needs 3) almost all children take the same test, regardless of their ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach  4) the emphasis on the tests encourages teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects  5) children are being demoralized and frustrated by long hours of testing.  In addition test results are being used to grade schools and to evaluate educators, even though statistics experts dispute the validity of this methodology.

I am a proponent of the Opt-Out Movement.  I believe in the purpose/goals/validity of this Movement.  And this is where my journey becomes relevant.   My support has developed over time and resulted from research, reflection and discussions with advocates.  However, belief is not enough if it isn’t married with action, when warranted.  I began this article with a brief personal reference to the learned behaviors ingrained by my parents.  They also encouraged me to stand up for my beliefs. 

I have two granddaughters who attend a focus school.  The oldest one, a third grader, is scheduled to take the ELA and Math tests this year.   Although she is a very bright girl, loves school and her teachers, she has a reading problem associated with a vision disability.  She is working hard to overcome her problem but reading is a challenge and she is easily discouraged.   In addition to all the arguments for opting out, my granddaughter’s reading difficulties added another compelling reason to refuse the tests.     But the decision isn’t mine; it’s her parent’s.  However, a grandmother can be influential.   Over the last six months I’ve had long discussions with my daughter, supplied her with information about the tests and urged her to visit EngageNY to see sample questions.    Today, I can say that my family has joined the Opt-out Movement.  My granddaughter will not be taking the ELA or math tests!  I think my parents would approve.

Local school districts are having serious conversations about the Opt Out Movement and its impact on students and the school system.  Unfortunately these conversations have not been on the Buffalo Board’s agenda because the focus has been on a myriad of other pressing issues.  Yet, many of these pressing issues are directly related to high stakes testing as these tests are used to identify our schools as “failing” and “out-of-time”.  This issue has been raised to an even higher level of importance given the Governor’s recent budget and legislative agenda resulting in greater reliance on these tests to evaluate student, school and educator proficiency.  I’ll propose that the Board begin a dialogue about the impact of high stakes testing and policies that we should consider in response.   It’s time to extend the journey.

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