Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On Testing Madness, Opting Out and Anxiety

Today New York State testing madness begins.   For the next twelve days we will have six testing days and six make-up days, during which children will be spending approximately 2 hours for each of six days, being tested on tests created by Pearson Learning and mandated by the state of New York.  These tests will determine levels of intervention students are given and for the first time, a large portion (50%) of the teachers’ final evaluation will be based on the test results.

Two years ago I wrote on this blog about the needless stress to which we are subjecting our youth because of the mandated Grade 3-8 ELA and Math tests.  I walked through classrooms, as the teachers and students prepared for the test, and I saw students tapping on their desks, pulling and twisting their hair and biting nails.  I lamented, then, about the level of anxiety we are subjecting or our youngest through the testing process.  Today I write to express another ludicrousness that is placing another wave of stress on our children.  The stress is rooted in what has been the byproduct of procedures created by the state for families who choose to “opt out”.

I have been in the educational arena for basically all of my life.  I have filled roles as teacher, as student, as principal, as district administrator, as consultant and as parent—to name a few.  I believe in accountability.  I believe in the power of data to support informed decisions about schools and students.  I believe the Common Core Standards are good for education.  I believe that tying 50% of a teacher’s evaluation on one test is bad for education.  I believe in partnerships between schools and homes to create optimal conditions for student learning.  And I believe in the rights of parents to determine what they feel is in the best interest of their children both in and out of schools, knowing that sometimes they are a prong of a partnership to determine the path to what is best and at other times, they have the final say.

Many of my friends are educators and parents and I have been privy to multiple discussions by multiple stakeholders about the “opting out” phenomenon that has taken root in NYS at a grass roots level.  In some schools and districts the majority of parents are choosing to have their children not take the NYS 3-8 ELA and Math tests. Parents, teachers and schools have grappled with the ramifications of a single test that has tremendous power but has not proven to be a reliable predictor of really much of anything.  One thing we do know though—the test is rooted in money.  And power.   And politics. 

However, for the most part, parents are not rooted in any of this bureaucracy.  They are rooted in their child.  And they are rooted in relationships formed at school.  They are rooted in a partnership with the school for their child.  They want what is best for their child.  And their answer for how to address what is best for their child in what they perceive to be a testing debacle is to “opt out”.  

Sounds easy.  Sounds like an option to lift anxiety.  Right?  Wrong!  The hoops are numerous.  And in the end, the onus for opting out lies on—get this—THE CHILD!  The parent can write a letter to the school asking for their child to not be given the test.  They can say they are “opting out”.  But there really is no provision for the parent to opt out.  A parent can do one of two things.  The parent can take their child out of school for twelve days (the days that the test is being administered and the testing make-up days—maybe that could be family vacation time, I suppose). Or, if the parents don’t want the child to miss the rest of the instruction that takes place out of the testing and make-up hours of a school day, they can send their child to school and have the child refuse to take the test when the test is passed to him or her.

This “opt-out” option, is stressful to all—especially to the youngest of our school partnership—the child.   We are asking our children to participate in civil disobedience.  Children have been taught to obey and appreciate authority.  Yet they have dual authorities giving them differing messages (even though these two prongs of that partnership—parent and teacher—may actually see through a very similar lens).  Parents tell the child to say no to the test.  And teachers pass the test to the child.   The child has conflicting authority pressing on them from both sides, creating a level of unnecessary confusion and stress.  Children are asked to conform and comply with their classroom community.  Yet, on this day, while classmates and friends all around are taking the test, the child who is “opting out” needs to say no and read a book.  Or in some cases, just sit there.   

For some children the notion of doing something different than the rest of the class, especially given the nature of the act as defiant, is impossible.  But to not do what mom or dad tells them they need to do is also impossible.  Leaving the child in an impossible situation.  Children as young as nine-years-old, are given this burden. For many nine and ten year olds and, for that matter, for many thirteen and fourteen year olds, who respect authority and want to be compliant, who want to be liked and want to be a part of the class community, being put in this position is untenable.  Asking this of a child is unfair.  It undermines trust.  It shatters partnerships. And it creates ludicrous stress.  For all involved.  Especially for our youngest. 

Don't get me wrong.  I honor our families that are choosing to opt-out.  It is a viable option in a difficult situation.  And I also honor our families who are choosing to opt-in.  Families are doing their best in a complicated situation.  I honor our teachers who want to do the right thing—who do not want to add unneeded anxiety to our youngest.  They want to teach.    I also honor our administrators who are working to provide an environment that supports the students taking the test and fills obligations around test modifications and testing mandates while creating a system of supports for our students not taking the test.   Above all, I honor our children caught in the middle.

Three years ago I wrote about testing anxiety as New York moved into the high stakes testing arena.  The words I closed with that blog unfortunately still ring true today… 

The anxiety levels are high for all concerned stakeholders.  I worry for the youngest of our stakeholders—our children, our students.  I worry that we are raising a generation of anxious children.  What a state?   Over a test?  Where is the sanity?” 

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for dedicating space and time for teachers and teachers of literacy to come together to share ideas, practice and life experience.


  1. I hear you loud and clear. Our state discouraged the opt out option by tying the test scores to school performance scores so that if a parent opts out for their child, they punish their school with a score of 0 for that child. Does this make any sense? The whole system is flawed and must be addressed. I believe in education, but this testing atmosphere is ruining our teachers, our students, and our schools.

  2. We are a split home. Two out three of my boys chose to take the tests. Not bc anyone else is urging them too, but bc they wanted to. Despite my best efforts at explaining why I would choose to refuse as an act of civil disobedience using many of the same points that you so thoughtfully made, they chose to take the tests. I did also reinforce for them that I do not think all tests or even the CCLS are bad. And in fact, I said that I would not refuse b/c I don't think they should have to do anything hard or anxiety-provoking b/c instead I want to teach them to thrive in spite of anxiety provoking activities. I told them for me, if feels like the last best chance to get our leaders to listen to our concerns as parents and educators. However, in an act of perfect independence, they chose to take the tests. They love school, even tests, they are active and engaged learners despite our current trends in education. I could not be prouder of them.

  3. In Ontario, our EQAO testing is a month away, but it is already affecting my family. My daughter has Central Auditory Processing Disorder & it effects her reading and, for some reason, her math. Problem solving is very difficult. It may be simply understanding the questions and then applying the correct procedures, but...

    This weekend we were attempting to work on the weekly EQAO prep problem solving sheet that comes home Friday to go back Monday that I know she can't do independently, but I was sure it could solidify smaller math procedures if I worked with her on it. There was crying, stomping, yells of "I give up on everything" and more for about an hour. Over the hour I learned three facts about her previous week.

    Not being able to complete these sheets independently makes her feel useless and dumb. She is being pulled from regular class to attend EQAO prep classes, which I didn't know, and was missing other aspects. She was trying to complete a test with Spec Ed support & was missing input math classes & was scared about not being able to do the classwork.

    I learned something huge about her. Her cries of "I don't care" really mean she cares too much. She's hurting because she isn't able to do this work and she wants to be able to do it. She is anxious that she won't understand what is coming up and she already knows it's hard for her.

    This testing is hurting kids who care and makes them feel bad about themselves. These tests are hurting kids.

  4. What a mess we have created - no one wins, but Pearson.

  5. Deb, one of the things I appreciate most about you is your thoughtfulness and the way you provoke thoughts in others. Thank you for this piece that truly does have me appreciating nuances I had not considered to a very complicated scenario. There is no easy answer here and I appreciate you presenting a balanced reflection on the choices.

  6. Deb, an eloquent post about the out of control testing and our various responses to it. IN 2012, we opted our son out of state testing in NJ. I blogged about it here: http://maryannreilly.blogspot.com/2012/05/opting-out-of-state-testing-motherhood.html
    You're right that it caused anxiety to take action--and in many ways we saw this as civil disobedience.

    In NJ, the second round of high stakes testing begins in 2 weeks and will go on for another month. 2 months out of 10 are being lost to Pearson's PARCC across many NJ schools. It's sad, outrageous, wasteful and costly in so many ways.

    Like you I've worked as a teacher, admin, district admin, consultant, and always as parent. I know we can do better. Not sure we have the courage to do so.

  7. Wow- the poor kids in all of this! Not being in the US I had no idea that the kids had to be the ones really opting out. What messages we are sending them:( Thank you for your thoughtful piece.