Here’s a Q & A with a Pennsylvania mother about why she decided not to let her 9-year-old son take the state’s standardized test. Kathy Newman is part of a growing movement of parents who are choosing to “opt out” of the state’s test-based accountability system — at least in states that give families that option. (In Florida, for example, it is very hard to opt out; you can see that by reading this post about a severely disabled, blind boy forced to take the state’s standardized accountability test.) Newman wrote a piece for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about her decision. Following is a Q & A I did with her by e-mail.
Q) Why did you decide to opt your child out of testing?
A) The decision was difficult and slow. I’m part of a grassroots education movement here in Pittsburgh that started as a response to a billion dollar cut to the PA education budget in 2011. Our most active leader, Jessie Ramey (author of the education blog, Yinzercation), was blogging about the opt out movement. I was skeptical at first, because I knew that my children’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, could be hurt by my decision to opt out. I had been to school meetings at which we had looked at testing data, and I knew how important that data was to teachers and administrators.
At the same time, reading homework had become a nightly battle. My son Jacob, who turned 9 in January, was bringing home these long non-fiction reading passages, often very boring. He had to read the passage, identify the main idea, and make inferences about the material in order to answer the questions. The questions were often opaque, oddly worded, and frequently depended on outside knowledge. Sometimes when I was helping him I would figure out the answer, and I’ve have a moment of excitement, and then I would think, “Oh, yeah, I’m 46 and I have a PhD from Yale and I’m excited because I just figured out the answer to my 9-year-old’s reading homework?”
As test prep ramped up in February and March I had another revelation: Jacob does not love to read. Based on what he was bringing home from school, how could he? I realized that if I wanted to help him to love to read I had to take off the pressure that was coming from the PSSA. I started reading the homework passages aloud to him and helping him even more with the questions. I stopped worrying about whether or not he was going to master this particular set of skills in the third grade.
Around the same time I read a blog post written by a friend called “how to make your child a reader.” She had all these suggestions about how to make reading exciting and special, like building a living room fort and reading by flashlight, and taking your kids on a reading picnic to the park. I started reading Book One of “Harry Potter” out loud, which I had tried to read before when Jacob was younger, and this time it hooked him. I started a “reading chart,” and when he had done 20 minutes of “pleasure reading” a day for three weeks he got a Penguin Pillow Pet Dream Light. Now he is reading Book Two of the “Harry Potter” series on his own. Yesterday I took a short video of him reading while he was walking home from the bus to our house. I’ve never seen him do anything like that before.
As I was implementing Jacob’s new reading program I also educated myself more about the national movement that is growing against high-stakes testing. As far as hurting my children’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, the school, I believe, is already being hurt. It is already failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), and by 2014 every public school in the nation will be expected to have all of its children score proficient or above on these high stakes tests. It won’t happen. It’s impossible. Not because the schools are not trying (believe me they are trying). Nor is it the teachers’ fault. A child’s success on the PSSAs or any other test/grade/measure is almost entirely dependent on the child’s zip code and his/her parents’ education. Jacob’s in a good zip code, with parents who both have their PhDs. He’s going to be fine. But what about the kids who aren’t in Jacob’s shoes? More and more high-stakes testing is not making our schools better. It’s making them worse. When I realized this and I talked it over more with my husband we made the decision together to have Jacob opt out of the PSSAs.
Q) What has been the reaction?
A) At first I was the only parent at my school who decided to opt out, even though a lot of us had been talking about it. I was a little nervous. Would the principal still help me with the science fair that I am heading up this spring? How would the teachers react? But then another Linden family joined us, and then I connected with about two-dozen families across SW PA, via an email Google group. We strategized together, shared stories, and talked about the basics of “how” to do it.
I decided to write the editorial because we were having trouble getting local reporters interested in our story. Some of them told us that we didn’t have enough families participating, and some told us that we had to have spokespeople from the “other side.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette agreed to run the editorial, but I didn’t know when it was going to run.
On Easter Sunday I woke up and saw the story [in the Post-Gazette]. I was surprised, and happy. Then my son, who is a stats fanatic, starting refreshing the browser every few minutes. We couldn’t believe how quickly our stats were rising. As I am talking to you the story has been liked and/or shared by more than 35,000. An overwhelming number of the comments on the newspaper site are positive. Some are short, like “Amen,” or “Sing it, sister.” A lot of retired teachers are commenting with their stories about how high stakes testing has driven them out the profession, or that they were glad to get out when they did. A lot of teachers who are on the frontlines are commenting too, and they are grateful that I was able to say out loud what I did.
There are a few negative comments on the newspaper site. Some people say I am coddling my son—that he should be challenged, and experience failure. I actually agree with that point of view. But I don’t think challenging my son is the same thing as making my son’s performance on a single test linked to the school’s progress and/or the teacher’s evaluation. I also disagree with this particular test. It is not inspiring creative or original thinking. It is about Jacob getting the one “right” answer, as determined by the test creators. That is not a way to build a citizenry for the future. Our children will face challenges that are beyond our imagination. We have to make them the best creative, innovative, and non-traditional thinkers we possibly can.
In the meantime I am getting 2-5 personal emails every hour, mostly people writing to thank me, but many looking for more information about how to opt out. It’s been very gratifying. I’m so glad to be a resource, and a voice, for the harm that’s being done to so many by these tests.
Q) What is Jacob’s reaction to all of this?
Jacob has been frustrated by the amount of homework he has had all year. Jacob is in school from 9-4, and he goes to bed at 8:00 PM. Sometimes there is as much as 2-3 hours of homework per night. He often says things like “I want to play,” “school feels like work,” and “I just want to be a kid.” When we made the decision to opt out of the PSSAs [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment], about a month ago, we explained to him what opting out was and why we wanted to do it. He seemed relieved. We also told him that we were going to put less pressure on him to finish his PSSA test prep homework, but, that, in return, we were going to expect him to read more on his own. He agreed, and said he was excited to read things that were interesting to him.
The other child opting out at Jacob’s school is in his homeroom class and is a friend. So they will have each other to read with during the testing time. They are also going to help the teachers in the classroom of each of their younger siblings at the school.
Jacob has been very excited by the “viral” nature of the Opt Out editorial. He loves to see the likes/shares number and sometimes he reads the comments. For a 9 year old, he is pretty politically savvy. Over the last 15 months, he has attended numerous education budget rallies, letter writing sessions, a vigil to mourn the 285 teachers furloughed in Pittsburgh last year due to budget cuts, and a trip to Harrisburg to lobby our state legislators. Sometimes when I despair about the things I don’t like about his school—not enough recess, too much focus on testing, fewer extra curricular programs than there used to be, etc., I comfort myself with the fact that Jacob is getting a political education at a young age. He is learning to stand up for his rights. And, at the present moment, Jacob is exercising his right to enjoy his childhood.