Prince William father learns how to opt out of standardized test


Austin Barlow (from Left), Karen Barlow, Greg Barlow and Christian Barlow, during a recent trip to the Outer Banks. (Courtesy of Greg Barlow)

Greg Barlow did not want his fourth-grade son to take the Standards of Learning math test, but he did not know what would happen if he refused. Would his son get a failing grade? Would it go on his permanent record?

Barlow researched state and local codes and finally decided to try it. He sent an e-mail to his son’s principal and teacher at his Prince William elementary school, informing them that he planned to keep his son home on test day.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” said Barlow, a former Air Force fighter pilot.

That was four years ago. His son opted out of math tests two other times and never suffered any ramifications. Barlow wrote about his experience on a Web site, and now he offers research and advice to others around the state and beyond who are thinking of making similar choices, he said.

Growing numbers of parents and students from Seattle to New York are boycotting the controversial bubble tests in what’s become a national movement against tests that carries ramifications with their results.

The acts of civil disobedience have been facilitated in some places by laws that give parents room to resist the exams without consequences for their children. In California, parents can excuse their children from tests with a written request. In Pennsylvania, parents can raise religious objections. And in Florida, they can substitute a portfolio of school work or use an alternative test.

Virginia, along with Maryland and the District, does not explicitly allow students to opt out of standardized tests. Still, a small number each year do.

This year, “there’s been an uptick in the number of assessments coded for refusal,” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Education Department.

Barlow discovered that while state law doesn’t say you can opt out of tests, it also doesn’t say that you can’t.

High school students are required to pass end-of-course SOL tests in order to graduate, so skipping the test could mean forfeiting a diploma. Students who refuse tests get a zero, officials said. But for younger students, there might be no consequences.

That varies by location. Schools are required by federal law to have at least 95 percent participation in standardized testing, and many go to great lengths to include everyone. Some Virginia districts use the SOL to determine whether students can qualify for advanced classes or remediation. Others might use the scores as part of a student’s grade in the class.

Barlow said none of these things affected his son Christian.

The Dumfries dad wasn’t taking a stand against the frequency of testing, the narrowing of the curriculum or the use of tests for teacher evaluations, as many are. His concern was with a new elementary math curriculum that the Prince William schools were using. After a long protest before the school board, he took matters into his own hands and began teaching his son math a different way, at home in the evenings. His son took the math SOL in third grade and “maxed it out,” Barlow said.

But with all the extra teaching he was doing, he did not want the school to take credit for his son’s performance.

So the next year, he kept him home. The father and son marked that first day free from SOL testing by . . . taking an SOL test. Barlow printed an older version of the exam from the state Department of Education’s Web site and had his son take it at the kitchen table. “I wanted to see how he was doing,” Barlow said. “Then we went to IHOP for lunch.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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