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James Arnold is the former superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Pelham, Georgia. For years he has been advocating for public education and against the standardized testing-based accountability systems that have been the hallmark of the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era. In this post he explains why his young grandsons are being opted out of high-stakes standardized tests in Georgia. A version of this appeared on his blog.

By James Arnold

My grandsons and I talk a lot about school. That’s not surprising considering it’s their job and for 39 years it was mine. Stevie is in fifth grade and Tommie is in third. Tommie confided in me a few weeks ago, saying, “Pop, third grade is no joke.”

Their parents, grandmother and I are very happy with their respective teachers, their schools, the administrators and the system. Any issues that come up with either boy are quickly addressed and communication is excellent. We like the fact that their schools fit my definition of community schools and pay special attention to every child. The boys tell me without too much prodding what they are reading, what they talk about in class, their progress and their likes and dislikes about their classes, the teacher-made tests they take, their friends in their classes and how their teachers handle the problems that come up with behaviors and disruptions. They have learned they can’t get away with one-word answers to the question, “What did you do in school today?” — and they have long since learned not to try.

They both think that school is what they have to do in order to participate in baseball, and I have no problem with that. It’s pretty much what I thought when I was 10 and recess was my favorite subject.

Stevie told me recently that he was worried about the tests that were coming up after spring break. I knew immediately what he meant. The teachers were worried about student performance and that translates to behaviors that kids pick up on much quicker than many people realize. I asked him if his friends were worried about the tests. “We don’t talk about it much,” he replied, “but when we do I can tell they’re all worried about how they will do. Our teacher doesn’t come right out and say she’s worried, but we do hear how important it is for us and for our school that we do our best.”

That concerned me, so we talked some more about why he was worried. He said: “Nobody really knows what’s going to be on the test, and it’s not like the tests our teacher gives. She makes sure we know what we’re supposed to answer, and it only lasts for a little while, but this one’s different. It’s long and takes up a whole week and every day is a different part we’re supposed to know.”

He also said they spent at least part of each day for the past several weeks on timed assignments. I knew what that meant too.

My first step was to talk to their parents. They had both picked up on the subtle clues that the boys had given about their concerns for “the tests” that were coming soon after spring break. “I wish they didn’t have to take them,” their dad said. “They’re worrying for no reason. From what I’ve read those tests don’t help teachers and certainly don’t help with the boys’ education.”

I told him that if he was serious about what he had just said, I knew where he could find out more information about what he could do. I directed him to the Opt Out Georgia Facebook page, and he and his wife read everything they could find from that source and from others. They also read up on some of the things I had written about standardized tests; how they harm rather than help kids and how they serve a political and not an educational purpose.

The final straw for him was when I told him that many politicians have their kids in private schools that don’t insist that students, teachers or schools be graded through forced “accountability” measures. I said: “If it were a really good idea and helped the educational process, don’t you think standardized testing would have been adopted by private schools by now?”

He wanted to know what they could do to opt their boys out of the high-stakes standardized tests fast approaching. “It’s pretty easy,” I told him. “I’ll send an email to the superintendent and to both principals, telling them you will send a note with each boy to school. We will keep it simple. Write ‘my son Stevie will not take any test not created by his teacher.’ Put your contact information on it. You can follow up with a phone call to the principal to make sure they got it and to decide with him whether they should stay home during test mornings or can be provided at place to read, study or do classwork in the media center.”

There was no issue with either grandsons’ teachers, principal or with the superintendent. They didn’t come right out and say it, but I got the impression they would like to see an end to the madness of political testing and a return to a concentration on educating children. Opting out is one of the best ways I can imagine to fight the stupidity of mandated standardized testing.

Just imagine the millions of dollars spent on standardized test development, scoring, actual testing, test training and test security that could be spent to hire new teachers, lower class sizes, restore art and music and elective classes, buy new school technology, books, materials, end furlough days or – gasp – give teachers a raise.

Imagine an end to the silly insistence that standardized testing is the only way to hold teachers and schools accountable.

Imagine the return of the authority of the classroom teacher to actually teach their students rather than follow a scripted test-centric routine designed not to improve teaching and learning but to improve test scores.

Just imagine schools focused on taking students where they are educationally and socially and concentrating on teaching and learning rather than on how they test.

Just imagine students being judged by the classroom work they do rather than by a score on a standardized test.

Just imagine your kid’s school being judged by the parents, teachers and community members on their effectiveness rather than some made-up metric based on the junk science of standardized testing.

Just imagine teachers being judged by their administrators and mentored by other teachers to help them learn how to be more effective in what they do rather than being evaluated by student test scores — often of students they don’t even teach by a method condemned by the American Statistical Association?

Just imagine. That’s why we’re opting our boys out.

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