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Opting Out

"The act of measuring learning has become a higher priority than learning itself." Why one Richmond parent pulled his daughter from state standardized testing.

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I decided to opt my fifth-grader out of her state standardized exams this spring. I did so because as a parent, there's little else I can do to push back on the testing juggernaut that's become the main driver of education since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002.

We find ourselves at the point where measuring learning has become a higher priority than learning itself. This was made crystal clear this winter when, after almost a week of snow days, children returned to school to face benchmark tests on content they were unable to learn because of the snow days. As absurd as that may sound, this is the Bizarro World created by test-based accountability policies. Few teachers entered the profession to raise test scores. They want to connect with young people and teach them life skills and a love of learning. But when measuring learning trumps actual learning, this becomes difficult.

Many parents are unaware of the effects that testing has had on our local schools and the practice of teaching. Beginning in third grade, 8-year-olds face four multiple-choice state Standards of Learning exams, given in early May. In many divisions they're administered by computer. Most schools don't have enough computers for the entire school to take the test all at once. That means that the last six weeks of school are taken up with administering these tests. When adding up the time spent on testing, however, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many districts schedule bench-mark tests every nine weeks. They're often taken on computers as well. Again, all instruction stops and recess and school trips are canceled so the tests can be administered. Bench-mark tests take two weeks each to administer. An additional six weeks of instruction is lost to testing during the course of the school year. We're now at 12 weeks of instruction lost to testing in a year.

I'm talking from my own experience at a well-run school that gets high scores. The schools attended by poorer children have even more testing, sometimes biweekly.

The purpose you hear for the district bench-mark tests and state standardized exams is that they provide teachers with the data they can use to help students improve performance. But I wonder how useful data from these tests are for teachers. This year I received a score sheet on my daughter's second nine-week science exam. It listed the letter choice she selected for each question and the correct letter choice. The tests themselves are shrouded in secrecy and hidden from parents and teachers. Why is that? I asked the district's science specialist repeatedly to see the test, and I was ignored. My daughter didn't do very well, but how were her teacher and I supposed to help her? Should I tell her that next time she should choose D more often? Thankfully, change is in the air. Direct action against the current uses of tests has occurred across the country. Locally, Chesterfield County led the way. The Midlothian High School Parent, Teacher, and Student Association began an organized effort to account for the time and resources that testing costs the district. Their activities are supported by Chesterfield Public Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome, who said that "assessments don't tell us what kids really know." More than a decade ago we were promised that education would improve if we tested students as much as possible and held schools accountable for results. We've spent tremendous amounts of capital, both fiscal and human, to test this hypothesis. If Newsome is correct, why do we continue to expect positive results?

For parents, opting our children out of state tests perhaps is the most effective method for registering our unhappiness with this state of affairs. By refusing to participate in this program, students' standardized test scores are recorded as zeroes. This puts a pinch on schools. They need these scores to prove that they're doing a good job under the current system of accountability. In Richmond, an organization called RVA Opt-Out (rvaoptout.com) has sprung up to inform parents of their rights, and to provide support to those parents who choose to exercise them. At recent meetings the message has been one of support for educators and a desire to change the test-based accountability system in which teachers have been forced to work. These meetings have provided me with the courage to opt my own child out of testing this spring.

Our aim isn't to cause difficulties for schools, but to push the entire system to prioritize learning rather than measuring. There's much to be learned that doesn't fit on a multiple-choice test. These social, creative, conceptual and critical skills have been increasingly abandoned in a mad dash to increase test scores. My daughter has been tested repeatedly throughout this school year. She's had ups and downs, but for the most part has done quite well. There's nothing that sitting through another round of testing will tell her, me, or her teachers about her math, science and English skills. and knowledge than we already know.

Enough already! S

Gabriel Reich is an associate professor of history education at Virginia Commonwealth University. His daughter attends Richmond Public Schools.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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