By Christine Mazzarino
High stakes testing is the new standard in education. Politicians and edu-reformers hail testing as an essential component of “teacher accountability,” asserting that one-size-fits-all testing is the most reliable method for measuring student learning. In Washington D.C., Michelle Rhee reformed the educational system to be built around standardized testing and its results , and in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has attempted to follow suit . Standardized test scores are being applied to determine whether teachers are “competent,” whether students are “learning” and whether schools are successful or not. In the midst of this standardized testing fervor that has swept the educational landscape, parents have begun to seek out ways to shield their children from this mania. As a result, the “Opt Out” movement has emerged.
The Opt Out movement defines itself as being “against high stakes testing (HST) and the corporate education reform agenda.” The concept behind Opt Out is to give parents the option to opt their children out of taking the high stakes standardized tests which are driving education policy more and more every day. According to the Opt Out website:
“Opt out means a refusal to ‘buy into’ something-in this case the stranglehold that high stakes testing has on public education. We believe that the quickest, swiftest, and most effective way to end the destruction of HST is for parents, students and teachers to refuse to participate in these mandated high stakes tests .”
There are a variety of reasons why parents might want to refuse to allow their children to participate in the HST regimen. First and foremost, HST tends to cause stress and anxiety. One in eight children are affected by anxiety disorders , and anti-anxiety prescriptions for children between the ages of 10 and 19 are up 50% . Numerous studies have confirmed the fact that anxiety and testing are linked. “Test anxiety” is such a serious issue that the Anxiety and Depression Association of American has gone so far as to add an entire page dedicated specifically to test anxiety in children .
Test taking and preparation also requires an inordinate amount of time in the school year. In New York State this year, students in grades 3-8 spent three consecutive days taking an English Language Arts test, only to be tested the following week for three more consecutive days in math . That’s not to mention the days spent taking practice tests, or completing test preparation activities, which vary from school to school and district to district. Weeks of valuable instructional time can be lost to test preparation activities, halting learning activities and educational exploration in favor of drilling sample test questions. Curriculum is developed around tested standards, and non-tested topics rarely, if ever, get taught. In many states, teacher and administrator evaluations hinge upon the results of HST. As a result, teachers and administrators are heavily focused on test preparation activities, as HST results can make or break their annual evaluations.
Politicians are acutely aware of HST, and have turned it into a major issue. Legislation such as “Race to the Top” has created a stick and carrot method for educational reform in which schools need to comply with federally selected reform methods in order to receive federal funding . Many of the reform methods selected by the federal government are heavily reliant upon HST as a primary measurement of student growth. Race to the Top utilizes HST as a way to measure student growth, school growth, teacher competence, and administrator competence; and uses results to determine funding levels for schools. Under this legislation, positive HST results lead to increased federal funding, and poor HST results lead to reduced federal funding. In this way, HST removes responsibility for equity in the classroom from the government and lays it at the feet of individual teachers and schools that must now fight to continually increase test scores or face further reduced federal funding.
Savvy parents are also aware of the economic consequences of HST. School districts across the country are feeling the squeeze of reduced budgets each year, and it’s not uncommon to see class sizes rising or services such as athletics and the arts being cut as a result of reduced budgets. Compounding these financial difficulties are the needs that a HST regime demands. School districts may hire test compliance officers and coordinators, purchase test preparation programs for students, and buy entire sets of supplies for testing purposes. New textbooks and curriculum are constantly being purchased to keep up with the newest testing standards. There’s also the need for additional staff for testing days for students with special testing accommodations. These HST related expenses are taking their toll on our schools in a time when budgets are already being stretched. Parents are aware that we are living through a time when many school districts are being forced to make difficult decisions about their budgets, and the financial pressures of HST are compounding these challenges.
Research on the topic of top performing countries around the world yields further evidence against HST. Many of the top performing educational systems in the world de-emphasize HST because they feel it is not an appropriate way to measure student or teacher achievement. Diane Ravitch, a leading voice in the education reform debate, posted the following excerpt on her blog in reference to a discussion about HST at an international education conference:
“It was very clear from the discussion that the other nations were against the overuse of high stakes testing and felt it was inappropriate to tie these tests to teacher evaluations. These regulations were seen as the cause for mistrust and not helpful in bringing meaningful learning experiences to children .”
As a result, each year, thousands more parents choose to “opt out” of the HST movement. The social, emotional, political and economic factors driving HST remain controversial, and these conflicts are compounding every day.