8 Reasons My Family Decided to Opt out of Meaningless High-Stakes Testing


In state after state, parents of all political persuasions are coming together over the issue of meaningless standardized tests whose sole purpose seems to be rating schools and teachers. These tests have become the performance review of childhood. The results matter—not for learning, of course, but to measure how well kids are doing their job as consumers of information. Since we can’t fire kids from being students if they don’t measure up, we penalize their teachers and close their “underperforming” schools. Because these test scores carry such huge consequences, we spend vast amounts of time and money teaching kids how to get the right answers. What we don’t teach them is how to actually think, or how learning can be rewarding for its own sake.

In the cash-strapped state of Illinois, where I live, which has no budget or money for actually educating children, the State Board of Education (ISBE) is now spending money on an investigation into the reason families and children opted out of taking last year’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. Perhaps if I share the reasons why my children decided to opt out of PARCC for their kids, I can save the state the time and money it plans to spend crunching data and interviewing (harassing?) administrators, parents and even children to understand the opt-out phenomenon.

So why did my grandkids opt out?

1. Like most high-stakes standardized tests, PARCC disrupts learning. Teachers are forced to teach to the test, and a significant chunk of instructional time is also lost to administering the assessment. Students, even in elementary school, spend more time taking the PARCC test than lawyers do who sit for the Bar Exam. Educator Myree Conway notes that this issue of test prep time and what is does to classrooms is one of the signature dangers of standardized testing. She explains that not devoting classroom time to test preparation is unfair to her students. “I don't want to ‘teach to the test,’ but I also don't want my students feeling ambushed.”

2.The tests themselves aren’t very good. Formative assessments, the traditional tests we all remember taking, give educators and students immediate feedback, and are designed to enhance teaching, shape the curriculum and help children learn. These standardized tests, on the other hand, are summative assessments, tests used to evaluate students by comparing their scores to those of other students. Like PARCC, many of these new Common Core tests are of questionable quality and reliability and need revision before their widespread use.

3. There are no appropriate accommodations for many of the English language learners and special education students taking PARCC. 90 percent of children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) who were forced to sit for PARCC failed last year—no surprise.

4. The computer technology required for the test is still not in place in many schools, nor are younger children able to perform some of the required computer operations. In fact, last year kids who took the paper and pencil version scored much higher than those using the computer. Thus far this spring, Internet problems forced Alaska to cancel its standardized testing, and technology problems made public school students in Texas lose their answers on state standardized exams.

5. PARCC is heavily language oriented, featuring wordy math problems and reading passages that are not meaningful to children. Children with different learning styles are at a huge disadvantage.

6. PARCC is used primarily to rate students, teachers and schools rather than to give feedback about student learning that can help parents and teachers of individual children maximize their learning potential. Recently, I received a letter from a veteran teacher who questioned why PARCC is being given again, despite the fact that he didn’t receive the results from last year's test until after parent-teacher conferences this year. Thus he couldn't even tell parents how their children did on last year's test. When the results did arrive, they consisted of a single page spreadsheet of numbers. There was nothing meaningful about how individual students performed on the test to inform his instruction.

7. Many children are highly anxious and stressed about taking these tests. According to New York school psychologists, the state tests make children especially anxious. Is our love affair with standardized testing driving our children crazy? As long as we persist in treating our children with the same pressure that we have come to accept in our own lives, will we be raising a generation of anxious kids who do not believe they are more than a score?

8. The tests are a symptom of a failed educational experiment. The intent of the Common Core curriculum and the high-stakes standardized tests used to measure its effectiveness was to level the educational playing field. If anything, PARCC and similar standardized test results simply show an even greater achievement gap between white children and children of color, as well as wealthy children and children living in poverty—with little to nothing being done to remedy the situtation. All this, despite hours and hours of time wasted preparing students in schools across the country. Opting out is a powerful way to express dissatisfaction with this failed experiment.

Last year, we found it was difficult to opt out of PARCC for my grandchild with special needs, while my other grandchild (age eight) was permitted to opt herself out of taking the test rather simply. It took a huge effort by the parents of the child with special needs to advocate for a different evaluation for her, because she was unable to refuse PARCC on her own—which strikes me as yet another outrageous symptom of how these tests are failing even our most vulnerable students. ISBE is telling parents of elementary students, who should have the right to make major decisions for their children, that they don't have the right to opt them out of a meaningless test that will do much more harm than good.

In the year since, nothing has changed. The opt-out bill that passed the Illinois House languishes in the Senate, and we remain one of six states and Washington D.C. left in the PARCC Consortium that at one time included 24 states. With no overarching opt-out policy in place, each school is free to decide on its own how to manage the children not taking PARCC. Last year at my granddaughter’s elementary school, the opt-out kids were pretty much left to their own devices on testing days and told to just read a book while others took the tests. These were good kids, but did anyone really think they would read quietly to themselves for six long hours? And what about the children at other schools who were forced to remain in the classrooms and “sit and stare” while their classmates took PARCC?

PARCC is a ridiculous waste of money for Illinois, especially when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are on the verge of bankruptcy and teachers are being asked to sacrifice pay and pensions. Taxpayers end up burdened with the cost of administering PARCC. $57 million is the projected annual price tag, plus hidden costs for schools, including paying for the technology and staffing needed to administer it. But it’s the children who really pay the price. How many of the CPS teachers and support staff laid off during this school year could have kept their jobs without this huge expense? How many repairs could have been made to broken-down schools?

There is no need for ISBE to spend another cent trying to figure out why the opt-out movement is growing or how its students measure up to the expectations of this test. I can predict how the Illinois school children who participate in this second round of PARCC testing will do. 30-40 percent will pass—because that’s the way the test is designed.

Rather than giving millions of dollars to Pearson, a for-profit company from Great Britain that is raking in big bucks as part of the educational-industrial complex, let’s instead give the money saved by not administering the PARCC test directly to our schools, so teachers can teach and children can learn. Let’s work to bring joy, creativity, curiosity and risk-taking to the educational lives of children—because that’s what every child deserves.

It’s time to opt all children out of taking these meaningless standardized tests.

An earlier version of this article ran on Chicago Now.

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