In the place of this costly, misguided high-stakes system, opt-out parents imagine an effective system of education with high standards for student achievement and teacher performance. But to accomplish this, we need to stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on the STAAR. We want that money to go instead toward creating wraparound services, systems of support to help protect our neediest students from the worst effects of poverty so that they can meet the challenges of school and of their day-to-day lives. We want low-stakes, formative assessments that will accurately tell us about our students' strengths and weaknesses so their teachers can work with them in effective ways. We want peer reviews and independent oversight, mentoring and apprenticeship to help teachers fulfill their potential instead of relying on this lazy, punitive use of assessments that don't measure what they are supposed to. We want adults to evaluate adults, and we want all our children to get the rich, enriching education they deserve.
Two weekends ago my husband and I attended a lovely party at a friend's house. It was a beautiful, balmy night, the air clean after the recent storms. Everyone was in a celebratory mood and we walked among clusters of people, some familiar, some not.
We introduced ourselves to one group of guests. It turned out that almost everyone in that group was a parent of a child who that week had taken one or more STAAR tests, Texas' standardized end-of-course exams, so testing was on all our minds. When I revealed that we had opted our fourth grade daughter out of the STAAR, people were eager to discuss the issue.
But before any real conversation could start, one guest turned to my husband and me and scoffed, "Such an upper-middle-class problem."
He said the STAAR wasn't a big deal at his fifth grader's school (a Vanguard gifted-and-talented magnet) and that his daughter had never felt any stress about the STAAR. His was an argument I had heard often in the past several weeks. It stems from the misunderstanding that parents are opting their privileged children out of the STAAR "to avoid a test."
This couldn't be further from the truth.
The 80 families who opted out of the STAAR in the Houston area this year span the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds, of jobs, of family structures. We are black, white, Latino, Asian and every ethnic mix in between. Some of our children struggle academically. Some are the highest-performing test takers in their school. And none is opting out to "avoid a test."
Our family is lucky to be at Wharton, a dual language international baccalaureate (IB) elementary with a remarkable array of students of all races and religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, possessing a great diversity of abilities. Wharton embodies much of what we love about public education. Our principal is thoughtful and deliberate in her decision making, respectful of the teachers, the students, and the families. And our daughters' teachers have brought out the best in them. Our girls are bilingual and biliterate, thanks to dual language, and they pay close attention to issues of character and community, thanks to IB.
But we see the toll the STAAR has taken on our beloved school. The teachers work overtime to raise students' scores so that their own performance reviews will read "value-added" and our school will meet yearly progress measures. The administrators struggle with an increasingly tight budget and race against HISD's testing timetable while trying to meet the needs of a diverse population. And the students get caught at the bottom of this cascading chain of high-stakes anxiety, bearing the brunt of the system's "expectations" and punishments.
Over the past five years, the state of Texas paid Pearson, a for-profit company, nearly half a billion dollars to create, grade, and oversee the "validity" of the STAAR. On top of that, schools and school districts across Texas have had to spend an estimated half billion dollars more to buy "consultations" with Pearson and test prep materials from Pearson and teacher training by Pearson on how to work the system that Pearson created.
Thousands of teachers have been laid off in Texas, art and music and science lab have disappeared from innumerable schools, Texas has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education aid, and yet we are second to last in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending.
We are opting out because we cannot afford Pearson's kind of testing anymore.
Frustrated HISD administrators, policy-makers, and curious parents alike have asked us, "Are you going to opt your children out of the SATs and the APs, too?" The SATs and the APs are standardized tests, that much is true, but that's where the similarity to the STAAR ends. No one fails school because of her SAT or AP scores. No one loses money or his job because my child didn't ace the SAT or an AP test. Schools don't get shut down because of a lack of progress in SAT or AP results.
The STAAR is not just a test. It is a high-stakes assessment mandated by the state to fulfill the requirements of No Child Left Behind, and HISD has taken this high-stakes system and pegged even higher stakes to it, going beyond the state's mandates. HISD uses STAAR scores to determine promotion at every grade level from third through eighth, far more than the state mandated fifth and eighth. And Houston ISD goes beyond the state's school accountability system and actually ties teachers' performance reviews as well as their bonus money to students' STAAR scores. This kind of pressure on one metric has deformed our public schools into test prep machines and turned our students into data points for determining the "value" of our teachers, subordinating our children's educational experiences to the needs of the high-stakes system.
Our school year seems to revolve around HISD's testing calendar, which ignores the state-mandated maximum of two benchmarks (practice tests) per subject per year and instead schedules an overwhelming number of practice tests under the misleading names of "snapshot" (practice test under an hour) and "district led assessment" (full practice test, four hours long).
In fourth grade alone, for example, HISD administers 24 snapshots for five subject areas as well as three district-led assessments, and the numbers get higher as the kids get older. Fourth graders are taking a STAAR-related test at least one in five days of the school year. And that is just the minimum. Schools with low STAAR scores are required to administer even more practice tests.
We are opting out because the cost of this system is far more than the billion dollars paid to Pearson. It is the time taken away from our children, the endless hours they spend hunched over Scantron sheets, filling in bubbles, the countless days of what could be rich, well-rounded learning experiences — wasted on worksheets and "snapshots" and benchmarks and mock tests. The test has become the curriculum.
HISD insists upon our compliance with this high-stakes system. It claims that its policies do not allow parents "to remove [their] child from class... to avoid a test." HISD used this phrasing most recently in a letter it sent to opt out parents, in which an official cited serious consequences for our children and our schools if we refused to send the kids back to make up the STAAR. Our children would receive zeroes and thus be deemed non-proficient, the same as if they had actually taken these assessments and answered every question incorrectly. Our children would not graduate to the next grade and would be sent to summer school, regardless of their academic performance all year. And our schools would suffer in their accountability ratings for failing to meet the 95 percent participation rate in math and reading. All these consequences and more were bold-faced and underlined, because HISD meant business.
Within a week, HISD admitted the errors in its letter and acknowledged that it had been "heavy-handed." The same official then sent out a second letter, which corrected HISD's inaccuracies about the "potential ramifications" for opt-out students and their schools and brought them back in line with the state's policies as well as its own.
Yet HISD held on to the argument that parents are not allowed to opt their children out of the STAAR "to avoid a test." This is an argument that aligns HISD bureaucracy with opt out critics who we are concerned see us as "upper middle class" helicopter parents whose goal is to protect our fragile babies from the stress of any and all tests.
But we are concerned more by what they may not see — that we are opting out because the price of this high-stakes system is the increasing inequity between "upper middle class" schools and the schools of our most vulnerable students in the poorest neighborhoods of Houston. What the STAAR measures more accurately than anything else, it turns out, is the socioeconomic background of students.
And thus the damaging irony of all this is that the STAAR system, which was built to help our poorest students, is hurting these very students the most. Since the inception of the STAAR in 2011, passing rates have remained flat. The achievement gap has not decreased. Low-performing students have been counseled out of school, and several of the schools serving our most vulnerable students have been shut down. Students, teachers, and schools with low STAAR scores are pushed toward more and more drill-and-kill, with the time and opportunity for truly educational experiences crushed by this testing machine.
Schools with wealthier parent bodies are insulated from the worst effects of this high-stakes system by the very nature of what the STAAR measures, ensuring higher test scores and thus allowing for less test prep, and by the fundraising capacities of the school community, ensuring art and music, creative movement and science lab, which are often the first programs sacrificed when budgets grow tighter and money must go to test prep.
In the place of this costly, misguided high-stakes system, opt-out parents imagine an effective system of education with high standards for student achievement and teacher performance. But to accomplish this, we need to stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on the STAAR.
We want that money to go instead toward creating wraparound services, systems of support to help protect our neediest students from the worst effects of poverty so that they can meet the challenges of school and of their day-to-day lives. We want low-stakes, formative assessments that will accurately tell us about our students' strengths and weaknesses so their teachers can work with them in effective ways. We want peer reviews and independent oversight, mentoring and apprenticeship to help teachers fulfill their potential instead of relying on this lazy, punitive use of assessments that don't measure what they are supposed to. We want adults to evaluate adults, and we want all our children to get the rich, enriching education they deserve.
Back in March during the administration of the writing STAAR, I came up with a few lessons to try to make up for the days of school my daughter would be missing. Hoping to deepen her understanding of why we chose to opt out, I asked her to read Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" and Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" with me. These essays gave us courage and prepared us to deal with others' reactions to our noncompliance. They reinforced our belief that we cannot sit by and keep waiting for others to vote the problem away. And they strengthened our conviction that our small act of activism stood firm in a long tradition of American civil disobedience.
After reading these pieces, my daughter jotted notes on what she had learned. "By opting out of the STAAR," she wrote, "we aren't creating the problems; we're just uncovering the problems that already exist."
And now that we see what some of the problems are, we cannot turn away from them. By opting out, our family is hoping to get more people to see the problems, too, and to see that together we can make public education work for everyone. And ultimately, we hope to teach our children things that the STAAR never can.
We hope that our children will think critically about the systems that they are asked to participate in and about the roles they play in these systems. We hope they will stand up for others, especially for others who may not be able to stand up for themselves. And we hope they will stand up to those who use bold-faced, underlined "consequences" to try to intimidate us into compliance, who demand "accountability" from all of us but refuse any accountability themselves, outsourcing it to a for-profit company.
And yet I have my moments of doubt. With every school year passing by more and more quickly in a blur of test prep that we can barely track, I wonder if change can happen fast enough to save what's left of our children's time in school. One day not too long ago, I asked my daughter what she thought of homeschooling.
"Homeschooling? You mean, leave Wharton?" She looked at me with wide solemn eyes. "No. I don't want to. We can't just leave everyone behind. We can't just leave everyone to suffer through the STAAR and not stay in the fight with them."
Grit and faith — faith in collective action and in our public schools, faith that our community can work together for the benefit of all. That is what we want our children to learn. There are no stakes higher. There is no greater test.
Christine Hong Cullen is a former teacher and the mother of two Houston ISD students. She urges you to support parents and students who will speak against high-stakes testing at the HISD board meeting on Thursday, May 14, 7-8:30 p.m., at the Hattie Mae White Building, 4400 West 18th Street.
Bookmark Gray Matters. Or else you'll receive zeroes and thus be deemed non-proficient.