As seventh-graders at a public school in Houston, my twin daughters brought home their STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) results last week:
Reading: Advanced Academic Performance,
Writing: Advanced Academic Performance,
Mathematics: Not Tested-Absent.Believe it or not, I am most proud of their math results. My daughters were not tested because they chose to take a stand against high-stakes testing and opt out of the STAAR math test.
Our family took this action in order to raise awareness about how high-stakes tests are damaging our beloved public schools and the students and teachers who work in them. To be clear, we are not against the thoughtful and limited use of standardized tests, but we are against local policies that use these tests as a promotion standard for 3rd- through 8th-graders and tie teacher bonus pay to student test scores.
Extended time for learning is clearly a casualty of current testing policies. An incessant alphabet soup of BOYs, MOYs, EOYs, Snapshots, IPAs, and DLAs—in addition to the actual STAAR and Iowa tests—assaults class time and surveils teachers. One daughter counted over 25 days, 5 weeks of instructional time,that are dedicated to testing rather than learning. She mused, “I have a feeling that if there weren’t so many district level tests, we’d have time to actually learn more.”
Student/teacher relationships are also endangered by the misuse of these tests. I believe that teaching is a relational profession and that teachers should be in charge of making the day-to-day decisions about curriculum, instruction, and assessment since they know the students best. However, with their jobs and paychecks at risk, even the most caring teachers are tempted to view their students as potential test scores rather than people. Sadly, students across the achievement spectrum live in fear of disappointing their teachers. One 4th grade teacher friend confided that one of her most talented students worriedly asked, “I missed one question last year. Do I have to get a perfect score this year for you to keep your job?” My friend responded with cheerful reassurance, but the truth is, if her students don’t show “progress” as calculated by a value-added model, she may be reprimanded or let go.
Although I am passionate about these issues, choosing to opt-out was a difficult decision. As a former public school teacher and current instructor in the College of Education at the University of Houston, I never dreamed that I would be encouraging K-12 students and their parents to skip school! Due to a one-time fluke in Texas education policy, the 2015 STAAR math test could not be used for school accountability or individual student promotion decisions, but Houston was still going to use the tests to rate teachers. Could my daughters’ absences cause harm to their math teachers, who are both likable and hard-working educators? Would a lack of STAAR math scores affect the twins’ chances of getting placed in algebra next year, or could it be a blot on their records when they apply to highly competitive magnet high schools next fall?
If we had been one isolated family, I doubt that we would have had the courage to take this stand. Yet, because of my involvement in SRI, I knew that families in Colorado, New York, Massachusetts and other locales across the country were also organizing opt-out movements.
On a local level, I became more involved with the grass-roots organization Community Voices for Public Education (CVPE) whose motto is “Putting the Public Back in Public Education.” Leaders in CVPE worked with local media outlets to spread the word, and my family was featured in a public radio spot. We organized information sessions in our homes to provide accurate information to families across the city, and CVPE hosted Days of Learning at a local church so that parents who had to work on testing dates could still opt their children out of the state tests. My daughters accompanied me to work at UH and participated in my “Introduction to Teaching Middle Grades” class.
Dozens of families across the city joined the opt-out movement in late April, and we followed that up by speaking to the Houston ISD School Board in May. Although he’ll never claim that the opt-out movement affected his opinions, the Superintendent of Houston ISD recently proposed that the district sharply reduce its controversial bonus system for teachers that was based on test scores and instead raise base pay for teachers and principals (Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2015).
Our family’s opt-out experience helped us raise awareness about the misuse of standardized tests and give voice to voiceless stakeholders including teachers and principals who fear speaking out against these policies. Changing minds can be tedious work, but I am proud to be in the mind-changing business of education.
Want to connect with Donna? You can email her directly: [email protected].Share