March 16 2015 05:49 PM

In favor of opting out of the test


It's that time of year again, one I simultaneously love and loathe. We've lost an hour of sleep, but the tradeoff is all that glorious extra sunlight stretching each day—golden light that allows me to outrun (or die trying) my endless supply of public-school angst in a five-mile loop around Lake Murray. 

Yes, the birds are birding, the bees are being and summer is more visible to me than the mugs in a viral video of Parker Rice and Levi Pettit (could their names be more bougie?), the now-expelled Singing Sooners. Their racist rendition of "If You're Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands" earned their entire SAE team a schadenfreudian eviction notice. This swift action was shocking given how fraternal wagons circle so tightly after rich-frat-boy indiscretions. It would seem the collective outrage over blatant racism is having an impact on systems complicit in it. Now, if only all national chapters reacted as decisively when—oh, I don't know—their members rape women. 

Too much, too soon?

The only thing obstructing my view of the end of my daughter's fourth-grade year is the ugly last third of it. I say "ugly" because what comes with the final excruciating months is the amplified prep for, and implementation of—wait for it—standardized testing. Or, as Common Core enthusiasts have happily labeled it, the Smarter Balanced Assessments. 

It sounds so wholesome that it's bound to have 100 percent of the FDA recommended daily allowance of bran. Maybe that's why some kids get physically ill at test time. If Belfer PR Inc. were hired to rebrand "Smarter Balanced Assessments," it would be called "Child Abuse," and people would flock in the other direction by opting out, like South Bay parents Kristin Phatak and Heather Poland and yours truly. 

As predictable as the "We know his heart; he is not a racist" response of Levi Pettit's parents, our child brought home the annual note informing us about the tests. It was appropriately smeared with the remains of a peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich and crumpled at the bottom of her backpack. 

"With the rigorous California Common Core Standards for upper grades 4-8 in Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science," read the letter, "no matter how hard we try, it always seems that we're behind around March/April... which means we have to forge ahead at a faster pace. May is going to be a very busy short month. We have a great deal of learning to do before the State testing begins at the end of May." 

Good thing they're not cramming. Or teaching to the test. 

Funny, but I seem to recall President Obama saying something about this in one of his State of the Union speeches. Hmmm. What was it that he said? Oh, thanks, Internet! Now I remember:

"Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones. And, in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making."

There's a whole lot to unpack there in Barry's 2012 speech, given that his Race to the Top is a direct contradiction of what he said. Nevertheless, when a school sends home a warning notice about Cramfest 2015, it's safe to say there isn't a whole lot of flexibility, creativity or passion. And this says nothing about whether the tests are representative of learning. Or whether an 8-year-old has the computer skills necessary to be successful.

As shocking as a fraternity being shuttered for its members' bad behavior was the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education's unanimous vote last month to eliminate federal testing of the district's students. The board sent a resolution to Congress declaring, among other things, "that high-stakes standardized testing is an inadequate and often unreliable measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness, and the over-reliance on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage in many schools, including narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing students' love of learning, pushing students out of school, driving teachers out of the profession, and undermining school climate..."

Fist dap to SDUSD; better late than never, I say. 

Last year, 557 New York principals wrote a poignant open letter to parents encouraging them to opt out. "If your child scored poorly on the test," the letter said in closing, "please make sure that he does not internalize feelings of failure. We believe that the failure was not on the part of our children, but rather with the officials of the New York State Education Department. These are the individuals who chose to recklessly implement numerous major initiatives without proper dialogue, public engagement or capacity building. They are the individuals who have failed."

Three cheers for New York. And for the Lone Star State, too. 

"[O]ne of the crucial elements in the grassroots movement to roll back the tide of high-stakes testing started in Texas," education historian and activist Diane Ravitch noted in a Feb. 12 post on her blog, "when school board after school board voted to oppose high-stakes testing, and eventually more than 80% of the state's school boards voted against high-stakes testing. The legislature heard the voters, and pulled back from a proposal to require 15 tests for high school graduation. This is how a movement grows."

Whole districts pushing back; school administrators denouncing a broken system; parents opting their kids out. This is how a movement grows.

Opt out, people. 

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.