Common Core and standardized testing – Opt out? A parent’s perspective.

Associated Press photo

Associated Press photo

This year, huge numbers of kids “opted out” – in other words, refused to take the state standardized ELA and/or math test. According to Huffington Post, “Some superintendents in New York are reporting that 60 percent or even 70 percent of their students are refusing to sit for the exams”.

Business Insider reports parents are concerned about puzzling questions, exam accuracy, and children spending too much time taking tests, and as a result are “opting out” their child from taking the exams.

One mom, Bianca Tanis, has even started a public forum called NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) to discuss the issue and promote opting out. A visit to the NYSAPE website shows you how to refuse the NYS Common Core test in 4 easy steps. There’s even a video, that claims: “You’re not opting out – you’re refusing, and in doing so you’re advocating for your child’s best interests and exercising your constitutional rights as a parent to guide your child’s education.”

It all sounds good, but is “opting out” the right thing to do?

What is Common Core?

From the Common Core website:

“The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.”

The Common Core is a state standards initiative developed by the National Governors Association and state education leaders in response to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, which holds teachers, schools and districts accountable for their students’ academic progress. According to the Huffington Post, “The Obama administration has encouraged states to adopt Common Core standards through the federal grant program known as Race to the Top, and most have, but each state is free to develop its own tests.”

And it’s true that kids nowadays do take a lot more tests. According to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, students take an average of 113 standardized test from pre-K through grade 12, (only 17 are mandated by the federal government).

Changes

It’s interesting to think about how testing has changed for kids over the years. When my oldest was in school, standardized tests were held in grades 4 and 8. Two years later, son #2 was in school, and the tests were changed to every year, starting with grade 3, up until grade 8. Two years after that, son #3 was in school, and in addition to standardized tests, all classes were required to give final exams and test throughout the year — even in P.E.

Now, my youngest, my daughter, is in middle school. Just as she started grade 6, the avalanche that is Common Core standards hit. I remember the meetings held that year by the school. The teachers were frustrated and a bit overwhelmed. There was a new way of doing things. No, there were no books or teacher materials available. Exercises had to be printed off the Common Core website or developed by the teacher. (And the math exercises on the website often contained errors.)

But this new standard — this new curriculum — was needed. Kids weren’t doing as well on the standardized testing; school district curriculums were too varied and inconsistent. There needed to be a standard way to measure academic success across school districts. Kids needed more exposure to word problems and exercises that related to real life problems. School districts and teachers needed to be held accountable for students’ academic success or failure.

The state tests given that year were based on the new Common Core standards. And the overall results were much lower. Standardized tests are graded on a scale of 0 to 4, 4 being the highest. 4 is considered excellent, and 3 is considered average/above average. A score below 3 requires intervention from the school in the form of AIS (Academic Intervention Services) classes. So, a 2 or 1 is below average/poor.

My daughter, who has only ever scored 3’s and sometimes 4’s, suddenly was getting 2’s. What the heck happened? The school said not to worry about it – all scores were low that year across the board, as a result of transitioning to a new test.

6th grade has come and gone, and now she is in 7th grade. While math used to be one of her favorite subjects, she is now often struggling, and I typically help her with her math homework every night. We go through the same process with every question:

  1. What information is given?
  2. What do we not know, or, what do we need to figure out?
  3. Is there a formula we use for this? Can we draw a diagram?
  4. Set up the equation.
  5. Solve the equation. (Show your work! Circle the answer.)
  6. Check your work – does it make sense?
  7. Reread the question – does this answer match what they are asking for? Or do we need to do another step?

I can tell you that some of the current Common Core homework exercises are confusing and bewildering. It seems every question is a word problem, with 4 parts. Reading the question often leaves you clueless on where to start.  My daughter is often so confused by what she’s supposed to do, she is not learning the concepts.

I remember helping my older kids with math homework. There was a clear and logical process for deriving the answer. We did problem after problem, equation after equation, until solving them came with ease.

Now, instead of doing the same exercises over and over again until learning is mastered, my 7th grader is confronted with a bewildering array of mystical questions that only leave her feeling inadequate.

Common Core math problem - 3rd grade. (What do you think the answer is?)

Common Core math problem – 3rd grade. (What do you think the answer is?)

Student test results are now tied to teacher’s assessments.  Not only are teachers struggling with preparing materials to help the kids do well on the tests, but if the kids don’t do well, teachers will be held accountable.

So, week after week, the kids are drilled/taught how to take the test. How to do well on the test. Strategies for meeting the goals of the test. How to write an effective essay and cite sources. How to do word problems. How to show your work. They review last year’s test, and the year before.

Our local news just reported that 50% of her 7th grade class opted out/refused to take the ELA test. We did not. I don’t know how many opted out of the math exam, but it’s likely higher than 50%.

So what’s testing week like for us?

My daughter was so nervous about the tests. After all the drilling and practice QPA’s and exams, she was worried. Her teachers had said the results of the test won’t affect your grade placement next year; any consequences of bad results will only affect teachers, and you may be placed in an AIS study skills class next year.

The day before, the instructions are: get a good nights sleep and eat a good breakfast.

But, that proves to be difficult. With so many worries about the test, such apprehension and nervousness, the regular bedtime comes and goes.

She can’t get to sleep.

I sit with her and reassure her. I tuck her in.

Yet, here she is again.

Hours pass.

Soon she is in tears.

And although I am patient and reassuring as I tuck her again repeatedly, I am angry that she is pressured like a college kid during final exam week.

After school, she is cheerful. She thinks she did pretty good. The teachers always hand out candy before the tests, and she liked the Starbursts.

In my head I’m thinking they are trying to give the kids a sugar boost right before the exam, to keep them on their toes as they do the test. Or maybe they are trying to make the test more palatable to the kids – sort of, “I know this sucks, but, hey, here’s some free candy!” Or maybe it’s “Do your best, so I can keep my job!”

The ELA test are given over 3 days, and as the days tick on, the pressure lessens, and she is happier.

But, the next week is math exams. For 3 days.

Here we go again.

She can’t get to sleep. She is fraught with worry, and miserable.

The first day of testing arrives.

She is up extra early, gets dressed and is eating breakfast long before her brothers are even awake.

She heads off to school, apprehensive but optimistic.

Later that day, I pick her up from school, and she seems down. She’s not talkative, and will only say, “The test was hard.”

At dinner, we sit down to eat and suddenly she comes and sits next to me, and lays her head on my arm. She just sits there, and tears drip down her face, and fall, wet on my arm. I am alarmed, but wait for her for a bit. She stays there for a very long time. The boys ask what’s the matter, but she doesn’t answer. They can’t see she is crying, and I don’t tell them.

After a long while, she looks up and rubs her red eyes.

“Something upset you?”

Yes, she nods.

“Do you know what it is?”

Yes, she nods.

“Did something happen at school?”

Yes, she nods.

“Did some kid give you a hard time?”

No.

No?

“Did something happen in class?”

Yes, she nods.

“Was it a teacher?”

Yes, yes.

Finally, she is composed, and can speak.

“I was really embarrassed today”, she says. The teacher asked why all her answers on the last page of the multiple choice test were all the letter “C”. The teacher asked if she had even tried to do the problems, or if she had just guessed. The teacher was not happy.

She’s crying again.

“Of course I tried to do the problems. They were hard, though, and I couldn’t find an answer that matched, so I picked the one that seemed most right.”

She was embarrassed that the teacher, when picking up her answer sheet after the exam, said this in front of all the other students.  You see, since her teacher asked why they were all “C”, that must mean they aren’t all “C”, which means she got some of them wrong…

“My teacher is going to lose her job now, because I didn’t do well on the test!”

There are so many things wrong with this.  As a parent, I am so frustrated.

Why is the teacher saying such things?

Why is the teacher even picking up the answer sheets for her own class?

That’s like my son taking the chemistry regents, and the chemistry teacher picking up his answer sheet and announcing loudly to all the other students — “Well, looks like you got all the problems on the last page wrong, idiot!”

A long session of snuggling followed, with reassurances that even if she totally bombed the test, her teacher wouldn’t lose her job because of one student. And, as a test taking strategy, if you can’t figure out the answer, making an educated guess is a good thing to do. So is substituting the different multiple choice answers in the problem, to see what works.

So frustrating.

So what’s the right thing to do?

Take the test? Or refuse, and opt-out? It’s a personal decision, and different for each family. And I have more questions than answers.

  • Isn’t it important to take assessments to determine what knowledge has been acquired, and what still needs to be worked on?
  • Should we take actions that may cause our school district to potentially lose funding due to low participation rates?
  • Should accountability be tied to teachers and school districts? If not, then who will be held accountable?
  • If all the high scoring kids opt out, and that leaves mostly low scoring kids to take the standardized tests, how is that helping? Won’t this cause the teacher to get a negative assessment?
  • To some extent, tests are a part of life. But, are kids taking too many tests now?
  • Why are some teachers teaching subject matter, and some teaching to the test? Which is more effective for learning the material?

Option 1: Take the test?

Go along with state mandates and take the test. The test scores will be used to evaluate teachers. Teachers and school districts will be held accountable for academic performance. Kids will be stressed out.

Testing “gives educators and parents an idea of how the student is doing and ensures that schools are paying attention to traditionally underserved populations,” says U.S. Department of Education Spokeswoman Dorie Nolt. Which is a good thing.

Taking the test helps your school district keep their federal funding, which is critical in this era of tight school budgets.  NYSAPE says that schools will not lose funding – to date, no school district has lost funding due to students opting out.

But, what if that changes? If enough students opt out, federal funding to your school district may be partially withheld. Because NYS received a federal grant which included state testing, federal funding is tied to meeting a 95% testing participation rate. This rate is averaged over 3 years. Which means, NYSAPE may turn out to be wrong – as averages fall below 95%, school districts may lose federal funding.

Our local superintendent explains how is will affect our school district this way: “It’s about $100,000, specifically in Title 1 funds,” she explained.  “As far as [our district] in particular, we will be the least affected.  The schools that it is going to be hitting and hurting are high poverty schools that are mostly funded by Federal monies and have UPK (Universal PreKindergarten) programs and such.”

There’s also the 2 weeks of stress your kid will have while testing. But, with your support, they’ll get through it.

Teachers and school districts will be held accountable to the measurable academic progress or deficiencies. I personally have issues with this one. I’m not sure tying teacher assessments to student performance works. I agree that teachers should be held accountable for doing a good job teaching subject matter to the kids. But, teachers are more than just teachers – they do more than just teach. And different kids “click” with different teachers. So while one kid may struggle with a teacher, another may thrive with the very same teacher. It’s complicated.

Option 2: Refuse to take the test?

NYSAPE explains the steps you need to “opt out”; it basically requires notifying your child’s school that you are refusing to test, with a code of “999”.

Your child will have an easier time at school on test days.

Hopefully your school district will not lose their federal funding.

No data will be gathered on your child’s academic abilities and teachers and school districts will not be held accountable.

If enough parents “opt out” their children, it will send a message that Common Core is problematic, and kids are being harmed by excessive testing.

Going forward:

Our local NYS Congressman, Tom Reed, recently announced he will propose legislation giving parents the right to “opt out” without negative repercussions impacting teachers or loss of funding for their school district.

“Parents should play an active role in determining what standardized tests their children take,” Reed said.  “Tens of thousands of parents have already opted their children out of required public school testing, a protest against Common Core curriculum and the philosophy of ‘teaching to the test.’ This action has sent a clear message to lawmakers: parents should decide what is in their child’s best interest, not bureaucrats in Albany or Washington.”

Whatever happens, we would all do well to remember – It’s all about doing what’s right for the kids.

***********

I went to a school concert last night, to see my son perform. It was a long concert, but amazingly good. This kids were focused and working hard, and the instructors radiated joy – you could see how much they loved what they do. Grandpa sat next to me, and at one pause he turned to me and said with a serious look, “You know, these kids are the future leaders of this country.”

He’s right of course. And they are all growing up so fast.

As I sat and listened, my middle schooler snuggled up against me, and I held her tight.

What a rough couple of weeks it’s been, with all the standardized testing. I think we’re all glad it’s over.

What are your thoughts?

Did your child “opt out” of standardized testing?

Where do we go from here?

Is it the testing or the common core that needs to change?

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