Protesters say they are not opposed to tests that measure learning and flag weaknesses or strengths. But they argue that the tests that have emerged in recent years don’t help individual students.
“It won’t tell me anything about him — we won’t even get the results until next year — but it’ll be used to directly assess his school and teachers,” said Pam Harbin of Pittsburgh, whose 10-year-old son is sitting out the state standardized tests this month. “This is not for the benefit of the student.”
But the tests do have value for school systems, said Linda Lane, the superintendent of Pittsburgh’s public schools.
“It’s one of the ways — not the only way — but one way we measure our progress as a district,” said Lane, who expects about 20 families in her system to opt out of testing. “Certainly, at the classroom level, we believe it’s helpful for teachers to know how students are doing.”
Lane said protesters are overstating the impact of standardized tests.
“People say we’ve narrowed the curriculum, that all we’re teaching is reading and math, and that is absolutely not true,” Lane said.
Critics say at the most extreme, the drive for high scores has led to cheating scandals like those alleged in the District, Philadelphia and Atlanta, where the former superintendent and 34 educators were indicted last month on criminal charges related to test tampering and changing student answer sheets to ensure correct answers.
Teachers in 18 District classrooms at 11 schools cheated on such tests last year, according to a report Friday from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The report found test-tampering that included providing students with answers, reading test questions aloud and encouraging students to reread specific questions.
In Sunrise, Fla., talk about the state’s standardized test began when Jared Eckert, now 13, was in kindergarten — even though the test isn’t administered until third grade, said his mother, Roseanne.
Jared is opting out because his family thinks the emphasis on the state exam has warped the classroom experience.
“By the time he was in fifth grade, he was being denied recess and physical education and doing hours of work sheets at night because there was so much pressure for the students to pass,” Roseanne Eckert said.
She is still figuring out how Jared will spend the four days this month when his peers are filling in multiple-choice bubbles on answer sheets. Reading would be a good idea, she said. “Maybe Henry David Thoreau,” she said, referring to the author of “Civil Disobedience.”
Earlier this month, several hundred people protested outside the U.S. Department of Education under the banner “United Opt Out National,” calling for test policy changes.
Because regulations differ from state to state, parents who want to opt out use various methods. In Pennsylvania, for example, parents are citing a state rule that allows opting out of testing based on religious objections. In Florida, parents are relying on regulations that allow for alternative assessments, such as a portfolio of schoolwork or SAT scores. Some school districts and state education departments have tried to discourage test boycotts, leading parents to swap information via Facebook pages and Web sites.
“Opting out is the way to truly, truly get the discussion going,” said Marjie Crist, a lawyer in Mount Lebanon, Pa., who pulled her 8-year-old daughter, Rosemary, from state testing that began last week.
Students opting out of the testing would not face individual ramifications, but if students do so in large groups, the boycotts could affect a specific school’s standing under federal law, which requires 95 percent of each school’s student population to take the tests.
In attaching consequences to standardized exams, policymakers adopted ideas from the corporate world, where success is rewarded and failure is punished. The theory was that students would have incentives to learn, educators would be motivated to teach and academic achievement would improve.
But under No Child Left Behind, a significant number of schools did not see their test scores increase, and the federal government labeled them as “failing.” That led educators and political leaders to complain that the law’s requirements were unrealistic.
Since 2011, the Obama administration issued waivers to exempt 34 states and the District from some of the more onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Still, the testing has continued.
State spending on standardized testing grew from $552 million in 2001 to $1.7 billion in 2012, according to surveys performed by the Pew Center on the States and the Brookings Institution.
When the Pittsburgh Post-
Gazette printed a recent op-ed by Kathy Newman in which she explained why her 9-year-old son, Jacob, is opting out of the state test, she got e-mails from parents asking how to follow suit.