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The Dangers of High-Stakes Testing

Everything you need to know about schools' standardized testing and opting out

Published on: February 20, 2015

When Becca Ritchie, a sixth-grade teacher at Nelsen Middle School in Renton, stood up to speak at a school board meeting in January 2015, she told her audience that high-stakes testing in Washington has robbed students' joy of learning and dashed their dreams.

Ritchie's audience included the five-member Renton School District educational board and a sea of school administrators, colleagues, students and parents. Three like-minded teachers — Juliana Krueger Dauble, Judy Dotson and Susan DuFresne —  stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ritche, ready to give their own testimonies.

If Ritchie was nervous, she didn't show it. Perhaps she felt buoyed by the three colleagues at her side.

Perhaps she felt empowered by the crowd of educators and Washington Badass Teacher's Association members that stood with her in solidarity. Still, it's scary for a teacher to stand up and criticize something that all public schools do. As Ritchie reminded her audience, however, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

You see, high-stakes testing isn't very popular with some teachers.

It's not popular with some parents, either. High-stakes testing “opt out” groups have sprouted up all over the country. Such groups are prominent in Seattle and Tacoma. Their goal is simple: to shield their children from the perils and stressors of high-stakes testing.

What's so bad about high-stakes testing?

High-stakes tests are standardized tests that students take in school. Each child is graded on the same set of criteria; administrators and politicians use some score data to compare and contrast the success rate of different students, schools and districts.

“What's so bad about standardized tests?” you might ask. “I took them when I was a kid. No big deal.” The problem is, today's standardized tests carry a lot more weight than they used to. In Virginia, for example, graduating seniors will only get their standard diploma if they pass certain tests. In Ohio, third graders who fail the state-prescribed reading test must repeat the year. The same is true in 15 other states, including Washington.

If the scenarios in Virginia and Ohio don't churn your stomach, consider some of the other ways that opponents and observers say high-stakes testing protocols affect students:

  • Less time for other subjects. Curriculums that focus on reading and math testing don't have as much time to devote to history, languages, and the arts.
  • Less money. Schools with low test scores lose federal funding as punishment for their failure.
  • More stress. Children in high-stakes testing situations are more likely to throw up, lose control of their bowels, and experience generalized anxiety issues.

Teachers also pay a price when their students don't perform well on standardized tests. In hundreds of districts across the country, teachers earn (or don't earn) “performance pay” — money tied to how well their students perform on certain tests. The incentives aren't just financial: Many teachers receive negative marks on their evaluations when a particular batch of students doesn't perform up to snuff. Over time, these marks could lead to termination.

It's easy to blame low test scores on teachers because the fix seems simple: get rid of the bad educators and hire better ones. But a recent study published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal, found that test scores don't truly reflect the “goodness” or “badness” of a teacher. Which leads to the question so many disgruntled parents are asking: Exactly why are students being forced to take so many of these nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching tests?

A bit of history 

Testing fever traces back to several events, including the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” a paper drafted by members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that called for public school reform, and No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, a movement that glorified equal achievement for all via standards-based education.

Since its inception, NCLB has received both scrutiny and acclaim from parents, educators, and politicians. Regardless of a parent's stance on NCLB, however, the usefulness of intense high-stakes testing — the MSP, the HSPE, the EOC, the MAP, to name a few — is up for debate.

Opting out

Currently, the only state that provides an “opt out” option for high-stakes testing is California. Parents in any other state who try to yank their child from a high-stakes testing situation will likely receive a denial from the school district. However, the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution trumps state laws and explicitly defends parental rights in the area of education.

The truth is, parents can pull their students out of the testing race if they want to. It's not a simple process, but it can be done. The first thing parents should do is write an opt-out letter. For those who aren't sure how to compose such a letter, help is available from a group called United Opt Out.

Parents across the country are choosing to opt out of high-stakes testing. They don't like how much time schools spend on test prep, and they don't like the potential consequences that could follow their children after testing. Do you know how much time and money your child's school spends on high-stakes testing? Will you be opting out this year?

Editor's note: Our guest opinions belong to the guest writer and do not necessarily express the position of ParentMap or its staff.

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