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Test anxiety: Is it the kids or the teachers who are driving opt-outs?

Last Thursday my son, who is typically a reliable narrator, came home from Southwest High School with what I initially imagined was a tall tale. He told me I’d be getting an emailed version of the form Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) asks parents who object to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) to sign.

I should agree to exempt him, he explained, because teachers were warning kids that anyone who took the annual state proficiency exams would miss a lesson that would be delivered at that time and would thus risk falling behind. His friends were either asking their parents to sign or forging their signatures.

I checked with some other Southwest parents, who reported hearing the same story. And a link to the opt-out form was included in the school’s weekly newsletter, which goes out to every parent whose email is associated with a student there.

Welcome to Learning Curve: The (Slightly Belated) Ides of March Edition. March being, of course, the month of the vernal equinox, Julius Caesar’s assassination by Brutus and his five dozen co-conspirators and more recently the annual administration of the MCAs.

The exams will now be tied to teacher performance evaluations, school and district ratings and — depending whether there are metaphorical stabbings on the floor of the Minnesota and U.S. Senates in coming weeks — sundry other policies.

Which means March is also the month when campaigns to opt out of the exams revive themselves. In several states this year this has meant pickets and other high-profile displays as the new and significantly more rigorous assessments associated with the Common Core State Standards are rolled out.

A tustle in Illinois, ads in New Jersey …

In Illinois, state officials have been locked in a tussle with Chicago Public Schools over whether students may opt out and whether the state will withhold $1.4 billion from the district if tests aren’t administered. New Jersey’s teacher union is in the middle of a six-week blitz of ads decrying the tests.

A coalition of civil rights groups is asking Congress to keep mandates that states collect performance data so that the federal government can continue to monitor inequity. Meanwhile, the National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher union, is pushing for a rollback of the exams.

For once, California seems to be the lone bastion of sanity. After successfully thumbing their noses at the U.S. Department of Education, state officials there have given districts a moratorium year during which teachers and schools will not be evaluated using data from new and stringent tests.

Here in Minnesota, students have been taking similar, tougher assessments for several years, the protest movement has been sleepier. Still, Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed reducing the number of required Minnesota exams by a third — a more dramatic reduction than was recommended by a state task force last month.

Who’s leading the backlash?

On a national level it’s frequently depicted as a parent-led backlash to an education that doesn’t honor the whole student. At least in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) the protest appears teacher-led. And in many places where waves of dissention were predicted, the number of students opting out is 1 percent or 2 percent.

Last year 2 percent of MPS parents opted their kids out, the vast majority of them at South and Southwest high schools and Barton Open School. Of the 350 kids who skipped the tests, 225 were from South and 54 from Southwest, according to Eric Moore, MPS’ director of research and evaluation.

Regarding the “whole child” issue, Moore is quick to note that MPS has built a system that combines MCA results with information on non-cognitive factors, attendance, parent perspectives and a host of other indicators that principals and teachers can use to target individual student needs.

“The MCA test is not a measure of intelligence,” Moore says. “It’s just one measure to see how well we can support students.”

Is the revolution picking up steam? Maybe a few wisps. As of Tuesday morning, opt-outs at South were about the same but had grown to 210 at Southwest, says Moore.

No comment

Whether the district has a policy on teachers urging kids to opt out or one about using an official school communication to facilitate the process I cannot tell you. I asked for comment on Friday and again on Monday and to date have only received a copy of an email sent to teachers about preparing for the MCAs in general.

“As a public school system, we believe that assessment is a valuable tool to promote learning,” it reads. “Assessment allows teachers and other staff to make informed decisions about students’ academic needs. Sharing assessment information is an excellent way to involve parents or guardians in these decisions.

“We understand that there may be extenuating circumstances for some students, and we respect a parent’s choice to opt his or her child out of taking an assessment. We expect teachers to use their professional judgment with students and parents to have meaningful conversations about assessments.”

Feel however you want about the tests, is what’s been happening at Southwest meaningful conversation?

On Monday when the reading test was given to my son’s cohort many of his classmates watched a video during the hour when he was at the computer. On his way to the testing room two teachers asked whether he had forgotten his opt-out form. One of them has repeatedly encouraged him to take AP exams.

It would be one thing if students were authentically outraged about a policy, law or aspect of their educational experience that was smothering their love of learning. Or if there were meaningful discussion about the controversy or about students’ views of the tests. But I think the lesson actually being delivered is a different one.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/19/2015 - 04:47 pm.

    Of teapots and tempests

    Standardized tests are useful for little more than telling a student and/or a parent, “Here’s how John/Juan/Jon/etc. did on the XYZ test.” As measures of learning, they leave much to be desired, and in the hands of the media and legislators, most of whose representatives would hardly be able to distinguish educational practice from a hole in the ground, they’re perniciously subject to ways and means of misinformation and misinterpretation that consistently mislead the public.

    To what end is the test being given? To what end is the test being avoided by some? Whether someone opts out may be of less significance than WHY that particular kid is opting out. A standardized test may occasionally be able to tell you how much your child knows about a particular area of inquiry, but it can’t – and doesn’t – tell you how well your child is being educated.

    And a side note: Not every professional association is a union, though I will allow for the possibility that the NEA may have changed since I was last a member. While teachers and administrators were encouraged to join, and the local NEA chapter did bargain for faculty salaries and working conditions in my district when I was teaching, there was no “union shop,” nor were faculty members required to join – or even to pay the equivalent of membership dues – so we had several “free riders” on the faculty at my school.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/19/2015 - 06:56 pm.

      Look Away

      For decades the education system has looked the other way as tens of millions of unlucky difficult students have been passed through our Public Schools. It was much easier to just give them a passing grade rather than actually acknowledge and fix the systemic problems.

      This has ensured that the children of questionable Parents with low academic capability stayed trapped in poverty and ignorance just like their Parents. And even now some people in the Education System want to bury this deep dark secret again and stop us from seeing these children and the system’s failure.

      Ironically many of these people are the same folks who rail against racism, discrimination, unfairness, etc. All the while wanting to return us to a state where the plight of these students was hidden by our public education system. The reality is that whoever wants to stop the tests is giving their blessing.

  2. Submitted by Sarah Brookner on 03/19/2015 - 06:39 pm.

    Not Teacher Driven

    I am a classroom teacher who administers the MCA tests every year. I first heard about the “opt-out” option last year from a Southwest HS parent! Sorry Beth Hawkins. Not buying this. A follow up story would be great once you actually speak with a teacher in the building.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/25/2015 - 10:46 am.

      Please remember where you read this article

      The idea that students and parents are driving the opt out does not fit within the appropriate narratives regarding education that MinnPost pushes. If you have been reading Ms. Hawkins’s columns, you will know that teachers and, by extension, their unions, are the ones who impede education. Standardized tests–the backbone of the effort to strengthen the corporate takeover of American education and to de-legitimize teachers–are vital. The only reason anyone could object to standardized testing is that they have been corrupted by Education Minnesota.

      “Speaking to teachers” is just not on, I’m afraid. There might be some spokesperson from a group devoted to “reforming” education (because it’s all about the kids), but no actual teachers.

  3. Submitted by John Appelen on 03/19/2015 - 06:43 pm.

    California Sane

    Testing is there for 2 very important reasons:
    – Give Parents an unbiased and standardized evaluation of their child’s academic ability once per year in 2 or 3 key subjects.
    – Collect unbiased and standardized information regarding the performance of the schools / teachers that we fund and entrust with our children. To ensure they are accomplishing the important goals and not just passing difficult unlucky children through the system instead ensuring they learn.

    Measuring is the key factor in ensuring quality and improving any system.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA

  4. Submitted by kelly barnhill on 03/20/2015 - 06:54 am.

    Someone just hasn’t been paying attention

    If you spent any time talking to your children’s teachers – and listening to them – the opt-out email would not have come as such a shock. My children’s teachers have been talking about it for years. I have also been opting my kids out for years. In my youngest child’s charter school, a full month of instruction is taken out for testing. A month! And for what, really? In our country, we spend 1.7 Billion dollars on standardized tests – and that’s JUST for the tests. Not for the materials, not for the instructional time lost, not for the instructional time diverted to teach kids “test-taking skills”, probably the most useless of skills. Meanwhile, most research shows us that standardized tests actually are not a good indicator of student learning or student growth. They really only measure a child’s ability to take a test. And that’s on a good day. Don’t forget the 30 million dollars that New York paid Pearson for their fourth grade tests that turned out to be riddled with errors. The fact is that we are shelling out massive amounts of taxpayer money on untested, poorly researched and useless tests. And as a parent and a taxpayer, I for one am sick of it.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/20/2015 - 08:36 am.

      Agree.

      More than one teacher – excellent teachers – have told us that between preparing for the testing, conducting the testing, and refocusing kids back into the curriculum after testing, the whole process undermines actual learning in the classroom for a good third of the spring semester. Those concerned about “time in seat” should look at this first, not a lengthened school year.

      Measuring performance is good but has its own significant problems. I’d rather forego testing, and trust my kids’ time to a good teacher who can spend the time teaching, rather than sacrifice a large fraction of learning time to obtain performance measures that may not come close to measuring what is important. There is a still incipient but strong college shift away from an SAT/ACT focus based on the realization that such scores say very little about a student’s college learning potential. I think that has applicability here.

      And as Ms. Barnhill states, standardized testing is huge business. It may not explain everything, but usually if you follow the money you’ll get to the right neighborhood.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/20/2015 - 09:04 am.

        A Vote for Denial

        Chuck and Kelly,
        So does this mean you are ok going back to when millions of unlucky students were passed through / left behind and people were free to close their eyes because their was no good data to clearly define who they were and where this was happening?

        Just a reminder, this is a key cause generational poverty.

        • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/20/2015 - 01:14 pm.

          No data?

          Teachers have lots of data on their students that aren’t standardized tests. The question is why children who weren’t cutting it academically were put through anyway, for which there were many reasons beyond standardized testing. (And, let’s face it, standardized testing has been around forever. We’re just putting more weight now it now than before.)

        • Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/20/2015 - 01:48 pm.

          John:

          First, your premise is tendentious. I don’t believe you can support the assertion that the reason why students of poverty have been poorly served is that there haven’t been good data to show that they were being poorly served.

          Second, I believe any sufficiently wealthy society (such as ours) should hold, and make good on, a commitment to ensuring the basic elements of self-determination for its citizens: food, housing, safety, health care. This will do more for the learning potential of students of poverty than anything else.

          Third, I believe we should fund and run good schools with good teachers as a fundamental collective commitment of our society. We don’t need to devote billions of dollars/student hours to testing to know how to do this far better than we do.

          Fourth, if you’ve got a way of testing that yields useful data, and doesn’t have more disadvantages than advantages, and doesn’t create vested corporate interests that will unceasingly push the testing regimen toward what is profitable without regard to social benefit, I’m fine with that.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/20/2015 - 05:03 pm.

            Basic Commitments

            I think we disagree regarding “the basic elements of self-determination “… Giving people food, housing, safety and healthcare no matter their effort, choices, number of children, etc in no way ensures self determination, it does exactly the opposite for many Americans. As the failed “50 year war on poverty” has proven.

            I don’t think that lack of data is the only reason for “Many Children Left Behind”. But as Sean noted above, “Standardized testing has been around forever. We’re just putting more weight on it now than before.” And of course that weight is making the personnel in the Public School System and Unions squirm. It is one thing to just pass those unfortunate students through while no one is making an issue of it, but to see the systemic failure of “their system” in the news is quite a different situation.

            It is somewhat like the police who are having to deal with the reality of cell phone video everywhere. Some Teachers and Administrators have been neglecting their duties and allowing a huge number of young minds to go to waste and stay trapped in poverty on their watch, which I am sure is very embarrassing. No wonder they want to shut off the “cameras”.

            By the way, I think the School System and Union personnel only own 20% of the problem. However it is the easiest part to fix, so we should get to it.

          • Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/23/2015 - 12:26 pm.

            John – I’m not talking about “giving” people stuff,

            I’m talking about a social contract. I’m not sure what your “50 year war on poverty” refers to. What we’ve had is a “40 year war on the working classes” featuring a concerted effort to move the fruits of social productivity up and into the hands of those at the top. That’s where the social contract has broken down most fundamentally and the chief reason why kids of poverty arrive at school challenged to learn.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/23/2015 - 08:57 pm.

            Disagree

            We definitely perceive reality differently. See my comment in the MP tax progressivity post for the real cause of the income gap.

  5. Submitted by Blaire Hartley on 03/20/2015 - 12:01 pm.

    Student Perspective on testing

    Beth Hawkins is interested in a student’s perspective on the MCAs. The new student representative on the MPS Board, Noah Branch, a sophomore at Patrick Henry High, spoke about the MCAs and opting out in an interview yesterday on MPR with Tom Weber. His comments are both meaningful and authentic and add value to this discussion. I can’t add a html link here but encourage readers to check it out.

    http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/03/18/bcst-minneapolis-school-board-noah-branch

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