I never took a high-stakes test in my 13 years as a K-12 public school student.
Standardized testing was not yet the norm when I was in school, but it became so when I was in college studying to be a teacher. The shift was subtle in some states, but in Pennsylvania, where I was born, raised, and educated, the onslaught of standardized testing was sudden, disruptive, and consequential.
I came of age as a teacher in the first years of No Child Left Behind. My first year in the classroom was the first year that test scores “counted” and it utterly changed the small, rural school where I taught. In some ways, it brought a greater level of precision to the already excellent work of my colleagues. It enhanced communication with families and streamlined long overdue revisions to instruction, curriculum, and assessment. In other ways, it thwarted the great progress our school was making toward differentiated, compassionate, inclusive education for all students.
While standardized testing affected me professionally in a variety of ways during my time as a teacher and as a central office administrator, it was not until my oldest son came of testing age that it became personal. My son is 9 years old and was in first grade when the COVID-19 pandemic began. By second grade, he had been identified as gifted and started attending our district’s centralized school for gifted students. He was also diagnosed with ADHD and acquired a 504 plan.
My son faced many challenges in second grade while learning remotely and then transitioning back to in-person learning; at the same time he grew (rapidly!) and changed medication several times. He also blossomed under the nurturing care of his teachers and support network of friends and family, earning his black belt in Taekwondo, learning to play the piano, developing greater social awareness and emotional regulation, learning all about the Greek gods, and becoming a fully-fledged member of our family’s Fantasy Football League.
When the 2021-2022 school year started, the last thing on our mind was standardized testing. We wondered: How would he adjust to not having his best friend in class? Would the long school bus ride continue to be a challenge? What might our relationship with his new teacher be like? Would we have to adjust his medication as expectations shifted?
As an educator, though, I knew our state had recently doubled down on standardized testing, passing legislation that would require testing students in the fall, mid-year, and in the spring, so-called “growth assessments.” I scoured the state department of education website for information about the fall tests, which purported to measure “unfinished learning” using content “from the previous grade level.” Having served on many a state committee, I knew it was unlikely that valid and reliable test items measuring second-grade content would be available in time for the fall assessment, with less than a month between the legislation going into effect and the start of the school year. In other words, there WERE NO second grade items, as third grade is the first year of mandated standardized testing in our state.
As a mom, I waited for news from my child’s school about fall testing. When we received the notification, I immediately contacted my child’s teacher, who reached out to the testing specialist to determine next steps. There was no time to add testing accommodations to his 504 plan. I knew my son would be too stressed by answering questions that he did not know the answer to, and his test data would provide few (if any) benefits for the school. The decision was an easy one – refuse testing.
Here’s what happened:
- We officially informed the school, in writing, of our choice to refuse testing for our son. (Our state has long-standing regulations that “do not provide for what is sometimes referred to as an ‘opt out policy’ for students.”)
- They confirmed our decision.
- We kept him home on the morning of the test. The school is required (and offered) to supervise him outside of his classroom, but we decided it would be less disruptive and stressful for him if he stayed home.
- We updated his 504 plan on its regular schedule in February of this year, focusing on his learning goals and progress rather than his testing accommodations.
- We checked in with my son and ultimately decided with him to also refuse testing for the spring state-mandated assessment. Because of his clear academic ability, potential test anxiety, and still-developing sense of self-regulation, this was an easy choice.
Why do I share this publicly? For several reasons:
- As an educator, my position on standardized testing has always been clear – the juice is not worth the squeeze. I believe high-quality, multimodal, locally developed assessments have far more use and power than standardized tests. As a mom, my position was unclear until this year. Now I know the tests ultimately can cause more harm than good for my son. As I said before, the decision to refuse testing was an easy one.
- We were informed that we were the only family in the elementary grades to refuse testing at my son’s school. I believe families have limited knowledge about the option to refuse, including why and how to do it. We have some work to do systemically to make this option crystal clear for families.
- My son’s teachers and administrators were gracious, helpful, and supportive of our decision. I think families expect hostility when they refuse testing (even the word “refuse” seems confrontational!), but my experience proved the opposite. Schools want to work with families and the educators in my son’s life proved it.
- I have talked to many educator colleagues and friends about our decision to refuse testing and many are shocked. I hear a lot of “but the school needs the scores!” and “but it is tied to funding!” None of these reasons are more important to me than my son’s well-being. That level of care extends to other people’s children as well. Are the negative consequences of standardized testing really worth the benefits?
I snapped this picture in the early days of the pandemic, when simply walking in my neighborhood seemed a bit dangerous and uncertain.
It seemed to me at the time, as schools were closing for the year and standardized testing would be impossible, that we were coming to the end of an era. I felt optimistic about the conversations we might have about teaching and learning when we were not bound by the results of a single assessment. I had hopes for my sons’ futures, that they would never even know what a bubble sheet was and it would become just another “Remember these?” meme for their generation.
Instead, by the middle of the very next school year, we were sending kids into cafeterias previously deemed unsafe to test them on standards they clearly had not mastered during a time of unstable learning and the height of the COVID Delta variant. We had a chance to do things in a completely different way, but instead we fell into old patterns. This is OUR fault, as educators and as parents, because we didn’t speak up, take action, and demand change.
It starts at home, with one family and one child. It changes when we act together.