—Alfie Kohn, parent, author and education expert
Jan. 7 has been declared National Opt Out Day by the grassroots organization United Opt Out National, whose goal is to eliminate high-stakes testing (HST) in public education. With the unreachable goal of 100-percent student proficiency in math and reading by 2014, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and its component standardized testing will result—in fact is designed to result—in an unprecedented, manufactured event of 100-percent school failure. Education privatizers are salivating like hyenas.
But the little guy is pushing back against NCLB, the ultimate schoolyard bully, and its corporate reformers who masquerade as innocuous, all-inclusive groups with names like Students First, Parent Revolution and the local Up for Ed. Indeed, the education-reform conversation isn’t even real, so long as test scores are cited as evidence of student, teacher and school success. Those of us interested in true and meaningful education reform know it can only begin when HST ends and NCLB is crumpled in the garbage pail.
My husband and I see no incentive to subject our daughter to the ongoing experiment aimed at busting teachers unions, closing public schools and reopening them with public funds and unaccountable corporations at the helm. A quick look at recent history tells us exactly who’ll be left behind. So, like I said in my last column, we’ve decided to opt our daughter out of all district- and state-mandated testing for the foreseeable future.
As it happens—and though few administrators want parents to know this—opting out is allowable under California’s education code, which states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a parent’s or guardian’s written request to school officials to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the assessments administered pursuant to this chapter shall be granted.” We’ll be drafting our letter this month (a template can be found at https://viewer.zoho.com/docs/kbdmm).
To be sure, the pressure to participate in testing is crushing, and we’re a little nervous about alienating our school administrators. But the goal of opt-outers, as activist Tim Slekar recently wrote in his terrific Huffington Post blog, is not to be adversarial, but rather “to have ‘our’ public schools freed from the corporate reformers and to allow ‘our’ teachers to do what they love to do—teach.”
Overwhelming pressure also comes from our peers. The reaction of other parents, when we tell them what we’re doing, makes me think of Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. With heads tipped back and a hissing scream emanating from gaping mouths, you’d think I’d told them I put Bailey’s Irish Cream on my baby’s breakfast cereal each morning.
Such shock is usually followed by two responses as predictable and dangerous as the local media ignoring Michele Rhee’s cheating scandal. “But Ruby will be the only kid not taking the tests,” they’ll say, as if to highlight one of the dangers of non-conformity. And then, “She has to learn how to test.” Never mind that her parents learned how to test—and went to college—without seeing Scantron sheets until middle school.
Opposing HST is a radical thing; the simple declaration to do so can pit parents against one another, an NCLB byproduct I doubt is accidental. A friend recently scoffed at an opt-out tagline in my email signature, saying his kids were going to be “as talented and as accomplished as possible on standardized tests.” I’ll let you imagine my response, knowing as you do, Dear Reader, that I’m sort of a radical thing myself.
Of course, a few parents are genuinely interested in exploring some of the reasons behind our choice. Since there are too many to list in a short chat after morning drop-off (or even in all my columns for 2012), I usually pick the three or four that are grating on me at that particular moment and try to grind them down to quick talking points like the hypnotic “reformers” do. I always mention the lack of empirical data to support fill-in-the-bubble standardized testing of young children as valuable to the children, since isn’t this supposed to be about the children? Certainly, it’s a favorite sound bite of the “reformers.”
Ultimately, ours is a philosophical stance against the privatization of public education, where capitalism has no place. Defending public education from those who’d monetize it under the guise of reform is arguably the greatest issue of our democracy at this moment.
Sam and I know that pulling our daughter from these tests does not solve the overarching problem of mandated curriculum. We know that this act of civil disobedience, which we believe is in our child’s best interest, does little to change the immediate climate for thousands of other kids in California.
But the short-term risks outweigh the long-term benefits. If you’re questioning, considering or contemplating doing the same, there are resources on these websites: unitedoptout.com, fairtest.org, susanohanian.org, alfiekohn.org, pencilsdown.org, parentsacrossamerica.com and nomoretests.com.
Join us. Say no to high stakes testing. It’s fun to be radical.