Our Opt-Out Letter: “These standardized tests can’t measure our son”

Last spring, Washington State schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal announced that, due to the pandemic, state standardized testing requirements would be postponed until the fall. I was happy that during one of the most challenging periods for students, the added stress of standardized testing was not layered on top of everything else. But I was disappointed that standardized testing wasn’t canceled, just merely pushed to a later date. Well, the can was kicked down the road. Now it’s fall and students are gearing up to take the Smarter Balanced Assessments in classrooms across Washington State. Presumably, this means that they will have to take the damn test again in the Spring. As I have written about, these tests are a colossal waste of resources — especially at a time when we have so many needs for the physical, mental, and emotional health of kids — and we should be investing in #COVIDtestingNotStandardizedTesting. And as I have argued many places, theses tests are especially harmful to students who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color and there are far better ways to assess what our children know.

I am calling on Superintendent Reykdal to refuse to bow to the pressure of the testing industry and the testocrats in Washington, D.C. and at the very least cancel Spring standardized testing this year — while putting together a plan to end standardized testing all together and move to authentic forms of assessment. But until then, I will be opting my kids out of these inane rituals in ranking and sorting children.

Below is the opt-out letter my partner and I sent to the principal of my son’s middle school (I removed the names from it) asking that he be dismissed from the Smarter Balanced test, explaining our reasoning, and attempting to build common cause in a struggle for a larger purpose for education. In the letter we explain why these tests don’t even attempt to measure many of the most important things about education and how they mis-measure the academic skills they do attempt to measure.

While this letter is deeply personal to me and describes a lot of the very specific reasons why my son won’t be taking these tests, I encourage you to meditate on your own children’s beautiful qualities and then write your own opt-out letter to your school principal.

—-

Dear Principal,

I am writing this letter to state that, after talking in our family about the history and current practice of standardized testing, our son has decided there is no value in taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment test — and we are supporting that decision by opting him out of Smarter Balanced and all standardized tests.

As we have discussed in our family, standardized testing first entered the public schools as an initiative of the Eugenics movement— an openly white supremacist pseudoscience that attempted to justify social inequities based on the alleged biological inferiority of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.  Today, these tests are no longer advertised as tools of maintaining white supremacy and yet the structure and function of tests remains the same. The tests use the same multiple-choice format, privilege the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices over critical thinking skills, and rely on culturally biased questions that center middle-class white experiences.  These tests have the effect of narrowing the curriculum because teachers are under great pressure to teach to the test— rather than teaching to the student or to their individual passions — in an effort to raise the scores.  Moreover, the scores are often tied to high-stakes, such as access to advanced placement classes and access to city levy funding dollars. Worse still is the way students internalize the messages about the importance of test scores and see their results as a reflection of their intellect or self-worth.

This essay by Professor Wayne Au is one of the articles that has taught our family so much about the negative impacts of standardized testing on children — especially BIPOC children: Racial Justice Is Not a Choice: White supremacy, high-stakes testing, and the punishment of Black and Brown students.

The social and emotional education my son is getting has been so important, and that is such a vital part of a middle school education. We want to communicate that so many of the most important aspects of education can’t be measured by these tests.   These test scores can’t measure the fact that our son is a great friend who is caring and compassionate to his peers.  These scores can’t measure that our son can delight audiences with his breakdancing, trumpet, or rapping.  These scores can’t measure the fact that he cares deeply about injustice, became an activist during the 2020 uprising for Black lives, and helped form a youth organization with his friends to fight for a better world. These are all the things that education should be about nurturing, not the reduction of the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score. 

Moreover, these tests can’t even accurately measure the academic skills our son is learning. These tests don’t allow him to show what he has learned this year about how to create a circuit and conduct an electrical current — or express his excitement about it; the tests don’t allow him to explain what he has learned about the cultural practices of the Coast Salish indigenous peoples before colonization; in the tested subject of math, the tests don’t measure his ability to help his friend better understand how to multiply negative numbers or his ability to explain why that computation is important in the first place; in the tested subject of reading, the test questions present disjointed reading passages that teach kids that reading is devoid of context and deeper meaning — and the reading test can’t measure his ability to connect his emotional experiences with the text to better understand himself or others, nor can it assess his ability to understand how the text could be useful in better understanding the world so that he can help make it a better place; perhaps most disheartening is the way standardized testing mis-measures writing and human expression. Our son is a powerful poet and rapper, but these tests will give him a score on writing that could never even begin to assess his reservoirs of feeling, insight, or technique. And yet, if he took the standardized writing test, he would receive a message from the school system about his ability as a writer from a testing company that knows nothing about him and is attempting to homogenize the writing process so that students’ words can be scored and judged against others — which ends up training kids to write in predictable, mundane, tame, and uninspiring ways. 

We appreciate the work of educators in conducting their own classroom assessments that are based on what the students are actually learning — not based on what a testing company thinks they should learn.

By opting our son out of the standardized tests, we are registering our protest against the immense waste of money squandered on standardized testing that could be used for weekly COVID testing, school counselors, psychologists, or lowering class size.

We are in solidarity with the many educators at the school and around the country who also oppose these tests. We hope that our opt-out — taken together with many other families — will help create a collective action that will resonate with the school staff and create a groundswell to help pressure the district and the state to discontinue the collective punishment of children through the use of these antiquated, structurally racist, and resource-draining exams. 

Thanks for taking the time to read and consider this letter.  And thanks for all the work you do to create a loving environment for the students under the extremely difficult circumstances of a pandemic.

Please let us know if you have any questions and we look forward to working with you.

Sincerely,

Jesse & Sarah

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