Monday, August 13, 2012

Help ensure "back to school" doesn't mean "back to tests."

Editor's note:  John Skelton shared with other parents in The Opt Out New York group the steps and documents he took to successfully opt his child out of tests. I'm publishing this article here in hopes that it will prove useful for others who want to do the same.
Guest post by John Skelton, parent & teacher
My daughter will be entering 3rd grade in the Fall. As an educator (I teach middle school music), I am well aware of the travesty that is state testing. In fact, not only do I see how harmful it is to education in general, I experience directly how much it destroys programs like mine that arguably are just as vital to the development of a child. So in June, I decided to contact my daughter's principal with the following email:
Hi Dr. XXXX,

I would like to schedule a meeting with you at your convenience to discuss my daughter, XXXX. She will be entering 3rd grade next year and I would like to opt her out of the high stakes standardized state tests that are administered at that grade level. I believe such tests are counterproductive to a quality education and lack validity as a measure of learning. On the other hand, I understand firsthand the position that educators are put in by testing mandates.

I'd appreciate the opportunity to discuss alternative assessments as well as the logistics involved in not having her sit for these tests. As this is for next May, I am in no immediate rush. However, since this is a complicated issue, I'd like to give ample time to consider the matter conscientiously.

Thank you so much!
I did end up sending a follow-up about a month later to which he responded with suggestions for meeting times. As advice to those who are looking to opt their children out, I need to stress three things at this point:
1) Conduct your discussion in person. It's okay to say why you want to meet, and in fact it's protocol to do so, but don't get into any conversation over email on the matter itself. Also, try to keep it low-key. If you don't trust an administrator, by all means get things in writing, but don't start off with a letter from your lawyer. Keep in mind that many administrators are caught off-guard by this kind of request. All they really want to do is keep their schools running smoothly and you need to show them that you're not going to drag the press in...unless that's what you need to do. :)
2) Be pleasant and civil. Don't make any assumptions on whether or not your child's administrator likes or hates these tests. Come prepared for a showdown, but don't rule out the possibility of an ally - MANY educators hate high-stakes testing. Make it about you and them against the tests. You're helping the educators too.
3) Do this all well in advance. Don't go in a week before the test and make your demands. No one denies that you have the same rights on testing day that you do now, but a little courtesy goes a long way.
When we met, he was very supportive and in agreement with me on testing. I did not have to explain my reasoning. I knew it would be a good conversation when he said, "I can't force someone to do something. Last thing I checked, it was a free country." He didn't even see a need for an alternative assessment. We'll be meeting again closer to September once he checks on a few things from his higher-ups.
I went in with four pieces of information:
1) The specific Supreme Court rulings recognizing a parent's rights to make educational decisions for their children,
2) The procedure for test refusal from the Student Information Reporting System (SIRS) where the score of 999 is entered,
3) The paragraph regarding AIS (which shows that the AIS score of 650 makes that a non-issue), and
4) A couple paragraphs from a NY Times article from April 16, 2012 where the Chief Records Officer in NYC said that portfolios would be an acceptable alternative.

I didn't need #1. I showed him #2 when he said he wasn't sure what the procedure was. (When I showed it to him, he accepted it without any difficulty.) I mentioned #3 only because he brought up AIS as a possible concern. Finally, I showed him #4 when he said he'd still need to check on how the opting out will play out.
If you have any questions regarding my experience, please feel free to email John Skelton at There will also be updates posted on the "Opt Out of State Standardized Tests - New York" page.

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