Common Core Testing; My Case for Opting In


Let us all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The 3rd-8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Common Core standardized tests are over.  You know the ones; the high-stake assessments pitched by politicians as guaranteed to close the achievement gap, ensure children are college and career ready, monitor the health of school districts and in my state, dictate the quality of teacher instruction.

Ten years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I had the experience of administering and grading the state ELA and Math tests under No Child Left Behind in the same school my children attend today.

In April, my third grader took the Common Core version for the first time.

Many of his peers and an estimated 15% of children statewide did not.

Their parents “Opted Out.”

Those who joined the Opt Out Movement poignantly expressed concern citing that the current, mandated state assessments cripple public education, compromise the professionalism of teachers, steer time away from creative, meaningful curriculum, suck the joy from learning, and kill young spirits with its developmentally and grade level inappropriate language and length.

Despite the fact that I agree with these points, am a vocal supporter of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s platform, and believe the assessments in their existing form offer no diagnostic value for teacher or student,

I Opted In.

It was not because I’m worried about a potential loss of district funding or the perceived reputation of my son’s school, nor was it because I’m a data hungry mama on a mission to mold my child into an international marketplace competitor.

Truthfully, if I felt his learning needs weren’t being addressed, I may not have exposed him to a testing environment that requires nine year olds to sit several hours over a 3-day period for two consecutive weeks answering sophisticated and language heavy reading, writing, and math questions.  Furthermore, if my school district had Opted Out, I would have obliged.

As a public school student, my son is automatically a pawn in the conundrum of educational reform; ammunition in a grown up battle.

But he doesn’t know it.  And that’s good.

He is fortunate to attend a child-centered school that takes pride in their general, special, character, and arts education programs.  Inside the classroom, teachers do their best to thoughtfully integrate test prep into an already rich curriculum.  Since state testing commenced 15 years ago, the school district has stood behind their mantra; standardized assessments are a snapshot in a child’s day.

Buzz does not exist.

Outside the school, administrators voice concern about high-stakes testing and its implications in the local newspaper.  Board members write letters to the Board of Regents seeking change and travel to the state capital to fight for school district rights, standing firm outside the Chairman of Education Committee’s office until the senator answers their questions.

Advocacy is a priority.

Out of respect for my son’s innocence, love for his teacher and community, our leaders’ efforts, and in keeping with the belief that anxiety breeds anxiety, I don’t express my Common Core testing distaste at home and I don’t initiate conversation with my child about the “big state test.”

He knows it’s happening.

Had I Opted Out, my son would not only know it is happening, but also be acutely aware that he is concretely, conspicuously stuck in the middle of a movement that effects the quality of his education and the future of his teacher’s job.

And in my opinion, a nine year old does not need this additional burden thrown upon his shoulders.

So like the time he fell off the playground swing and looked to my reaction for his, I bit my lip and played it cool as the test date approached.  I made absolute sure he had a decent night’s sleep the nights before each assessment, breakfast in his belly the morning of, and plenty of down time in between.

As such, when he came home after the first day of the English Language Arts test, this is what he told me…

“Today was the big state test.  The teacher put our desks in a line, the old-fashioned way so we could have space.  She gave us gum to help us focus.  I didn’t like the flavor so I didn’t have any.  We took the test for about an hour.  Then we got two recesses.  During one of them, I played Knock Out and took second place against a 4th grader.  We don’t have any homework; I have no idea why, but we don’t.  It was a great day.  Can I have a snack?”

My response? “Good for you.”  I did not ask test specifics, how he worked, whether or not he finished, or how he performed. “Yes, help yourself.”

The morning of the Math test a week later, his primary concern was to make sure he packed orange flavored Life Savers in his backpack.

“Mom, sucking on them helps me focus.  Plus I like to trade them with friends.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

The “Opt Out” or “Opt In” choice for the 2014-2015 school year has been made.

Now what?

I don’t believe the elimination of standardized testing is realistic and the likelihood that I will Opt Out my child next year is slim.  But I do believe a compromise is necessary.

Juan Gonzalez, journalist for the New York Daily News recently made this valid point,

“Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77% of students statewide were proficient in English.  The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57%.  A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more; to 31% statewide.  Same children.  Same teachers.  Different test.”

Step One?  Reconstruct the test.

  • Decrease the length. Requiring nine year olds to sit for 60, 70, and 90 minute stretches will only demonstrate how a child performs when fatigued.
  • Make the reading passages grade level. This year, it was reported that at least one 3rd grade English Language Arts test passage registered at a 5th grade reading level.  The 6th grade test apparently included vocabulary that could stump a grown up.
  • Offer a combination of concrete and inference ELA questions as well as Math problems rooted in mathematical concepts void of unnecessary language. Children develop differently; some minds are not ready or grounded enough in the language to tackle a multitude of higher level thinking questions.
  • Reduce testing frequency. It is possible to monitor a child’s general academic progress without subjecting him to standardized assessments for 6 consecutive years.  As former President Bill Clinton quoted in The Washington Post, “I think doing one test in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.”

Do. It. Right.

By creating fair tests, maybe we can begin the return to a balanced educational landscape where standardized tests play a small and perhaps valuable role in shaping a young person’s school experience.

Those who support the Opt Out Movement have outlined their future demands to state government officials.  Let’s see what happens.

In the meantime, instead of having a casual conversation in town with a board member or reading articles about my district administration, I need to get proactive and stand alongside them outside that stubborn senator’s office.

But I’ll be sure to leave my son home; to play Knock Out with friends, sample Life Savers, and enjoy his final years in elementary school because that’s his job.

Advocating for a sensible public school education is mine.