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.

College & Career Readiness: The Fancy People vs. The Leaf Pile


The table of contents of the Common Core Learning Standards has the words “College and Career Readiness” written so often that it’s no wonder the public tone surrounding this latest round of educational reform is one of anxiety, concern, and contempt.

From the father of a five-year old who supports the Common Core’s goal to make students competitive in a global environment and believes educators only started questioning tests when they became tied to job performance to the well meaning mommies who vent through social media about their child’s school experience as well as the image conscious, high performing school district superintendent who misrepresents that his administration only had four months to prepare for these changes, communities are wrapped up in the notion that the Common Core is the primary determinant of a child’s success.

Now, in theory, I agree with the idea of a common educational standard.  As a former commercial banker turned fourth grade teacher turned nursery school teacher and mother of elementary as well as preschool aged children, I welcome the idea of an educator generated, developmentally appropriate uniform set of learning standards that applies to all students regardless of the state in which they live.  So at the very least, if a child moved, he could enter a new classroom on par with his classmates.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there.  After reading the documents and listening to teachers who are active in the classroom, it’s clear that, like in the past, the majority of requirements are still developmentally inappropriate.  Plus I’m hard pressed to believe that they are truly teacher generated.  Furthermore, the related tests are unnecessarily hard, even when compared with the tests created in conjunction with No Child Left Behind, which were rigorous in our state and also, by the way, questioned by teachers at the time.

But it will be ok.  I promise.  Veteran educators will tell you that there have always been evolving standards, requirements, pedagogy, and new ways to assess teacher performance.  In the twelve years that I’ve been in education, all or part of our state’s standards and the related tests has already changed three times.

Strong teachers with thoughtful and consistent administrations who put children first will carefully plan and adapt their curriculum as necessary to accommodate change and continue to work tirelessly to give students what they need regardless of how these changes may affect their jobs.  Furthermore, professionals dedicated to educating children will communicate to them that The Fancy People tests, as my former students and I affectionately called them, are a snapshot in time; a moment that does not define who they are, determine whether or not they go to college, or have any bearing on their level of success as adults.  Most importantly, these people will continue to encourage children instead to get wrapped up in simple school global readiness tasks like building a leaf pile.  Let me explain.

Earlier this month, Bubbe our socially sensitive, creatively thoughtful, and independent minded child enthusiastically chatted me up on the walk home from school about such an endeavor.  What started as a solo project soon turned into an effort of about thirteen kids strong.  First, a girl, he didn’t know impressively initiated a conversation and asked to play.  As their leaf pile grew, it caught the attention of another classmate who is known to be an interrupter of sorts with a thin verbal filter.  Then a third friend joined; a sweet, atypically developing child who had confidently constructed with Bubbe in the past.  The kids were having fun when a conflict ensued.

“What a stupid pile!” a boy yelled, jumping into the leaves without asking.

“Hey!  That’s not nice,” the group said.  “The pile’s not done.  And you have to ask first.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry,” he said.  “Can I help too?”

The group quickly forgave him.  “Sure you can.”

When the pile jumping got old, the Interrupter came up with an idea.  “Let’s make a leaf water slide!” he said.  Together, the group transferred the leaves to the playground slide.  They first tested the leaves alone; then the kids took turns sliding with them and into a pile at the bottom.  Recognizing the fun, a bunch of football and soccer players stopped their game and joined in.

What did Bubbe’s teacher and the recess aides do?  They watched knowingly and lovingly.  And as they blew the whistle to line up, the gaggle had one final leaf fight, threw the leaves in the air and yelled, “It’s Fall time!”

As far as I’m concerned, that experience prepared those children for college and careers in a global, competitive environment better than all the Fancy People standards and tests combined.  Twenty minutes of leaf play taught them to lead, initiate, share, imagine, invent, create, communicate, collaborate, take risks, play a part, make mistakes, forgive, be forgiven, and get along with different kinds of people.

Think about it.  Aren’t these the most useful and lasting determinants for success?  Aren’t these the skills we adults look for when hiring someone?  And aren’t these the traits we want in a classmate and coworker? 

So to the school official who feels pressured, the father who is hell bent on preparing his five-year old for our competitive world, and the worried mommies, please remember that stress breeds stress.  Tests and standards will become a distant memory.  Playing in the leaves with friends at recess will not.

But The Fancy People are at it again.  So what do you do?

First, read the Common Core Standards, at least for your child’s grade level, understand who crafted them, and learn more about the current College Board President’s role.

Two, advocate: positively, proactively, and collectively.  Sit down with your principal, superintendent, curriculum coordinator, and Board of Education representatives.  Find out their long term education plan, ask about curriculum adaptations, adoptions and timing, understand their philosophy about teaching children, and while you’re at it, inquire about how the current reform relates to funding sources and state mandates.

And finally, do the most essential thing we can do to prepare our children for the real world; get wrapped up with them…in the leaves.

Common Core Standards

Education Advocacy and Reform

Local Efforts