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Opt-Out of Testing? What Happens Next?

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A growing number of parents are refusing to have their children take the high stakes tests that are being given in schools across the country. They will keep their children home on test day or request the child not be tested. They view this action as a way of pushing back against over-testing of students and the anxiety some children experience in the high stakes environment. We cannot pick up a newspaper, or magazine, or search a blog, without reading about testing children. Now, jobs of teachers and principals are tied to the results.

There is a misunderstanding among some parents who believe there is actually an opt-out option. In New York State, for example, there is not. The New York State Education Department issued a statement in January 2013, "There is no provision in statute or regulation allowing parents to opt their children out of State tests. The failure to comply with the requirements provided ... will have a negative impact on a school or school district's accountability, as all schools are required to have a 95% participation rate in State testing."

That means if parents call or write to the principal that they do not want their child tested, students must simply sit while their classmates take the test. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Education Department has stated that "Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying, 'I don't want to know where my child stands, in objective terms, on the path to college and career readiness' and we think that that's doing them a real disservice."

So, here we are in the middle. Our place is between compliance with law and regulation and parents who want to make choices for their children. It is where leaders live. This is neither a comment on the over-testing of students nor of the refusal of the parents to have their children tested. We are not in control of either. As leaders however, we need to consider the consequences.

Building principals have a responsibility to lead buildings in which character is modeled and taught. We require students to follow the rules, just as we follow them ourselves. We need parents to support us as we usher children through their growing pains. But now, students are being asked to ignore us and we are being asked to force them to sit through testing when in our hearts, we, too, may question this testing program. They will internalize this deep divide between the authority figures in their lives.

As a profession we are obedient and we will be again in this testing mania. As a profession we have been asked, time and time again, to implement programs and practices that seem to interfere with, rather than contribute to, success and eat away at the core of what works in our schools. Many of these programs or tasks have been developed with good intentions. And many of these programs have been developed for accountability, which is not a bad thing.

However, we have come upon a situation where parents, growing in number, are instructing their children to abstain from testing participation. Is this a path to erosion of principal and teacher authority or is it the resurgence of civil disobedience such as that seen in the civil rights movement? In either case, where are the limits, and what are the rules and consequences on this redefined playing field? We do not know the answers yet.

If we allow the message and the lesson to come from the parents alone, we are giving up an opportunity to have control, of at least the paddle, as this canoe glides toward the falls. While we don't have much control, we do have influence. We have both an obligation to administer the tests and compassion for the children who are under intense pressure in the environment. We may even have philosophical sympathy with the parents who are opting out but that cannot matter in our actions. We know the parents are angry at the tests and at the state governments requiring them. Some are angry with us for giving them. We can't know if any other context is being set for the children.

We have to be honest with ourselves. If we come across as automatons, parroting the words of the mandates, we will not be trusted. It is important to continue to work with the parents, all of them, about the testing, their feelings, fears, all of it. We must figure out how to manage a handful of students refusing our request for them to sit for a test now; because next year there may be more of them. It is unfair to the children to allow them to be in this position without our guidance. We can inform their parents but we can't count on their message to the children. So in our schools we will have those who sit, agonizing for days of testing and those who sit beside them and don't take the test. All the students are ours. And, we feel in the middle between the state and the parents; we cannot be part of putting the children in the middle between their parents and us.

This is a teaching time. Simply shrugging our shoulders and moving forward will not do. We need to pay attention to what is happening, we need to educate and unite with our parents, we need to have our students know they are cared for and respected, and we need to be sure everyone, our teachers, parents and certainly our students feel that we are all in this together.

Ann and Jill welcome your Tweets!

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