Recently we have heard news of more and more parents taking a stand against standardized testing, acting in what they believe to be the best interests of their children. Two of the leaders of this movement are Tim and Michelle Slekar, of Pennsylvania. I asked them if they would share their perspective.
What led you and your wife to take a public stand on opting out?
Tim Slekar: There is a simple answer and then there are all the academic and philosophical reasons. Let's start with the simple answer. Last year my wife (Michelle) and I went in for a parent teacher conference with one of Luke's teachers. We were concerned because he was really starting to demonstrate some negative attitudes towards reading and language arts. During the conference it became very obvious why he was having issues. While I was talking about the fragile nature of literacy and middle school boys, Luke's teacher spoke up and rather candidly said, "I understand what you are saying but my job is to get Luke ready for the PSSA. I don't have time to teach literature." Michelle walked out and I stayed to point out all the research that essentially condemned teaching to the test as a method of teaching language arts to middle school boys. I knew it wasn't going to make a difference but I had to try to at least let Luke's teacher know that teaching to the test was not only unacceptable to us as parents but that as a pedagogical strategy was not in any of her students' best interests. It was that specific interaction that caused us to "opt out" Luke from PSSA tests.
Also, I have relentlessly critiqued the "reform" movement for the last 20 years. I have been a 2nd grade, 5th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade teacher, teacher educator, and administrator in higher education. I know the research. I have worked with children. I have worked with new teachers. I frequently visit the local schools as part of my job being Coordinator of the Education Program at Penn State Altoona. I work with public school administrators. I have seen first hand the slow and steady dismantling of the public school system. I finally said to myself, "No more. You will not use Luke as a pawn to produce test scores that will be used to eventually punish his school." The testing and accountability movement was never about "high standards" and "closing the achievement gap." From the beginning this movement was a deceptive attempt (and it worked pretty well) to convince the public that public schools were failing and the tests and results were used as "objective evidence" to prove that something drastic had to be done. The real problem however, was that the testing and accountability movement was the drastic action that was taking place.
Michelle Slekar: After four years of being involved in the schools as a room mom/grade wing rep/PTO & PVC volunteer and 3 years working in the schools as a special education paraprofessional, I saw teachers faces change and hearts break as they were forced by the state to give a test that does not help the children and that they can not help the children. I saw the teachers aching to help and angry at not being allowed to help. As teachers slowly learned the goal of the PSSA it got more intense: they were afraid to lose their jobs, they were afraid to speak out. The teachers were angry because they no longer controlled their classrooms and no longer were respected as professionals and to add insult to injury they were not even allowed to see the tests after scoring to use for their own evaluation of their students. The biggest reason of all, to stand up was to put the smiles back on the children's faces, to take the hurt and anxiety away, to put real learning back in the classrooms and the teaching back into their teachers' hands (who they look up to). To give them time to do projects they can be proud of and allow papers to be written from the heart, to allow learning and comprehension and questioning to drive the classrooms again. To put the heart of learning back into the schools. To get rid of the PSSA and allow self confidence to shine through and positive learning to drive the school.
How have you seen tests affecting your children?
Tim Slekar: That's an interesting question. Luke and Lacey are both successful when it comes to school. They don't get anxious about school and tests, but that is probably because Michelle and I have told them from the time they started school that they should never worry about school. We told them directly that when they take standardized tests to "do your best but don't get upset if you don't know some answers. It's okay." We have also told them that as their parents that the scores mean nothing to us. Instead we want them to learn and enjoy school and find it a place where their curiosity could run wild. So, no, the tests have not affected them in that way. However, as I said earlier the test prep has all but destroyed Luke's belief in the academic aspect of schooling. He does fine, but after 7 years he "gets it" and knows that most of his teachers are teaching for the test.
Lacey (our daughter) so far has been lucky. She's had good experiences and a great 2nd grade teacher last year. She had a teacher that refused to teach surface material. She gave Lacey a great experience. In fact I wrote about it here. This year Lacey is in third grade. I'll be blogging about her experience as the year proceeds.
Michelle Slekar: Luke had fantastic teachers in elementary school, engaging and creative and full of life but when PSSA's came around his teachers changed, he changed. He was not the happy go lucky kid, it was harder to wake him up the morning, he questioned the point of going to school other than to see his friends. He loves Science, he's a thinker but he would say his favorite subjects were gym and recess. He resented having to sit at a desk so long and without talking and not being allowed to leave the room, even if he was done with the test. He felt it was unfair to make them take a test that ultimately did not benefit him, his teachers, and school. He felt betrayed when he realized the goal of the test was to close his school down! Fire his teachers. Would he lose some of his friends? What school would he go to then? Would he still be able to play sports?
Lacey had a different experience. In first and second grade she would comment on how Luke didn't seem to like school and she thought it was weird that he had to take those long tests and she felt lucky that she didn't have to take them and that her teachers let them read and create and write stories and draw pictures. She even wrote a story about a Gingerbread girl that I am working on getting published (with the recommendation of her teacher). I am worried for her this year as she loves to learn and create and I wonder what is going to happen as she enters the world of "test prep time". Will she lose her love of learning? Will she be mad at the school? Will she be mad that her teacher can't do the normal stuff because they have to prepare for the test? We are opting her out this year as well. I'm nervous for her but ready to stand up for the amazing teachers in our school district.
What are the consequences for schools when parents opt their children out of testing?
Tim Slekar: The consequences for schools are pretty straight-forward. According to NCLB regulations, 95% of student populations (minority, English language learners, special education students in a school must participate in testing programs. If 6% of a student population does not take the tests, the school automatically fails to make AYP. Failure to make AYP in consecutive years results in mounting sanctions--eventually closing the school. This is where "opting out" gets a little tricky and people get confused as to our motives. On the surface "opting out" appears to be directed at public schools. However, as I stated earlier, opting out is the only form of action that can save public schools from high stakes testing. Teachers and administrators that actively work against the system can be reprimanded or worse. Politicians on both sides of the aisle won't listen. Therefore, when a parent opts out, it is the ultimate action in support of public schools.
What are the legal rights parents have regarding these tests?
Tim Slekar: This is a tough question. NCLB is a federal law but education is the specific responsibility of the states. So each state sets policy on testing procedures. Here in Pennsylvania there is language the specifically allows parents to opt their child out of PSSA testing for religious reasons. Other states do not have specific language or policies and typically tell parents that opting out is not permitted. However, federal law specifically gives parents the ultimate authority in making decisions about education. A logical application of this should mean that all parents have the right to opt out.
There has been a recent upsurge in interest in opting out. What is happening?
Tim Slekar: I think there are a number of people involved in public schooling (parents, teachers, even some administrators) that are finally realizing that the standards movement and high stakes testing is not helping. In fact, I talk to more parents and teachers that are outright critical of the entire process. Parents see the time wasted on test prep and the shrinking curriculum. Teachers are tired of being treated as low-level technicians and being labeled as "crappy." And some communities see the damage a full-fledged "reformation" of public schools has on local neighborhoods--closing schools hurts communities.
Considering all of the above, citizens are looking for a way to make strong statement of support for public schools. By opting out of corporate reforms (high stakes testing), you are demonstrating your disdain for the reformers' approach to the dismantling of public schools, and demanding that neighborhood schools be given back to the local communities. Politicians aren't listening. The media isn't listening. Therefore strong acts of civil disobedience are the only tools left in this battle to save public schools.
How are schools responding to the "opt out" movement?
Tim Slekar: We don't really have good data to make any generalizations about schools' reactions. Anecdotally, and off the record I have met a few administrators and many teachers that are very supportive of the "opt out" movement. However, some schools still don't really understand the "opt out" movement. They still see it as an attack on the school instead of as a protest against the schools being taken over by corporate reformers. Also, some states are not sure what to make of the movement. We really caught them off guard. They never planned for this type of negative reaction by parents and many states lack any real policies regarding opting out. This has led a few states to "assume" the state has the power to enforce mandatory testing and not allow parents to opt out. However there is a decent amount of Federal law that upholds the parent as the ultimate authority over their child's education. It makes for some interesting debate when parents confront state departments of education.
I would add that if you are an administrator or a school board member, please understand that opting out is not an attack on you or your school. It is an act of civil disobedience to call attention to the damage being done to community based public schools by the high stakes testing regime implemented by the corporate reformers.
How can parents find out more?
Tim Slekar: Great question. A group of activists (United Opt Out) consisting of teachers, parents, teacher educators and concerned citizens have organized a Facebook site and a website called United Opt Out National to help explain "opting out" and how to take action and support the "opt out" movement. Also, anyone can email me at email@example.com.
What do you think? Could the Opt Out movement have an impact on our test-driven education system?
Tim Slekar is a founding member of United Opt Out. He is also the
Head of the Division of Education, Human Development, and Social
Sciences, and Chair of The Education program at Penn State Altoona.
Tim also presented and marched at the Save Our Schools rally in July.
Michelle Slekar just finished 3 years in the role of Behavioral
Support Multi-task Special Education Paraprofessional in the Bellwood-
Antis School District. She has returned to the role of stay-at-home
mom to help support her husband Tim in the fight against NCLB and to
take care of their family. She plans to opt out both her children
(Luke and Lacey) this school year and proudly marched in the Save Our Schools March this past July in support of public schools and public school teachers.
Image of the Slekar family used by permission.