Tag Archives: opting out

Opt Out Numbers in Minnesota High Schools Skyrocket

March 11, 2017

As testing season begins in full force across Minnesota, publicly available data from the state Department of Education indicates a striking trend: the number of high school juniors refusing to sit for the state and federally mandated MCA tests is growing–rapidly.

Sidebar: In order to qualify for federal Title funding, Minnesota is required to give annual, standardized tests (MCAs) to public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, for reading; grades 3-8 and 11 in math, and science in grades 5, 8 and once in high school (English Language Learners are given many additional ACCESS tests each year, K-12). Although the state is required to give the tests, parents and students in Minnesota have the right to refuse to participate in them.

The Monticello, MN schools recently canceled science in favor of MCA test prep

In 2016, 2,227 high school juniors opted out of the MCA tests statewide. That’s just a drop in the bucket, compared to the 55,975 students who did take it. But it is more than three times the number of eleventh grade students–694–who opted out of the MCAs in 2015. 

This is a startling jump, taking place in schools and cities as diverse as suburban St. Louis Park, rural Pine City and Minneapolis. (The examples below pertain only to the Math MCA tests for high school juniors.)

In 2016, ten Pine City juniors refused the MCA tests; that’s a small but significant bump up from the three students who refused the tests in 2015. At St. Louis Park High School in 2016, 66 juniors opted out. But in 2015, just one student refused the MCAs.

An eye-popping 209 juniors at Minneapolis’s Henry High School opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. That’s a huge leap from 2015, when just eleven students refused the tests. Only seven percent of Henry’s 1,100 students identify as white and eighty percent live in poverty, according to federal standards. This might help poke holes in the story that onlysuburban momsand white, wealthier kids are pushing the opt out movement. And, across town at Roosevelt High School, 98 juniors opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. Like Henry, Roosevelt is not a majority white school and almost seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over at South High School–Minneapolis’s largest and most diverse–so few students took the MCAs in 2016 that there are simply blank spaces on the Department of Education’s spreadsheet for the school. That’s because, when fewer than ten students take the tests, the data has to be blocked out for privacy reasons. In 2015, 306 students–or nearly ninety percent of eligible juniors–at South did not take the tests. (The city’s Washburn High also had 81 MCA math test refusals in 2016; in 2015, there were eleven.)

Minneapolis’s two smaller high schools–Edison and North High schools–had very few opt outs in 2016 and 2015 (0 at North, both years), while Southwest High School has had large and growing numbers of opt outs–191 in 2015 and 251 in 2016. High schools in St. Paul are also reporting an increase–often from zero up to double digits–in the numbers of students refusing the tests, but the opt out movement appears to have more legs in Minneapolis.

Point of confusion: In Minnesota, districts can set their own graduation requirements, and, reportedly, some are putting MCA scores on high school transcripts to indicate whether or not a student is “college and career ready.” A student’s MCA scores can also be used, per Minnesota statute, as part of a course grade or as a way to try to avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Students, however, still do not have to take the MCA tests (test refusal can be noted on a transcript as well). Most college-bound high school students undoubtedly choose to focus their energies on either the ACT or SAT test, even as more and more colleges are becoming “test optional.”

Districts in the metro area and beyond also reported large numbers of opt outs among eleventh graders in 2016. Examples: last year, Hopkins High School had 158 refusals, up from zero in 2015; Wayzata High School had a tiny number of opt outs in 2016–just 12, out of 786 eligible juniors–but that’s up from zero opt outs the year before. Blaine High School, a large, suburban school north of the Twin Cities, saw 100 MCA refusals in 2016; Burnsville High School, south of the Twin Cities, had 30.

Not much of a crowd–except when you consider that zero Burnsville students and only three Blaine juniors refused the MCAs in 2015.

This week, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on standardized testing in Minnesota. The report noted that the state spent $19.2 million on testing in 2016, with one-third of that paid for with federal dollars. Ninety percent of this tab went to the companies such as Pearson that produce the tests and help the state assess test score data. 

The auditor’s report revealed a number of problems with standardized testing in Minnesota, including the conclusion that the legislature has piled too many tasks and expectations on the MCA tests in particular. MCA scores are now expected to show proficiency on the state standards, as well as growth (through the addition of test questions that push students above or below grade level) and a student’s “college and career readiness.”

From the state report on standardized testing (page S-4):

The Legislature has required MDE to develop tests and report test scores in certain ways. Some of these requirements are ill-advised.

State law requires that the MCAs include questions above and below a student’s grade level. However, due to federal requirements, MDE has been unable to use these questions in calculating most of the test scores it reports. As a result, statewide tests have been lengthened for all students without much benefit.

Dolores Ramos, 16, right, joins dozens of Highland High School students in Albuquerque, N.M., as students staged a walkout Monday March 2, 2015, to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Albuquerque, New Mexico high school students; AP photo

State law also requires MDE to report a score based on the MCA describing each student’s progress toward career and college readiness. But such scores for elementary and middle school students are methodologically problematic. Projections extending far into the future have a high level of uncertainty, and some of them are likely to be wrong.

MCA tests scores are also used in teacher evaluations (per state requirement) and, in some districts, to evaluate principals, too. Another key finding from this report? Across the state, “Many principals and teachers do not feel prepared to interpret much of the testing data reported by MDE.”

In response to this, at a March 5 presentation of the auditor’s report, Republican state representative Sondra Erickson (who has served on ALEC’s education task force) suggested that perhaps teachers need more training in how to interpret test data.

If more students continue to refuse the tests, perhaps such further training will not be necessary. 

The level of testing nonparticipation among high school students in Minneapolis Public Schools has reached the point where it is no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of districtwide student learning.

–Office of the Legislative Auditor’s 2017 report on standardized testing in Minnesota (79)

Meanwhile in Minnesota: Lack of school counselors have experts worried,” as the state has no mandate to fund counselors or maintain a certain number per student.

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It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

With Betsy DeVos in the background, whitewashing segregation and the Jim Crow era, the annual standardized testing season is here, ready to do its part to keep our schools separate and unequal. 

How’s that? Consider two local lessons in how the testing regime is propped up in our public schools on some pretty shaky ethics.

First, parents in the Becker, Minnesota school district recently received a jaw-dropping letter in their kids’ backpacks. The letter announced that the district would shortly be “adjusting (its) academic schedule,” by dropping–temporarily!–science and social studies classes in favor of an extra “Power Hour” of math and reading for each kid.

“Grade level teachers will work during this time to teach skills in the area of reading and math at your child’s instructional level,” the letter states, before assuring parents that district staff are “committed to working together to best meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Hmm. What theory of education or child development would suggest that the best needs of all kids would involve doubling down on math and reading test prep, to gin up scores on outsourced standardized tests made by for-profit corporations?

Here is the letter that was sent home:

Becker is a majority white, middle class, exurban district. Research shows that students in districts such as this often rake in the highest scores on standardized tests, and state education data for Becker backs this up. In 2015-2016, the Becker schools “surpassed the state average in every grade level for every test,” crowed a statement on the district’s website. What’s more, “most grade levels improved the number of students proficient in comparison to last year.” (That means they achieved “growth,” but don’t ask DeVos to explain any of this.)

But at what price? Replacing science and social studies with a super, extra fun Power Hour of reading and math does not seem like an ethical way to ensure dominance on top of the standardized test heap.

Parents in the Becker schools didn’t like it, either. A source tells me that as soon as the Power Hour letter hit home, parents loudly informed the district that they did not approve of their kids being given concentrated doses of test prep. In response, the district reinstated science and social studies (even though data showed there “would be a benefit to incorporating a ‘Power Hour’ of intensive instruction to our day”), and sent the following chagrined letter home:

 

I don’t know the opt out rates in Becker–the data does not appear to be easily available–but in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, a growing number of students are choosing not to take the annual MCA tests. This has been building for years, especially for high school students who are–surprisingly!–savvy enough to realize that the MCA tests are of little consequence to their lives and their futures. MCA test scores are not required for graduation, nor are they part of college admission decisions. In other words, they don’t really matter.

And that’s partly because everything else matters so much. In 2015, I interviewed a handful of students from Southwest High School about their decision to blow off the MCAs, and their answers were very revealing:

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

Here’s the ethics connection. In a February message sent to teachers at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, the school’s testing coordinator informed them that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) had recently added “encouraging parents or students to refuse the test” to its list of “unethical” test administration practices. This is the email sent to Southwest teachers:

Hello All,

The MCA testing window opens March 6th (overlapping with ACCESS, ACT & Make-up ACT administration) through May 5th.

Additional information will be provided in the next week or so with specifics on student testing dates, locations, proctor assignments, and other ways we can support each other in this effort.

To whet your appetite for that additional information, below are a few points regarding Parent Refusal Forms picked up from yesterday’s training session at The District.

  • MDE has added encouraging Opt Outs to the list of unethical practices in test administration.
  • Schools are expected to have a 95% participation rate to qualify for MMR funds.
  • To underscore the point, REA sent me the following message (highlights, theirs): 

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

The testing coordinator acknowledges that this message is being sent to Southwest teachers because “in the past SW has had a lot of opt outs.” And that must be stopped by threatening to withhold funds, apparently.

It is clear that we have built a whole industry around testing, as our schools have become more racially and economically segregated–partly because test scores are made public, allowing parents to “opt out” of schools with low test scores. And who is most likely to attend a school with low test scores? In Minnesota, like most other places, it is marginalized students of color living in underserved communities.

The more we double down on trying to force students and teachers to comply with standardized testing, the more, it seems, we avoid difficult conversations about ethical concerns around segregation and the unequal (current and historic) allocation of resources, not to mention the fallacy of reducing educational achievement to multiple choice tests. 

Ceresta Smith is a Florida-based teacher and leader in the Opt Out movement (we met a few years ago at an education justice conference). On Monday morning, after Moonlight was awkwardly awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, this is what she wrote on Facebook:

Big ups to Moonlight!!!🤗These folks came through arts magnet programs in majority Black community schools with majority Black faculties composed of great teachers! Big up to the arts!!! Down with culturally biased worthless testing! Those tests do not make award winning art and artists!!! The teachers and students just put Miami in the big league for talent for writing, acting, and sharing truth about growing up poor and gay! Wow, big task for schools, Miami Northwestern High and Norland Middle, which a fraudulent grading system likes to label as less than.

In our questionably ethical pursuit of test scores, silence, secrecy and compliance, are we missing key conversations about what students, parents, teachers actually want from our schools?

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Students on testing: Taking tests is not a job skill

Testing from the inside out: This week, on May 20, the debate team at Minneapolis’ Northeast Middle School is hosting a “community panel on standardized testing.” With the help of French teacher and debate team coach Michael Grandys, these kids–whose school lives have been defined by testing–will be going directly in to the belly of the beast, and taking the rest of us with them. (I will be on the panel on the 20th, and, more importantly, so will a lot of other people, including students.)

After I met a few of these kids at a pre-panel event, I couldn’t resist asking them why they wanted to host a debate about testing. I just assumed that, since they have grown up within the low expectation-slashing embrace of No Child Left Behind, being tested would be as natural a thing as breathing for these kids. Turns out it’s not that simple.

NEMS 2nd

These kids have brains in their heads and feet in their shoes.

Here’s what the students I spoke with–8th grader Margret Ritschel and 7th graders Eleanor Craig and Ginger Benson-Nicheallochain–had to say. My questions and prompts are in bold; their answers (not in multiple choice format, unfortunately) are the bullet points that follow.

Tell me how you got interested in the topic of testing.

  • I have hated testing since I was little and thought the whole thing was really unfair.
  • I got involved in the panel on standardized testing after our coach, Mr. Grandys, went and saw Jesse Hagopian speak in March. He then talked with us about testing, and I got intrigued with it. I did a bunch of research and just got really passionate about it. That’s why I’ve decided to speak out about it.
  • There is just so much pressure with testing. Our teachers feel a lot of pressure to teach to the test, but the tests don’t match up with what we’re doing in class.

How do the tests not match up with what you are doing in class?

  • We are all in advanced math classes, so the (federally mandated) MCA tests don’t match what level we are at. The test is for grade-level work only, and we are all working above grade level. So, before the tests, we get crammed with knowledge, and told “we’re doing this because it’s on the test.”

Wait. When I asked the Minnesota Department of Education about testing last year, their message was clear: they do not endorse or support the use of test prep. But it sounds like that message didn’t reach your school.

  • No, we do test prep packets for three months out of the year, to get ready for the tests. The packets are 10-20 pages long, and we have to do them every day.
  • The test prep packets are huge, and kids don’t have time to do them because we still have all of our other work to do. So, this leads to copying and searching on the Internet for answers.
  • We get graded on the test prep packets, but we don’t have time to for them. 

Why do you think you have to do so much test prep?

  • We hear the message all the time: You have to do well on these tests so our school can succeed and teachers can keep their jobs. One teacher said, “I kind of want a job next year, so do well on the test, everyone.”
  • It’s so much pressure on students, but the teachers can’t help it. They have to do this

    “We know that adults learn best, just like children do, when they are engaged in a natural learning cycle that includes goal-setting, exploration, and reflection.”

    because they are getting graded on our scores.

Some people say the tests are needed, to see how students are doing and what they’re learning. What do you think?

  • Testing is not learning. The quizzes and tests that teachers make are more fair, and they are about what we’re doing in class. And teachers don’t lose their jobs if we fail a spelling test. But with standardized tests, teachers can be fired if we don’t do well.
  • There are two worlds: the testing world, and the real world. In real life, you can ask for help. On the tests, you can’t.
  • With the tests, no one knows what’s on them. We don’t know what we got wrong or why. 
  • Life isn’t multiple choice. In life, you have to think. And these tests don’t help you think. They don’t teach us how to apply information. 
  • I don’t like that you can’t ask for help, so there’s no learning. In life, we can always find help or look up information we need.
  • I have friends who get good grades and take all advanced classes, but do bad on tests. Why should so much depend on the tests?

So you’re not buying in to the idea that these tests provide useful information to you, your teachers, or anyone?

  • Testing was initially a good idea, because we do need to assess students. But it all got mangled. If I hadn’t opted out of the testing this year, I would have had to take 11 standardized tests. It’s too much.
  • Assessing students is a great idea, but not to the point of affecting students’ mental health and causing anxiety.
  • There is a difference between assessing and ranking, and these tests are about ranking. I know they do this in high school. My brother happens to be near the top of his class, but how would you feel if you were number 138 or something? It is not encouraging.
  • So much falls on one day. Kids are crying and feeling pressure, and if you have a bad test day, you can then be put into a special class, for extra reading or math. But there are a lot of smart kids who don’t test well.
  • These tests are used to judge students, but do we ever blame the people who make the tests? If a bunch of students don’t do well, do we ever stop and think the tests might be bad? Instead, we are blaming students, but maybe the tests aren’t good.
  • MAP tests (given up to 3 times a year purportedly to show growth) are the worst because there is no stopping. The test keeps getting harder if you get a question right, but then it drops you right down if you get a question wrong. Right away you feel like “I’m doing bad.” It’s a negative mentality.

Tell me more.

  • If 100 was a perfect score on the MCA tests, and 50 was passing, then they’ll focus on the kids who are getting 40 points, and ignore the kids in the 20 range. Those kids, getting a 20, will keep getting lower and lower if you ignore them, and then the higher scoring kids don’t get attention either. It’s all about the kids close to passing, and having them boost their test scores.
  • Teachers should test us on what they’ve been teaching us in class. 
  • After the tests are over, a lot of kids just think school is over. It’s like school doesn’t matter once the tests are done. One kid didn’t bring his math book to class after the tests and when the teacher asked him about it he said, “We did the test! I thought we weren’t learning anything anymore.”
  • High test scores equal a good school in parents’ minds, but schools shouldn’t be judged this way.
  • Tests won’t be part of our lives when we’re older. Taking tests is not a job skill.

And…

  • Tests are draining. We have to sit for an hour and a half at a time, silently.
  • Some students miss lunch because they can’t get up and leave if they are in the middle of a test section.
  • Afterwards, your brain is mush. Fried. You need to run around and have a break, but we have to go to another class. Then that teacher can’t really do anything useful like an essay or project because we are all so tired.
  • Taking these tests means staring at a computer screen for an hour and a half straight. Last time, I had to ask my teacher for a break afterwards because my eyes hurt and were stinging. 
  • I actually miss the paper tests because of this. 
  • The computer lab and the library are closed during testing season, so we can’t use them to do our other work. And some kids don’t have a computer or Wi-Fi at home, making it hard for them to do their homework.

What do you think should be done instead?

  • I think testing uses the wrong incentives. It’s all negative because the message is, if you don’t do well then the school will lose funding, and teachers will get fired, and your parents won’t be happy. There isn’t any joy or inspiration this way.
  • It’s better when teachers know us and know why we did or didn’t do well on something. 
  • I read about these schools in New York that use essays and projects to assess students. That seems good. 
  • Yes! We’ve seen the science classes give presentations, and it’s amazing to see. The presentations are actually showing a student’s passion and it’s great. 

    Alternative assessment in action, at a private school.

  • You could learn how students are doing without ranking them.
  • Maybe there’s a different way we could fund our schools so we wouldn’t have to have these tests.
  • One option would be to just reduce the number of tests. There are a lot of useless tests given that could be taken away.
  • I see so many problems with testing, like the Pearson glitches we’ve had this year. Now they’re saying that maybe none of the tests this year will count. If testing has all of these unnecessary consequences, why are we using them?

What about opting out? Has that caught on at Northeast Middle School?

  • We’ve just started talking about it, in April of this year, so it’s a very new topic here.
  • Seven students, total, opted out at our school. A lot of students just don’t know anything besides tests, so opting out is a really new idea.
  • Some students think they have to do the test to get into high school or college. Students don’t have enough information.

Smart kids. Come to Northeast Middle School on May 20, and listen in as they burst the bubble (sheet, that is) around the promise of high stakes standardized testing. 

When: Wednesday, May 20, 7 p.m.

Where: Northeast Middle School Auditorium, 2955 Hayes Street NE, Minneapolis

Tiger Beat: Education Activist Edition

Quiz: How Obsessed with fighting Education Reform are YOU?

If your answer is a) A LOT, then you were probably in Chicago last weekend, for the 2nd annual Network for Public Education conference. 

I was there too. Wasn’t it just the best ever?!

Sadly, all good things must end. Boo. Just as I was getting used to being surrounded by some of the most incredible ed activists raising hell today,  I found myself back home alone in my little kitchen, chopping onions and sorting the mail.

But I’m not ready to let go yet.  No way. Instead, I am stealing a page from Tiger Beat magazine as a way to capture the giddy joy I felt all weekend, in the presence of greatness.

True confession: Tiger Beat meant a lot to me as a kid,  when we used to have to anxiously wait (what’s that?) for the latest edition to come out. We would then bike up to the local Tom Thumb convenience store and buy it, along with a package of Bub’s Daddy gum. Oh the joy of paging through the mag, highlighting our fave singers and actors!! Now, my attentions have shifted from the big screen to those who occupy school board meetings and fill up my Twitter feed with fighting words, but I still kind of dig the Tiger Beat format. Especially the quizzes!

Quiz: Which education activist is YOUR ultimate soul mate?

A) Diane Ravitch. She’s funny but serious, all at the same time. Diane is smart and not afraid to be seen in a NPE t-shirt! Woo-hoo! She also did a great job with Chicago’s finest, Karen Lewis.

Jitu!

B) Jitu Brown. This Chicago activist is so cool it’s hard to look away (so don’t!). Jitu is super smart and dead on, with loads of practical experience and a tireless commitment to fighting for the community schools all kids deserve. Everything he says just bounces off the walls and sticks right to you. Love it! 

C) Neshellda Johnson. Neshellda is a new activist on the national scene, and she is definitely worth getting to know better. Neshellda is a teacher from Memphis and was caught on tape this year, giving hell to the forces of privatization trying to charterize her school district. Neshellda!! (I can’t find the video; if anyone has it, I’d love to see it again.)

D) The Triple Threat: Jose Luis Vilson (The JLV), Jennifer Berkshire (Edushyster), and Peter Greene (Curmudgication). Don’t try to counsel these three out of their activism! All of them are a hoot, with depth of knowledge and pushback to spare. Smart, funny, and totally rad, their lunchtime convo on Saturday was tasty.

E) Tanaisa Brown from Newark, New Jersey. All year I have been bowing at the feet (virtually, of course) of Tanaisa and her fellow student activists, who got big props at the conference for occupying the office of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson! Tanaisa opened the NPE conference with a soul-stirring speech that included the chant, “I believe that we will win!” With Tanaisa in the lead, I totally agree!

Tanaisa and her activist crew!

Poll: Which national union leader is your fave? Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen-Garcia?

Both promised not to accept any more “funny money” for the AFT or the NEA, respectively, so it’s kind of hard to choose. This one might be just too hot to handle, so maybe we’ll let our good friend Mercedes Schneider advise us this time around…

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Where do Randi and Lily stand on the Opt Out movement?

QUOTE-WORTHY! Jesse Hagopian, Seattle high school teacher extraordinaire, led a super inspiring breakout session on testing, opting out, and the connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, along with his fellow Seattle education activist Rita Green, education chair of the Seattle King County NAACP. 

At their session, someone floored the room with this tidbit:

Testing has become a cover for society’s inability to deal with poverty and inequality.

Feel it, and watch this:

 

So accountability should start with politicians fully funding our schools, huh? BREAKING NEWS!

Hope to see you next year! Until then–carry on, everyone.

 

Sidwell Friends or Success Academy: Opting out or doubling down

“Mom? It’s me. My teacher wanted me to call to tell you that I learned decimals today.”

1295742

Slaying math with a single arrow?

Ahh…sigh of relief. My 4th grade son called from school today, and it was good news this time. More than that, it was good news about math (I’ve written about my son’s rocky relationship with math before). He has had some pretty serious math anxiety this year (which looks like pretty disruptive and avoidant behavior in the classroom), and I had even suggested to his teacher that she not worry about teaching him math for a few weeks. She and I both agreed that a break from math lessons might be just the trick for him. 

It seems it was. Taking a break took some pressure off, and his confidence is coming back. First, it was fractions. Now, it’s decimals. What I am most happy about, though, is that he is, hopefully, learning how to learn, and stick with something that seems impossibly difficult (such a struggle for a kid who is an unyielding perfectionist).

It is important to note that his math breakthroughs are coming just as the annual testing season is ramping up at his school. Because we have opted him out of all high stakes testing, he has not been down in the school’s only computer lab this week, staring at a screen and clicking on answers. Instead, he has been digging in to what he truly needs to work on: his own patience, confidence, and citizenship as a member of his classroom community (there have been a few outbursts this year…). He’s doing this by learning math, and I think it’s great.

Yesterday, in the car, he brought up the topic of testing, and said, “I can read so fast that my brain can’t keep up” (he’s a language arts kid, like I was). 

Exactly, I told him. That’s why the tests don’t really seem necessary. Between me, you, and your teacher, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what is going well and what you need to work on.

He got it, and agreed.

Turns out we’re kind of like the Obama family, whose kids also don’t take high stakes standardized tests. Check out this paragraph, from writer Alan Singer’s recent blog post called “How the Obamas opted their children out of high stakes testing”:

It was easy for Barack and Michelle Obama to opt-out. They send Sasha and Malia to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. where tuition is about $35,000 a year and students do not take high-stakes Common Core-aligned tests. The Obamas chose this school in part because it offers children an enriched curriculum, not constant test prep.

Image from Sidwell Friends School website

Additionally, Singer notes, “Wealthy celebrities are unwittingly part of the opt-out movement because their children attend or attended expensive private schools where they do not have to take high-stakes state-mandated standardized tests.”

My son and his siblings go to public schools that do not offer quite the level of enrichment that the Sidwell Friends school does (there’s got to be something “rich” to show for that $35,000/year fee), but they are still pretty good places to be. Sure, the classes are often too big and the support services often too few, but my kids still get to do a fair amount of the good stuff, like project-based learning and collaborative work. Here is a recent photo of my daughter and her friend, standing with the mural they made in response to To Kill a Mocking Bird, which they read with their Language Arts class:

Greta and Kawsar

In my mind, all kids around the world should have access to a Sidwell Friends-like public school experience, full of hands-on learning, dynamic projects, and outstanding, intriguing field trips and opportunities. Because, as John Dewey said:

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

Now, contrast this idea with what is going on at New York City’s Success Academy charter school chain, according to a recent New York Times article about these “high performing” schools. Witness the sick, scary devotion to standardized testing: 

At any given time, multiple carrots and sticks are used in the quest to make sure every student does well on the standardized tests. This system goes into overdrive in late January, as the annual exams, which begin this year on April 14, approach.

Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.

Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.

Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer.

Heartbreak. The kids profiled in the article are subject to wetting their pants (they aren’t allowed to take bathroom breaks during testing or test prep, apparently), having their test results (as young children) displayed in front of their peers, and being shamed, manipulated, coerced, and punished into performing on high stakes standardized tests. It comes across as sadistic and abusive, and not just for the kids; many teachers share stories of fleeing from this “no excuses” nightmare, which, of course, lurks as a dream for the deep pocketed investors behind Success Academy. 

Image from Success Academy, home of high test scores and strict discipline policies

I would love to know where these investors send their kids to school. 

Circling back around to my son, I am very grateful for the support and love his teacher sends his way, even though I’m sure it can’t always be easy for her. 

And, I want every parent and child to have this, too (and, to be clear, I do not blame parents for wanting something better for their kids). We haven’t achieved this yet, but which path is more likely to get us there? Success Academy, or Sidwell Friends?

Which education model should we collectively invest in, for the sake of everyone’s children?

School to Students: Shoot for the stars, but don’t expect to get there

By Sarah Lahm

Testing, from the inside out: I recently sat down with five Minneapolis Southwest High School students to find out why they–along with over 500 of their classmates–had chosen to opt out of the annual, standardized MCA test. I assumed, like another Minneapolis education writer has, that these students were opting out only because their evaluation-fearing teachers told them to. What I found out instead, by actually talking to them, was much more interesting and much more uncomfortable. 

If I had to boil my conversation with these five students down to one sentence, it would be this: It’s not the MCAs, stupid; it’s everything else. 

Just Kids

Just kids

The students I spoke with–Makenna Kirkeby, and her friends James, Emma, Harrison, and Will–are all juniors at Southwest High School, which is consistently ranked, by the people who love to rank things, as a top performing high school. And they are all top performers, or striving to be. 

And that is the problem. They are not anxious about the MCA test; they don’t have time for it. If they miss class time to take a standardized test, then, they told me, they would have to somehow find time to make up the class work they had missed.

And they don’t have time–that much is clear. Here is a snapshot of my conversation with them, which took place on a weekend afternoon, as they sat around doing homework. My questions/prompts are in bold; their responses are the bullet points that follow:

Tell me about the MCA test. 

  • The MCA test is really a low priority at our school. It’s not hyped at all; there’s no test prep for it, not like there was in middle school. 
  • The tests we care about are the ACT and the SAT because that’s how we get in to college. The MCA test doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a graduation requirement, it’s not about getting in to college.
  • We don’t learn anything from the MCAs.
  • Honestly, a lot of students just click through it, to get it done. Some students have even had races to see who could finish the test first; I think the record is one minute and forty-five seconds.
  • Yeah, some students have used it as an excuse to get out of class, because it’s not a timed test, so they’ll just sit there in front of the screen, getting out of class.

Dumb question time: So, why are there so many kids opting out of the MCA test this year?

  • Because we found out we could from our teachers, and the school’s “test guy,” who comes around to round people up to take the test.
  • As soon as we found out, we were like, “Great. Where do we sign?” 
  • Also, we’re supposed to take the MCAs close to the end of the quarter, when we have finals. It’s like sliding another test in, right when things are really stressful in our classes. That’s why.

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

First, the students did not seem to know what the MCA test was supposed to be for. Funding? No one was sure. 

Testing industry to Congress: Do Not Disturb Us

Then, they started to talk about their lives and what it means to be a “good” student today:

  • Testing is stressful; they make it seem like it will determine your life.
  • Being a good test taker is emphasized.
  • 11th graders want good grades, and to know the content of what they’re studying.
  • Retaining knowledge is more important to us. Homework and tests are so much stress; we’d rather be sitting in class, learning.
  • Getting a good grade is so important. That’s what we are always told.

What is the purpose of all of this?

  • There is so much pressure to get in to college, and to think about how we will pay for it.
  • We have to be well-rounded, doing everything. We work, play sports, have to have the grades, and do community service.

What is the impact of this, on your lives?

  • It is difficult to stay healthy. Mental health issues are a really big problem.
  • Our families never see us. If our families are going out to dinner or doing something fun, it’s like, “Oh well, I can’t go.” There is always so much to do.
  • We have to choose between sleep and cramming in homework.
  • I have struggled with my mental health.
  • We go to school, then go to work, then have soccer, and get home at 10 p.m. Then,  we can either sleep or do homework. And getting behind is not really an option, because It takes a lot to make up work.
  • Skipping the MCA test is a matter of prioritizing; the test just doesn’t matter.

The MCAs don’t matter, because everything else matters so much in these students’ lives. They are taking tests all the time, and described often having to miss lunch to take a test or do homework. 

  • Lunch feels really short. We have maybe 30 minutes. If we leave to get food, we have to come right back.
  • We have a lot of projects booked at the same time, like a 7 page essay, a quiz, a biology lab, Spanish–all due at the same time. 
  • We are IB students, and we take AP classes.

These students sometimes get the message that being average or getting a C is okay, but they are not convinced:

  • Teachers have a different idea about grades than we do. They will say a C is average, but for a student, it’s deadly. A ‘C’ means we’re not going to college.
  • If we get a GPA below 2.0, we can’t play sports, and a lot of good colleges won’t take a 2.0 GPA student.
  • We are expected to have high grades, jobs, and fit in volunteer hours. A 4.0 GPA is what everyone is supposed to have.

And then there are the tests that really matter to these students, because they are truly high stakes. For example, the ACT:

  • Some of us take a Saturday morning ACT prep class, which is basically a class about how to cheat on tests like the ACT because we’re told how to do the test.
  • The ACT is not about life skills and has no value, but it’s high stakes.
  • If you don’t learn test-taking strategies, you won’t do well on the ACT.
  • But, the ACT doesn’t really determine how smart you are.
  • If you are not from a family with lots of resources, to help you prepare for the test, it’s almost unfair. People who have more money can pay for tutors.
  • Kids without resources don’t get the same chances. And not everyone can do well on a timed test like the ACT.

Therefore, in light of all of this, the MCA test–which, again, doesn’t determine if students will graduate or where they will go to college, seems redundant and ridiculous.

  • The MCA test is not even statistically correct, because so many students don’t take it seriously.
  • I don’t want to be compared to other kids.
  • It’s upsetting to have a number determine who you are.
  • The tests are not about being smarter or getting smarter.
  • There is so much pressure and competition at our school, and in general. 
  • One time, my stepsister (who goes to a different high school) and I were both up doing homework until 2 or 3. Then, I went to bed, but when I got up in the morning, she was still up, doing homework. She never went to bed.

The purpose of all of this seems lost on the students, who seem to feel as though they are on a roller coaster and cannot get off:

  • I know someone who has a 3.95 GPA at our school. I think she’s ranked 49th in our class.
  • At the end of the quarter, I’m so stressed and anxious. I just shut down.
  • I have mental breakdowns at least once a month.
  • My parents ask me, “Why are you so stressed out?” But then, I also have to keep up with my room and my laundry, and that makes me more upset and stressed out.
  • Yes, you just have to know your limits, and when to take a break. 

    Are we there yet?

The general feeling the students expressed is one of feeling unsupported by the adult culture they are dependent on, aside from their families, which they each seemed to feel close to:

  • We are stressed out, overwhelmed. If we miss school, the school is so strict about it. We have to have a doctor’s note, or we are told we’re truant. 
  • No one understands. People tell us to balance our lives better, but how?

Ironically, the MCA test seems like the one test they are allowed to make up. 

  • If we miss a Chemistry test or something, we can’t make it up. But if someone misses the MCA test, they will come looking for you, and say, “Come on, come take the test.” So, we can’t make up the things that really matter.

Wait. Aren’t the MCA tests supposed to tell everyone who the good or bad teachers are? Turns out the students have some pretty clear ideas on what they consider good teaching and learning:

  • There are some teachers who understand, but we have big classes, of 30 or 40 kids, and that’s hard for teachers. They don’t get to know us. All they know are our grades or test scores, or whether or not we turned in our homework.
  • We respect teachers when there is trust and communication, and when a class seems interactive. 
  • We like the teachers who remember what it was like to be in school. 
  • We like it when we’re more than a test score, and more than a list of things that need to get done.
  • Some teachers will notice what’s going on with students, and offer individual help. This is better than when teachers have black and white rules, or show favoritism.
  • Having enough resources, or relationships, is hard. Sometimes, we don’t have enough desks.
  • We have seven classes, all with homework piled on. A lot of students don’t know their learning styles; some don’t do well with lectures.

Somehow, despite the Testocracy’s best efforts, these students have learned to think critically about their lives and the world around them:

  • There is a clear boundary between the haves and have-nots, but opportunities should be there for everyone.
  • We know bright kids without high GPAs; a high GPA doesn’t exactly equal intelligence. But we are told a high GPA equals a good future.
  • High school is getting increasingly hard. More difficult. We get the message that we’re not going anywhere unless we have all A’s. 
  • We are told to shoot for the stars, but it feels like we shouldn’t expect to get there.
  • Life is a three-step thing: High school–College–Job.
  • College costs vast amounts of money, but we don’t have time to reflect on what we want to do with our lives.
  • But, I think about it a lot. And I think, we’re only 17.
  • We have good memories, too. We’ve grown up together. We’re lucky to have the opportunities we do have. Southwest is still a good school.
  • It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t all work out.

Yet, it is clear these kids don’t feel free to be kids. They are guilt-ridden, because enough never seems like enough.

  • I feel guilty for having fun.
  • It’s always in the back of my head…what do I have to do?
  • When I’m out with friends, I think about all I should be doing.
  • School completely shapes your life. 100%. 
  • School seems pointless. Friendship, being a good person should be more important. I mean, in 20 years, will this stuff matter?

Sure, kids, complain away. But what do you really want, then?

  • Having a job and playing sports has taught me a lot of things, like life skills and people skills. I work with senior citizens, and I’ve learned how to talk with them. That’s really important, too.
  • I’ve learned more outside of school.
  • What about a class on how to do taxes or about what a mortgage is? I want to know how to pay my bills. 
  • I would like real-life scenarios in my classes, like how to do a job interview. Sometimes groups come in, after school, to talk about this stuff, but the students are so tired.

These students have gotten another message loud and clear: they are being sorted and ranked all the time.

  • We took the Explore and Plan tests (part of a three test package, along with the ACT). It was ok, but it doesn’t go into depth, and people always try to manipulate it. 
  • They always show us charts about which jobs make the most money. People tried to get those jobs, like “Business Analyst,” as their future career.
  • But, we can’t think of job possibilities. Being asked to be creative is a foreign concept. If someone’s interested in world history, it’s like, “What job goes with that?” 
  • We have been geared to not be creative. There is no room, no time, to explore what you’re interested in.
  • I have taken 3 years of hard IB classes, and just last week, I asked my teacher: What is IB? I don’t know. I’m just doing it because it looks good.
  • I feel like we’ve been conditioned to be like this. 
  • I’ve learned, “How can I bullshit my way through this?”

Finally, I asked if they ever studied things like how to get a handle on climate change. They said, bluntly, “We don’t have time to solve problems.”

The MCA test is really a blip of nothingness to these students, and being allowed to skip it, they said, felt like a little taste of freedom in an otherwise very controlled life.

Portrait of a Young Test Taker

Testing, from the inside out: The following sketch of a young test taker grew out of a conversation I had recently with a school employee. 

She is six years old and in first grade. English is not her first language, Spanish is. But, she is lucky enough to go to a school in Minneapolis–a neighborhood public school–where she will be  taught in Spanish for most of the day, until she is almost ready for middle school. 

Image by artist Ricardo Levins Morales

When it is testing time at her school, though, she is tested only in English. And it is almost always testing time at her school, where many of the kids are poor, non-white, and non-native English speakers. The school has many homeless students, too.

In the fall, near the start of the school year, she took the MAP test, which is an optional, district-chosen reading and math test that is supposed to show “growth,” or how much a student’s MAP score changes during the course of a school year.

The MAP is only done online, and on her first day in the computer lab, she looked at the screen, where the reading test was cued up. In English.

There were paragraphs of text in front of her. She started to cry. 

“I can’t read!”

No one could help her. The testing proctor is not allowed to read the text for her. Her classroom teacher is also not allowed to share any information with her about the test or how to take it.

She is six years old. She can’t read in English yet, or in Spanish.

The test proctor said, “Just do your best.”

The little girl gave up, and started clicking on answers, just to get through the test.

Her teacher will be evaluated on the girl’s test scores, even though the test is in English and the teacher and child work together in Spanish, as a way to ease bilingual children like her into later academic success.

In the spring, the child will take the MAP test in English again.

She also took another test just for English language learners during the winter, called the WIDA test. The WIDA test is a federally mandated test given to all ELL students–from kindergarten through 12th grade–in English. It has to be given to everyone, including students in an Autism or special education program, unless there are extreme circumstances. 

Poster by Ricardo Levins Morales

“It is kind of painful to have to give it to every kid,” says the test proctor. The test takes hours.

Starting in third grade, the girl will take the MAP test in the fall, another optional, district-selected test in the winter called the OLPA (a Pearson-owned prep test for the MCAs), then the ELL/WIDA test, and finally the MCAs. The OLPA can be taken more than once, and it often is.

The assessment guide that comes with the OLPA describes the test this way:

The Optional Local Purpose Assessment (OLPA)…provides a risk-free environment for students to familiarize themselves with online testing and provides teachers with information to target instruction before the reading and mathematics tests used for accountability in the spring.

If she is a “bubble” kid–whose test scores show that she is close to scoring in the proficient range–she will get extra test prep and coaching, in terms of how to improve her score. If she can move from meeting to exceeding expectations on the statewide MCA test, then her school’s numbers will look better. Her teacher’s evaluation score will improve, and the teacher’s principal will look more “effective.”

“It’s all about the cut score,” says the proctor.

What is your testing story? Tell me at sarah.lahm@gmail.com.