Shannon Ergun started making waves back in fifth grade when she wrote a letter to the Tacoma School Board, protesting the lack of computers at her school.
She’s been questioning the status quo in schools ever since, advocating for her students at Lincoln High School and serving on the Tacoma teacher union’s contract bargaining team.
Now Ergun has kids of her own in a Tacoma public school, and she is part of a movement that’s gaining momentum across the country:
Parents who refuse to let their children take state and other standardized tests.
Ergun blames the corporate world for helping fuel a proliferation of standardized tests in American public schools over the past two decades.
“They want our public schools to run like businesses,” she said. “Input in, output out. But that’s not the reality of human beings.”
Ergun wrote a letter to Bryant Montessori School saying she doesn’t want her kindergartener or second-grader taking tests not written by their teachers. That means none of the alphabet soup of state tests such as WaKIDS (Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developmental Skills) for her youngest, or DRA2 (Developmental Reading Assessment) for her oldest.
These standardized tests are among the more than two dozen — both state- and district-mandated — that Tacoma Public Schools will administer at various grade levels this year.
Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno is paying attention to the growing discontent, and she understands the limits of standardized tests.
Still, she urges parents to keep their kids taking the exams. She believes testing can give educators valuable information that can help them improve learning. And she worries about what will happen if too many high-performing students opt out.
“That skews the data,” Santorno said.
The opt-out crusade has caught fire in states including Florida, Colorado and New York, and in cities such as Seattle, where in 2013 teachers led a boycott of the district-mandated MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test. In 2012, more than 500 students in the Snohomish School District skipped state testing under a parent-organized boycott.
Last summer, the National Education Association — mindful of how test results are increasingly used in teacher evaluations nationwide — launched a campaign to “end the test, blame and punish system” and re-focus testing on student learning. The national teachers’ union offered to provide its members with links to information about parents’ rights to opt their children out of standardized tests.
NEA’s state affiliate, the Washington Education Association, has vowed to support opt-out rights, work with parent and student groups on the issue, and provide teachers with links to opt-out information for families.
But WEA spokesman Rich Wood said the movement is parent-driven.
“Whether they opt their children out or not, there’s an increased awareness that all the time we spend on testing takes away time from actual learning,” Wood said.
This month, a group called United Opt Out held its national convention in Florida. Bob Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, was a speaker at the event.
In an interview with The News Tribune, he said “There have always been isolated cases of parents opting their kids out. But in the last two years, there’s been an explosion of that activity.”
The movement, however, is in its infancy in Pierce County. All three of the largest school districts — Tacoma, Puyallup and Bethel — report only a handful of their students opt out each year. Sometimes parents cite health issues, rather than opposition to standardized tests, as their reason for exempting kids.
MORE THAN A SCORE
The backgrounds of some local opt-out supporters show a depth of education experience.
Kim Golding, a former member of the Tacoma School Board, is one. So is Fred Hamel, an associate professor in the school of education at the University of Puget Sound, who opted his own kids out of standardized testing back when they were in school.
Golding is a founder of Parents and Friends for Tacoma Public Schools, which sponsored an opt-out information meeting for parents in November and is hosting another in February.
Golding, like Ergun, believes the push for increased standardized testing comes from business interests.
“There’s a lot of money to be made off public education,” Golding said.
Hamel, who taught high school before he began teaching at UPS more than a dozen years ago, said he saw first-hand what high-stakes tests were doing to education.
“I saw up close the effects, the pressure, placed on young people and on teachers,” he said. He also watched as curriculum narrowed to respond to the pressures of testing, and teachers began to doubt their instincts in the classroom.
Santorno, the Tacoma school superintendent, said she understands the concerns of test opponents.
“I firmly believe we have got to get beyond a single test score,” she said.
She doesn’t advocate throwing out tests altogether, but she also doesn’t want Tacoma schools judged solely on annual state test scores. That’s one reason the school district has initiated its own system for tracking progress, called whole child indicators. In addition to test scores, the 47 indicators include graduation rates, report card data, involvement in extracurricular activities, attendance and other factors that affect student success.
“I know parents want students who are well-rounded, civic-minded — who are able to communicate and problem-solve,” Santorno said. “All those things are not captured on one test.”
Until his retirement at the end of December, Joe Willhoft was director of the multi-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – the group that developed the new Smarter Balanced tests that most Washington students, along with those in 19 other states, will take this spring.
“As a parent, you have a right to opt your child out of anything,” he said.
But Willhoft, previously the testing director for Tacoma schools and then for Washington state, is puzzled by the opt-out movement.
“Why would I choose not to have information about what my child knows?”
He promises that the more sophisticated Smarter Balanced tests will reveal more about student performance to parents and teachers than previous state tests did.
Robin Munson, head of testing for the state who also has roots in Tacoma Public Schools, disagrees with critics who rail against “teaching to the test.”
“I have a different take on what teaching to the test means,” Munson said. “Teaching to the test is teaching state learning standards. That is what we want teachers to be doing.”
State officials also point out that younger children who don’t take state tests could miss out on having learning problems identified early enough for them to get help.
Opt-out advocates say big-money players such as the Gates and Broad foundations, both active in educational circles, have influenced public policy on testing.
Golding believes business leaders have convinced educators that businesses “have the answers to perceived problems.”
She said testing has a place in education, when it’s used to improve teaching and learning.
“Now, it’s being done excessively, and to the detriment of education,” Golding added.
Hamel chose to have his kids skip the standardized tests that their Kitsap County schools administered. In 2003, he and his wife, also an educator, penned an opinion piece in the national publication Education Week about why they chose to opt out.
Hamel said standardized tests provide “a narrow and incomplete picture of the students we see day in and day out.” He said they rarely give teachers information they don’t already know about their students.
While he understands that educators are duty-bound to administer tests required by state and federal laws, he doesn’t believe those tests have done much to help kids.
“Testing is about another agenda,” he said. “It’s about giving report cards to schools, so we can rank them.”
Testing advocates argue that students should get used to taking state tests at early grade levels because otherwise they might not do well on high school tests, where graduation is at stake.
That wasn’t Hamel’s experience. When his daughter was faced with passing a state test to graduate, he talked with her about alternatives. But after giving it some thought — and never having taken a state test —she decided to take the state exam.
“She passed easily,” he said.
Sandi Strong has two children in Tacoma schools, one in fourth grade and another in middle school. Neither will take state tests this year.
She worries about whether enough safeguards are in place to protect student privacy in the era of online testing.
“How is all that data they’re getting from students going to be used?” she asked. “And who has access to it?”
But Strong’s biggest concern is the use of test scores to brand schools and evaluate teachers. Whether to mandate the use of state tests in teacher evaluations became a major issue in last year’s legislative session, and likely will surface again this year.
“This whole failing school thing is really ridiculous,” Strong said. “I don’t want my child’s test to be responsible for a teacher’s evaluation.”
She points out what has long been documented by education research: “Test scores have an almost perfect correlation to income level.”
While some local parents have already taken steps to exempt their children from standardized tests, others are curious but hesitating.
“I definitely want to opt out my daughter,” said Molly Spitz, who has two children in the Bethel School District. “But I’m doing more research on what I can do for my son.”
He’s in high school, and he must meet state testing requirements for graduation.
“I’m in the middle of researching it,” Spitz said. “But I’m hoping they change it.”
NATIONAL LAW UNDER SCRUTINY
Change might be on the horizon.
Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said the big question of the moment is whether a grass-roots awakening will translate into political power.
Last week, Congress began again to tackle an update of the No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial 2002 law that kicked testing for school accountability into high gear. There have been several attempts to update NCLB in the past, but all have ended in political deadlock.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a new bill, rather than an update of the old NCLB. But he wants to retain the federal mandate of annual testing for students. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate’s education committee, wants Congress to consider giving states and school districts more flexibility to decide when and how to test students.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, says that “No Child Left Behind is not working for Washington state.” She said Congress should “reduce redundant and unnecessary testing.”
But Murray also said that annual tests are “one of the most important tools we have to make sure our schools are working for every student.”