Category Archives: Discussing Opt Out w Children

If I Didn’t Opt Out, I’d Be A Liar

Opting out of high stakes tests is about so much more than just the test.

As the parents of young children consider opting out, one of the Issues we face is how to talk to them about opting out.  They are, after all, the ones who will be doing the opting out. In all dealings with children, honesty is always the best policy. If you get busted by your kid for fudging the truth, you’re sunk. So what do we talk about?

When my daughter was 8, we started a conversation that has evolved over the past two years. She is now 10, and our conversation now includes my son, who is 9. 

I have tried to explain it to them this way:

When you take the test, you get a score. Your score gives your teacher and your school a grade. That grade tells the state and the district how much money your teacher and your school should get paid. It can even determine if your teacher gets to keep teaching, or if your school might be closed.

They asked me, “Is that why we have to do so much test prep?

“Perhaps, but it’s also complicated.”

We talk about recess a lot, because they don’t get recess. Usually, it’s the first thing I hear at pick up – whether he had recess or not. The Recess Report. He gets in the car, slams the door shut and says, 

“No recess… again” 

”Bus loop – one lap”, or 

“Bus loop – two laps.”

 They get recess on Wednesdays. That’s it. On non-PE days, if everyone has been good at lunch (recess should be neither reward nor punishment), when there is time for a break, they get to run the bus loop. The first time I heard this, let’s just say I was more than annoyed. I’ve told this to friends and they have no idea what I mean. The bus loop is the paved driveway where the school buses turn around. That’s right. The “recess” my kids get is 5 minutes around the bus loop. Their school is old, in not the greatest surroundings, currently next to highway construction, so it’s not even a pretty bus loop. Anyone who has ever played on a sports team of any kind knows that laps are a form of discipline – for being late, for talking back to the coach, for being lazy, etc. Laps.  The new recess is punishment.  PE is not recess. It’s another class.

Lack of recess is perhaps the single greatest reason why my children are so unhappy in school now. Of course, it may be different for other children. My kids do not get a break in the day. They KNOW it’s because of the test. Instead of recess, they do test prep. In addition to the increase in content to get through, over previous years, the reason they are constantly rushed is because teachers have to be sure to get in all the test prep they can, leaving less time for actual instruction. Instead of recess, my daughter in the 5th grade has Typing class – because… computer testing.

We talk about how some schools might have children who struggle. Their school has a large population of English Language Learners (ELL), and is also an Exceptional Ed Center, where 25% of their schoolmates are Exceptional Student Ed (ESE or Special Ed) – they know that their ESE friends get tested at their chronological age, not their developmental age, and they know the difference. To my children, THIS is the most unfair aspect of testing, and it doesn’t even affect them directly. They REALLY get it.

We talk about how it might be unfair to compare their school to another school where kids don’t struggle as much, or one where kids might struggle more. They know their teachers work just as hard, maybe even harder than other teachers in other schools. They love and respect their teachers.

We talk about the fact that their teacher doesn’t get to see their test, so the test CANNOT help their teacher to help them learn better.

My children are not afraid of tests. They know that the reason I refuse the FCAT/FSA is not because I’m afraid they won’t do well on the test. They would. They take tests all the time – spelling tests, vocabulary tests, reading comprehension, math, history, and science tests; tests that they review with their teacher, so they know where they need to work harder. THESE tests help them to be a better student and their teacher to be a better teacher.

My son is emotionally mature and intellectually advanced for his age. Without having been taught the same concepts, he often helps his older sister with her math homework. He tells me he isn’t learning anything in school now. While I could choose to believe that is simply a childish exaggeration, I choose instead to take him seriously. 

I ask him, “What would you like to learn?”

  He tells me, “Greek mythology.” It will have to happen at home, because it won’t happen in school. He can’t even discuss it with his teacher, because there is no time. When he recounts his day from start to finish – he talks about having worksheets and worksheets, and rushing, rushing, rushing, and double blocks of math every day now.

“But you love Math,” I say to him, with a smile, trying my best to help him find a reason to want to go to school, while my mind growls, “Grrrr…”

“Yes, but not twice a day. And we don’t get to do Writing anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because the Writing test is over.”

He says, “I don’t even care that it’s not fun anymore, Mom. If I’m not even learning anything in school, why should I go? If you give me one good reason why I should be happy to go, I will. But you can’t say, “Because you’re supposed to”, or “Because I said so.””

My children understand the need for rules, and they follow them at home and at school. They are also allowed to question anything. Respectfully. Parenting in this way can be tricky for a parent to navigate. Questioning does not mean you will always like the answers. But they know that I will always answer them honestly. My honesty with them teaches them that even when I don’t like their answers to my questions, that I have an expectation for the truth as well. That’s our agreement. Our rule. Carved in stone.

 As a parent, what do I say to this child, who I must answer honestly, when there is no acceptable answer, and he knows it?

My son is now occasionally despondent about school. He wakes up fine. Has breakfast fine. Takes the dog out fine. Brushes his teeth fine. Gets dressed fine. Then… when it’s time to go out the door, he gets a headache or a stomachache and sometimes both. He sometimes gets sweaty and irritable. His breathing becomes shallow. Sometimes he throws up. You may have seen this in your child. This is called anxiety. In a nine year old child. He looks up at me and his eyes plead with me to let him stay home. I can’t. Attendance. He becomes stony and will not say a word all the way to school. He won’t make eye contact with me. He goes to school because I make him go to school, and for no other reason. I can’t think about what must be going through his mind, or we won’t make it on time, but it’s heartbreaking.

When I told this to his principal, he nodded in acknowledgment, and shook his head. His response to me was very telling. His tone was resigned.

“A lot of what we have to do in school today is just because I said so. For the kids and the teachers.”

One night not long ago, my 10-year-old daughter had the saddest face. She is a joyful child and a wonderful student. Her teachers say they would like to clone her. She LOVES school… like I used to love school… She fears nothing. NOTHING. She’s not taking the test this year, just as she hasn’t taken it ever, and has been promoted without incident.

She put her head in my lap and said, “I don’t want to go to school anymore, Mom. It’s not even school anymore.”

 School is changing our children before our very eyes. And not for the better.  Mothers know this.  We are heartbroken and we are angry.

Our children are sad. Apathetic. Compliant. Angry. Frustrated.  Resigned. These are not words any parent would use to describe the experience they imagine for their children in school, or the childhood they want for their children, especially not for young children.

Joyful. Exuberant. Independent. Curious. Resilient. Persistent.  Fair.  Compassionate. These are not characteristics fostered by public schools under the crushing weight of today’s false accountability.

If you think your child is unhappy at school, and you believe it’s more than “all kids hate school,” you can help them identify what specifically about school is the issue for them. If you’ve never talked about it, your child may not even know why they’re unhappy. Even if you feel powerless to change anything that will help them, simply talking to them about it will help them to know that they are heard. The conversation may change more than you imagine.  It may not help you though.

My children know that if they wanted to take the test, I would allow it, and would be supportive of their decision to do so. They also know that if I make them take the test, it would mean that I believe that everything I’ve written here that makes school a problem because of the test is right. Well, it isn’t right, so I can’t.

If I did, they would call me a liar… and they would be right.

We opt out.

___________________

Shortlink: bit.ly/LiarOO

#whyIrefuse
#PublicEdRevolution
#OptOut

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An 8-year Old Talks About Test Prep

By Sandy Stenoff

Thank you to Valerie Strauss for featuring this piece in the Washington Post.

Until last year, I had shielded my, then, eight year old daughter from my activism, my personal convictions about high stakes testing and why I believe it is harmful to her education.  In spite of helping to start the Opt Out Orlando group locally and all of my involvement in the national grassroots movement against market-based education reform, with just a few months to go before testing season last year and even with all the information I had, I STILL had not made the decision to personally opt out of testing for my daughter in the Third grade.

One night before testing season started last year, I was putting her to bed. It had been a really stressful week. Usually an even-tempered child, she had been having meltdowns like she hadn’t had since she was a toddler. It was time for a bedtime chat.  As I talked with her, it became more apparent that I needed to record what she was sharing with me. I grabbed the laptop and just typed sitting on her bed next to her.

This was our conversation, verbatim:

Honey, you’ve seemed really stressed lately.  Do YOU think you’ve been stressed?
—I HAVE been stressed, Mom.
Do you know why? Can you tell me?
—Yes… This week has been SO much testing. We haven’t been able to do anything else. And it was hard because our teacher (was sick all week and) wasn’t there.
But you seemed stressed before that.
—Because I knew we were going to have testing all this week.
What do you mean you haven’t been able to do anything else? (After I pressed later, she did tell me they did specials and science and math in the afternoons, but this was her initial recollection of her week.)
—It’s just been testing every day, except for Monday. And it was hard because we didn’t get to do anything else from the time we got to school.
What if you had to go to the bathroom?
—We can only go one time.
How do you feel about what you did in testing this week?
—I felt like we’ve been doing it all over again.
What do you mean by doing it all over again?
—I felt like we were doing the same thing over and over. It was all multiple choice.
Why is that stressful for you?
—Because everything is multiple choice.  We have to fill in this little bubble completely.  And perfectly.  And if you don’t, there’s a lady there who makes sure that your bubbles are PERFECTLY bubbled in before they can put it in the machine. And it’s really hard to do that for 90 minutes every time, over and over, day after day.  It’s hard because I get nervous, and it’s hard for my hands to keep steady when I’m nervous.
Can you tell me what that’s like for you?
—There are seven tests all stapled together.  All mini-assessments.  There are 5 questions, a bubble sheet, and there are 7 of them. Math and Reading. Two Reading tests and two Math tests on different days. One day is Reading, the next day is Reading, the next day is Math, and the other day is Math. So this is like taking FCAT twice, because ———Benchmark is a mock of FCAT.
How did your teacher prepare your class for Benchmark testing this week?
—We’ve been practicing. She told us it was like FCAT, but shorter. She told us what the questions are like. But they asked me something I didn’t know and it was complicated for me.
Can you tell me about that?
—I didn’t know what the units were, or what the sq. ft. was.  And it was hard for me.
Would you like to learn about sq. ft. and units?
—Yes.
OK, we can do that.  How do you feel about the FCAT?
—A little nervous.
What makes you nervous?
—What makes me most nervous is when I don’t know the answer, I worry that if I get it wrong, I don’t know what will happen.
Has your teacher talked about what will happen if you don’t do well on the FCAT?
—No.
Is there anything you want to ask me?
—I want to know why there’s so much testing.
What would you want to be doing instead of testing?
—I want to do more science and learning more things.
What do you learn from testing?
—Nothing. I study what I already know TO test. Everything we learn, there’s a test afterward.
Is it always a multiple-choice test?
—No. Sometimes we have free response, but mostly it’s multiple-choice.
In everything?
—Yes, even in Time For Kids, our social studies, we have questions that are multiple choice and then on the back, they have the same exact questions, just placed in a different order.
How do you study to test?
—We pre-test.
So you practice taking tests?
—A week before the test, we do a review of the benchmark test.
How often do you practice taking tests?
—Every time we learn something new.
What is that like for you?
—Like doing the same thing over and over again.
Do you like school?
—I like school. I love school, but I just don’t like to test all the time.
So how do you feel about school now?
—I have to do everything over and over again.
Do you enjoy that?
—No, I could be learning new things instead of doing it twice.
So how do you feel about school the way it is for you now?
—Like I’m wasting a lot of time when I could be learning something.
If you could tell your teacher how you would like school to be, what would you tell her?
—I would tell her that I don’t want to do things over and over again.  I want to learn new things.
____________________

A few weeks later, my daughter asked me, “Mommy, do I have to take the FCAT?”

Your school says you have to. —But do I HAVE to…? Well, no, you don’t, actually. —What if I don’t take the test? If you don’t test, they could try to keep you in the third grade, but I talked to your teacher and you would be fine. —I don’t want to take it. Why not? —My teacher keeps saying it’s really easy. We spent all day today taking Benchmark tests and she says it’s just like that. It’s a stupid waste of time to do it again and it doesn’t TEACH me anything. AND we still have to test the rest of this week. (Testing before the test. Great.) What would you like to learn? —Social Studies. We hardly do any Social Studies. Would you like me to talk to your teacher? —Can my teacher MAKE me…? No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do. Ever. —Mom, Why don’t you like the FCAT?

And so, we began another conversation that night…

____________________

I shared these exchanges with Becky Smith, fellow Opt Out Orlando rabble -rouser and brilliant educator/activist/friend. Becky responded:

“I am happy to hear that you decided to have this conversation with Emma. Children undoubtedly know what’s going on (the meaningless abounds every piece of legislation), and the most perceptive teachers and parents are keen to the children’s awareness. The problem is that youngest children are waiting for us to tell them it’s OK to question and resist what’s being done to them. We, as parents and teachers, have to give them the ‘go ahead’ to do so. We have to bring them into the conversation so they can learn to be critical of what’s happening in their schools, what they’re being taught, and how they’re being treated (You know as well as I do, that such vital discussion are not happening in the schools).

I have struggled immensely with how much of this reality to share with my own 6 year old daughter.  She’s so loving and joyful, and I worry that too much ‘reality‘ will make her cynical and distrustful. I came to the realization, though, that if I didn’t involve her in the process now, I was setting her up for a life of servitude and manipulation by a system that sees humans as nothing more than dollar signs.  Our children get it because they confront it everyday in ways that you and I don’t.  All children know, and that is both the beauty and the tragedy of it.  The youngest children simply lack the language to bring it into a cohesive form, like the Love Letter to Albuquerque Public Schools.

Keep engaging her in the conversation, encourage her to question and to be critical. These qualities form the essence of democracy.”

My discussions with my daughter were not about school not being fun.  At eight years old, my daughter understands that school is not always fun.  She is not a ‘spoiled‘ child, who is at school to be merely entertained or occupied.  She is, at eight years old, a very serious student.  She is creative, artistic, imaginative, generous, and she is allowed to question anything, even when I might prefer it if she would just be compliant.  She looks at and sees things beyond the surface. School might not always even be interesting, but she is a child who craves learning and loves going to school.  At eight years old, she is very clear that she goes to school to learn.  What is most important about my discussions with her is that she believed she wasn’t learning, and that I believed her.  She also learned that night that I would listen to her, that I believed her, that she had valid reasons for concern and that I, her Mom and fierce advocate, would look out for her interests.

Even young children probably get it more than parents think they do. Children have amazingly accurate internal alarms when something doesn’t make sense to them, but they may not always know how to start the conversation, if they even know what to call it. What happens to their unasked questions if we don’t teach them how to ask?

My children no longer attend this school.  We did opt out of the third grade FCAT with no consequence. Except for my daughter’s teacher compiling a portfolio as an alternative assessment, my daughter was promoted to the fourth grade without much fuss.

Talk with your children.  They already know.  If you’re hearing a similar bedtime story from your child, you might consider whether you approve of their ‘new normal’.  If not, you might consider opting out.  We can show you how.

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