Standing Up for Schools by Opting Out? Why Wisconsin Parents & Educators Are Saying NO to the Badger Exam

Stand Up for Schools by Opting Out?
Why Wisconsin Parents & Educators Are Saying NO to the Badger Exam

I've blogged often about how I feel about testing and assessment, and about how we problematic it is that the main thing standardized tests measure with any accuracy is affluence.  I've also written quite a bit on the topic of the hypocrisy of privileging standardized testing data even when we know how little it actually tells us about student performance, and we know full well that it has a long history of reproducing cultural and racial biases. 

Now I don't have a problem with data.  We need data to understand and aid our students.  But data should inform, not "drive" our decision making.  And privileging "data" that comes from standardized tests over a teacher's much more comprehensive assessment is risky, foolish and unprofessional.   

And we're simply doing way too much testing, and not enough teaching, in our schools.  The hunger for "assessment" and "accountability" has become a self-defeating enemy of a love of learning. 

I have seen countless children I personally know get extremely anxious, barfy and teary on test days.  Many of these are, as you might expect, the kids who are NOT scoring well but who I have seen making progress in other ways.  For these kids, the test not only fails to measure their progress; it stunts it.  By constantly setting up these kids to fail, the test creates a self-fulfilling negative pattern and they learn to doubt their instincts and their intelligence.  I have seen this with my own eyes. I have seen confident, struggling learners turn to jelly before these tests and break down in tears, repeatedly changing their answers from right to wrong.  The only thing these tests are teaching such students is that they are not good students, or smart kids.  Neither of those things are true.

On testing days, many districts bring in water, bananas, granola bars, and other healthy snacks.  This is yet another way we give a little extra advantage to kids who don't need it and a uselessly superficial gesture to the kids who do. Why not fund snacks for hungry kids, every day, so they'd ALL be learning with full bellies and prepared for testing?  If we recognize the value of nutrition on test day, why aren't we prioritizing its impact on comprehension and retention?  Why do we care more about performance on tests than learning?  And what are we teaching our kids through those priorities?

I don't want to be told by district administrators that the test is a "just one snapshot" of a child's performance one more time.  I know it's a snapshot.  But it's blurry and out of focus, and I don't think we should pay for it.  It's a picture that means nothing to me, because I have read the research and the research is clear.  My question remains: why are we putting this crappy snapshot up on the wall in a frame for everyone to see?

As a parent, I am not asking for or interested in a number or a ranking or a score that compares my kid to everyone else. The things I want to know are the things that can't be quantified:  how eager is he to get to work? How prepared is he for his lessons?  How hard is he working at not blurting out during class?  Has she expressed an interest in reading more challenging books?  Has she been able to focus during the lessons that are review to her? Has she been distracting others with chatting?  I don't want to compare my kids to others.  I don't want to compare our school to other schools.  I want to know one thing: are we all working together to make sure every kid at the school can do his or best?  
But today I have some good news: we've opted out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment - which is called the Badger Exam here in Wisconsin.  This is the brand-new test designed to measure whether students are meeting the Common Core State Standards we implemented some years ago in our district.

I have been on the fence about opting out since the first time I volunteered on testing day, when my son was in 2nd grade, and I saw children sobbing over their MAPS tests. I was afraid to opt out because I was worried my kid would be stigmatized, or that the school might be angry at us for not "bringing up the average" with his high scores. And since my own kids didn't seem to have the test anxiety many other children face, I just bit my tongue and picked my battles elsewhere. But over the past few years I have read book after book, and talked to educator after educator who says the same thing: this has got to stop. And when I learned how many district educators - including a principal, many teachers, an advance learners specialist/talented & gifted teacher, and even the Director of Assessments - have opted out their own kids, I knew I couldn't justify not taking a stand any longer.

Every parent or guardian has the right to opt his/her child out of SmarterBalanced Assessments. [See FAQ on opting out at the DPI website here].

We are opting out not because we're opposed to testing, but because we're opposed to testing that hurts students, teachers and schools without providing any meaningful data that can be used to inform instruction and diagnose a student's needs. The Badger Test has been fraught with problems and was not ready to be rolled out this year. It does not meet any of the criteria we were promised last year in terms of being an authentic assessment of our kids' learning, and literally thousands of hours of time are being wasted across the state on "prep" and testing for a test that will not provide any reliable data for teachers to use in their classrooms. DESPITE THIS, that data will be used by the state to rank and grade schools, and if some legislators get their way, to also rank teachers based on student performance. I oppose all of this.  And so do many, many others.  In Germantown, Wisconsin, over half of the students have already opted out of the test with support from district administrators.

I have said it before and I will say it forever: I do not want my kids to be "the best." I want them to DO their best. I do not want my kids to be "the smartest." I want them to love learning. I do not want my kids to go to "the best school." I want EVERY kid to go to a great school. I don't want a ranking system that pits teachers and students against each other based on test scores. I want a system that applauds the talents of EVERY kid and gives every teacher space to meet the needs of every learner. A system based on over-reliance on the "data-driven results" of standardized testing can't do that.

The test-and-punish philosophy behind the current assessment system is dangerous to kids, teachers, and schools. It feeds our achievement gaps and it demeans the professionalism of our educators.

Worse, it's antithetical to the very foundations of public schooling and the equal opportunity of every child to succeed.

We are opting out our high-scoring child because we oppose all this.

If you would like to join us, you have that right. Just talk to your child's teacher and principal and tell them you want to opt out. Be sure to request that your child be given a productive way to spend time while other students are testing without making a lot of extra work for the teacher. Buddy up with another parent (or more!) in your grade level, if possible, and help facilitate a project or reading group for the students who will not be testing. But all it takes is a letter.  Some districts might also ask you to fill out a form.

If you live in Sun Prairie, that form is here:

And I'm pleased to report that our District has change the language on its opt-out form to remove the untrue and misleading clause that kids who weren't tested would be reported to the state as "zero" scores which would hurt the district! When I opted our 5th grader out of the Badger Exam, I was disturbed to see that language and didn't want to share this link until it had been revised. Many thanks to the Director of Assessments for correcting that error. If you opt out your child, it will NOT hurt the school's average scores, but your child will be counted as "non tested" (and the state does track those numbers). Please note that you can opt out your child AT ANY TIME during the testing process; the request for two weeks' notice on the form is for the district's bookkeeping preference only.

After you opt out, please take time to sign this Opt Out Support Form to send the message that you've opted out to support our students and schools.

The MADISON OPT OUT Support Form is linked here.
If you don't live in Sun Prairie, just write your principal and teachers and make your request.  You might find the resources on the Fair Test page helpful in determining what to include in your letter.  I also recommend that you talk to the teacher regularly to make sure you are part of any conversations about placements that might normally be based largely on test scores (like identification for TAG or advanced learner programming, or other referrals), and to make sure that the lack of a score won't have any adverse academic affect on your child.

One parent can make a difference. But I know that two parents of high-scoring kids opting out of standardized kids is a symbolic gesture. I know many educators in our district who've opted out their own kids, but they aren't really in a position to "go public" in the same way that we can.  Last fall, Edgewood College's Dean of the School of Education, Tim Slekar, a long-time critic of standardized testing  who's been leading the charge to reclaim the conversation on public education Madison, has shared that his family has elected to opt of out standardized testing.  This statement, coming from a respected authority, is huge.  But individual parents acting alone on this particular issue is not enough.  

If we're really going to make an impact on how standardized assessments are conducted and how the data is used, it's going to take a coalition of many parents,  many educators, and many students, who are willing to stand together and say ENOUGH.  This is not how we want our kids to be evaluated.  This is not how we want our schools to be run. This is not how we guarantee success for every child, every day.

We're going to have to do it together.  That model has worked in Seattle.  And it's working in DC.  And in New York. It can work in Wisconsin.  Our schools are ours and its our job to make them as great as they can be; we still have local control and we should exercise it.

We need to stand together and insist that our districts stop privileging misleading and largely useless data - especially when that data is clearly and directly in conflict with making real progress in addressing our priority goal of reducing the massive gaps between students of color and limited economic means and students of privilege. 

Advocating for public education means making sure our policies provide and support a system that allows every student the opportunity to succeed. 

The testing madness we see today does not provide that.

I know we are not alone and invite anyone who's ready to stand up for these issues to join us.

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