Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I've Opted Out And You Can Too!

This morning I spoke with the Assistant Superintendent of my district, and was told it's no problem to opt my 1st graders out of the NJPASS. This is not a mandated test, and the results are not reported to the state.  It is given mostly to prepare students for taking the NJASK in 3rd grade - so in my estimation, it's all but useless for my kids and a waste of money for the district.  

The OK to opt out this year came with a warning that once my girls hit 3rd grade this would not be such a cake walk. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

For now, I feel an incredible sense of relief. 

Relief that my girls won't lose almost 7 hours (I was told it sucks up 2 hours and 15 minutes on 3 consecutive days - they're SIX!!) to a standardized test that has next to no meaning for them or their teacher.  Relief that my district was accommodating (they can spend the time at home or will be invited into a Kindergarten classroom). Relief that I have taken the first step to giving my daughters a K-12 education without the stress and burden of high-stakes standardized tests.

Here's a generic version of the letter I sent to my district. I took out identifiers and specifics, so if you are inspired to join me, feel free to cut and paste parts that resonate for you and  create your own letter. Or steal the whole thing.  

It's my gift to you for taking the brave step to tell the powers that be, "You can't sort and label our children! We opt out!!"  
I have been informed that first graders will take the NJPASS on May 7, 8 and 9. It is also my understanding that these scores will not be reported to the state, and do not have high stakes attached to them. However, I fail to see the benefit of starting my child(ren) on a standardized testing path that I know is leading to their class being the first group of 3rd graders to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Carriers (PARCC) assessments in the 2014/2015 school year.

In the current education reform culture, standardized test scores are used less often to improve outcomes for students by reinforcing skills that have not been mastered, and more to evaluate teachers, schools and districts. Student test data provides the state false justification to take over districts, close schools, and open charters; all "reforms" that have not been shown to significantly improve student outcomes and instead serve to further weaken traditional public schools and the communities they serve. 

Starting next year, AchieveNJ will be implemented statewide, and education advocates and legislators are still debating with Education Commissioner Chris Cerf how much of a teacher's evaluation will be based on their student's standardized test scores. These tests were never created to evaluate teacher performance, and the use of Student Growth Percentiles (SGP) and similar Value Added Modeling (VAM) to evaluate teachers has proven highly controversial in other states. 

This is not the only way student data is being misused. Testing companies have begun collecting student data, including "information about the children’s hobbies, attitudes, and interests" as well as "(d)isciplinary records, attendance records, special-needs records, testing records." This information is then shared with other testing and educational companies without parental consent. Parents have not been given the opportunity to opt-out of the database, and the data will be used to tailor educational products to parents. 

And as you well know, standardized testing creates a financial burden for districts across the state. The infrastructure needed for the coming PARCC assessments is as of yet undetermined for our district, but is anticipated to be quite onerous. As PARCC is administered entirely online, it will require large purchases of technology and increased bandwidth, in addition to the cost of the test itself. Paired with the loss of almost $5 million in state funding our district has suffered since Governor Christie took office, the additional expense could be devastating.

For all these reasons and more (teaching to the test, narrowing of curriculum, cheating scandals, etc.) I am ardently opposed to the testing culture that has been inflicted upon public schools, and the over reliance on data driven instruction in a never ending quest for evidence that students are "college and career ready." To be clear, I am not implying that our district is engaged in ANY of these practices. These are my observations of the national discussion on standardized testing, and the impact the overreliance on test scores has had on public education nationwide.

I trust my daughters' teachers to make sound judgments regarding their education, and the district has my full support in administering any teacher or district created assessments as deemed necessary. I whole-heartedly object however to any state-wide standardized tests the district chooses to administer, or must administer according to state mandates.

Therefore, my husband and I respectfully inform you that we have decided to opt our child(ren) out of the NJPASS. We have decided to join the growing number of parents across the state that have similarly decided to opt their children out of high stakes standardized tests. 

Ours is a progressive district committed to public education. I would love to see a broad conversation in our schools, purposefully framed to include parents, teachers, administrators and board members, about the effects this nation's obsession with standardized testing is having on the education of our children.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.


Darcie Cimarusti

If you are interested in the opt out movement, reach out to me in the comments. A group of New Jersey parents and educators have already started a supportive Facebook group that you can join, and you can also find information at United Opt Out.

The NJDOE is using our kids' tests scores as the basis for their attempts to privatize and take over our public schools. Opting out is the best way to tell the state we want nothing to do with the destructive war they've waged against our schools, and we won't allow them to use our kids as a weapon to fire their teachers and close their schools.  

Parents and teachers know that standardized tests are antithetical to learning. We need to stand up for what we know.

In solidarity,
Mother Crusader


  1. "Ours is a progressive district committed to public education. I would love to see a broad conversation in our schools, purposefully framed to include parents, teachers, administrators and board members, about the effects this nation's obsession with standardized testing is having on the education of our children."
    Darcie- some of us here in Princeton Public Schools have been trying for over a year now to get a conversation like the one you mention here going.
    We have presented our BOE with a letter signed by over 80 parents and spoken both publicly at a BOE meeting, and privately with members of the board. There seems to be a great deal of resistance to this and I would love to know if you make any progress (and how) in your district. Maybe a forum that includes many districts within the state?
    Lori Troilo

  2. Given that the NJPASS isn't reported to the state and used only for internal purposes by schools and districts, it's a bit of a stretch to connect it to school closings, VAM, and teacher evaluations.

    We use the NJPASS to help guide our intervention efforts. It is a supplement to the thoughtful judgement of teachers, who also help connect students with extra support services if they are struggling with reading or math.

    Given the critical importance of acquiring literacy skills by the end of 3rd grade, I'm actually a bit taken aback by your post -- the NJPASS would seem to be exactly the kind of test that I thought you would advocate for.

    It is:
    -based on high quality standards (which represent untold hours of labor by teachers, curriculum designers, etc)
    -low stakes/no stakes
    -not reported to the state, or anyone else.
    -a tool for schools and teacher to help guide their intervention efforts.

    One thing that I've learned after a decade in the education world is that creating high-quality, fair, reliable assessments is *tough work*. You mention teacher-created assessments - there's a role for the classroom teacher to be sure - but we actually don't want to burden teachers with the enormous complexity involved in writing sound assessments. It's really tough. The 'standardization' in these tests means that they have been thoroughly vetted. One of the things that they look for is skew or bias in the questions -- stuff that can be hard to see off the bat. Imagine a student from a disadvantaged background takes a teacher created assessment with comprehension questions that unwittingly skew toward the prior experience of advantaged students. Now imagine that this is the assessment used for determining honors program placement. Or a scholarship. Or the local magnet school. This stuff matters, and standardization is what makes it fair. Doing these assessments statewide also makes major accommodations feasible - there are only a few hundred students who need the Braille version of any one assessment, but I'm glad that we can provide it for them.

    In much the same way that I am glad that civil engineers know how bridges work, I am glad that our teachers are supported by highly skilled experts who know this stuff cold.

    I'd encourage you to take a look at the technical manual for the NJPASS - if you read the description and history, it doesn't really match the malevolent thing that you described at all. There's a long list of educators who clearly put a lot of work into this, likely because they were passionate about improving early childhood education.

    1. Creating high-quality, fair, reliable assessments is the "tough work" that teachers do (and do well) every day. Thanks for not wanting to "burden" us with the "enormous complexity" of doing our jobs, but we're actually quite good at this "stuff".

      Standardization is not what makes an assessment "fair", it's what makes it generic. Knowing the individual students in a school along with the specific content they've been taught is what enables teachers to create assessments that are truly "fair".