I just sent this letter to my colleagues in the local chapter of my union. If the form letter included below would be helpful to any teacher or parent out there who is considering opting a child out of state testing or who might be talking with family and friends about this option, I thought I'd toss it up here.
I may be walking on thin ice here, but I wanted to share something with you. Our statewide union (the OEA), has taken a strong but nuanced position regarding high-stakes standardized testing. Essentially, they are arguing for a “Let’s Put Learning First” model in which we shift from a heavy emphasis on summative testing accomplished through expensive, multiple-choice, corporate-created, standardized tests, and toward formative assessments which are teacher created and which provide teachers with information to better help students. The OEA is not creating a replacement summative test, but they are working hard to lobby for a moratorium on the SBAC and for new legislation that validates and enshrines the notion that teachers know best, and students deserve to benefit from assessment.
There’s another element to the pushback against all this standardized testing. That’s the opt-out movement. This part can get a bit technical and tricky for us, as teachers, because there are limits to what we can advocate in our role as teachers, and there are certainly consequences for our schools. Oregon law allows parents to opt their children out of the testing for either religious reasons or due to disability. The principal of the school may then make a determination about the opt-out. If the principal refuses to allow the child to opt-out, that can be appealed to the superintendent. If I’m reading it correctly, the law does not explicitly dictate what happens when a parent is unsatisfied with the superintendent's verdict, but no one can stop a parent from bringing an issue to the school board, so I assume it could then be appealed there. When it comes to religion, the law does allow for a broad definition of religion which includes moral objections to the testing. When it comes to disability, the disability has to be diagnosed, but any student with an IEP is eligible. We are not allowed to encourage a parent to opt their child out while serving in our role as teachers. This certainly includes any time during the contract hours, and there’s some debate about whether we can do so during our off hours if we present ourselves as speaking as teachers rather than as citizens/parents/etc. We are, on the other hand, allowed to inform parents of their rights, even during IEP meetings. The line between advocacy and informing hasn’t really been established because, to my knowledge, no district has attempted to punish a teacher for advocating for opting out, and no teacher has counter-sued. Still, it’s a gray area, and I want you all to be informed about that.
Here’s where the opt-out is potentially good and potentially bad for us. The parents who tend to opt their children out of the testing tend to be those who are most informed about the effects of these tests on their kids and on our schools. It’s no surprise that there is a direct relationship between these parents and the scores their children will receive. Consequently, parents who have opted-out have received pleas from principals in other districts (bordering on harassment) to reconsider. We all understand why; if our highest performers opt out, it will affect our school’s rankings and our own evaluations. On the flip side, if a certain percentage of parents opt their children out, the tests for the entire school, or even the school district, are invalidated. This could give us significantly more time to teach our students. It could also pressure the state when it comes to a moratorium on SBAC. It could also cause the Feds to revoke our waiver and throw us back into NCLB hell. If you’d like to learn more about the opt-out movement, here’s a good website, and here’s the OEA’s page on the subject.
When it comes to opting out, it’s the official position of the OEA that this movement is best left to parents. Their voices are more powerful when it comes to swaying the district on this issue, and they can’t be accused of anything other than looking out for the best interests of their own children. Teachers in some school districts have joined with parent groups to attempt to broaden the number and kind of parent opting his/her child out. Some have participated in holding screenings of the film Standardized. Some have made presentations to their school boards. I’m not proposing anything like that at this time, though I’m interested in hearing where you all stand on this issue.
Instead, I’m writing to all of you as someone who wears too many hats. I’m your president, and a teacher, and a parent of a child in our district. One of our colleagues asked me if I was going to opt my son out of the testing. After much discussion with my wife and with other teachers, we’ve decided that we do want to do that for his sake. I want to be very clear: I am not asking any of you to do this. It’s a deeply personal decision. However, if you do decide to opt you own children out of the testing, or if you find yourself talking to family or friends about this option, I want to encourage you to remember to include a particular note in the letter that needs to be sent to the school. I think it’s important that we let our schools know that we are not opting our children out of the testing because we don’t trust their teachers or because we fear accountability. It’s precisely because we do believe in their teachers, and that they have proven to us through their excellent work with our children that they are accountable to us, as parents.
Consequently, I’ve taken the letter I will be sending and I’ve converted it into a fill-in-the-blank form that any parents can copy and paste, tweak, and submit if she/he chooses to do so. This is my variation on a letter written by Jerry Rosiek, a professor in the College of Education at The University of Oregon. I hope you find this helpful and don’t feel that I’ve overstepped my bounds.
Teacher at CHS
Proud Father of Noah Gorman
cc [Teacher’s Name]
Thank you for your work with my [son/daughter], [child’s name]. I feel confident that [he/she] is receiving an excellent education at [name of school].
I am writing to officially opt [child’s name] out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests, the OAKS tests, the Easy CBM tests, and any other standardized tests which do not provide [child’s name]’s teacher, [teacher’s name], with timely, useful information which will guide [her/his] instruction of my [son/daughter].
As I’m sure you know, OAR 581-022-1910 states: “The school district may excuse students from a state required program or learning activity, where necessary, to accommodate students' disabilities or religious beliefs.” The Oregon Test Administration Manual elaborates that ““Parents may request that their student be exempted from state testing based on either disability or religion. OAR 581-022-1910 allows school districts to excuse students from a state required program or learning activity, including state testing, to accommodate a student’s disabilities or religious beliefs. In order for a school district to excuse a student from testing under this rule, the student’s parent must submit a written request to the school district, listing the reasons for the request and proposing an alternative individualized learning activity for the student that meets the same goals that would be accomplished by participation in state testing. Appropriate school personnel must evaluate and approve the parent request.”
I believe you are the appropriate representative of the school who should approve such a request. If not, I trust you will see to it that this request is given to the appropriate decision-maker.
The courts have held that the term “religion” in the law should be interpreted broadly to include moral objections. I have strong moral objections to a battery of testing that is not designed to improve my [son/daughter]’s education. The coalition of people pushing these tests have a handful of different agendas. Specifically, some want to undermine public education to push voters into accepting vouchers and other forms of privatization, others want to make political gains by destroying teachers’ unions, and others have explicitly stated that they want to maximize profit for shareholders through the public schools. None of these agendas are focused on improving [child’s name]’s education, so I don’t believe any of those agendas should be countenanced by our public schools.
This letter is my formal request for [child’s name]’s opt-out. My first choice for a proposed alternative individualized learning activity is that such a decision should be made by [child’s name]’s teacher, [teacher’s name]. [She/He] has impressed me with [her/his] competence, professionalism, and judgement. In the face of countless demands to prove [her/his] “accountability” to politicians and pundits, [teacher’s name] has proven, through [her/his] work with [child’s name], that [she/he] is accountable to the children she teaches and to their parents. I believe [her/his] assessment of [child’s name] needs will lead to the most appropriate individualized plan. However, if you require a more specific plan from me, I would be satisfied if [child’s name] simply read books [his/her] teacher has identified as being at [his/her] reading level while other students took those tests. Frankly, just about any activity would be a better use of [his/her] time than tests designed to assess and punish [his/her] teacher and school rather than teach [him/her].
So that I don’t end on such a cynical note, I want to reiterate that I am grateful that [child’s name] has the opportunity to attend [school’s name] and learn in [teacher’s name]’s classroom. Please know that my desire to opt [child’s name] out of the testing is in no way a criticism of the education [he/she] is receiving at [school’s name]; in fact, it’s a reflection of my desire for [him/her] to maximize [his/her] time there learning all your excellent staff have to teach [him/her].
Again, thank you for all you do for [child’s name] and all the students of [school’s name].
Parent of [Child’s Name]