Today I had the opportunity to testify before the Oregon legislature's Senate Education Committee where I argued in support of House Bill 2655, a universal opt-out from state standardized testing. Here's the text of what I shared (including a couple paragraphs I had to cut for time). I originally included the video in this post, but it played automatically and I couldn't stop that function. I don't like videos that play without being told to any more than you do, so I've removed it, but if you'd like a copy, let me know!
"Good afternoon, Chair Roblan and members of the committee. For the record, my name is Benjamin Gorman. I live in Independence, Oregon. I’m an English teacher at Central High School. Thank you for allowing me to speak with you today.
"As a teacher, a lot of my job revolves around asking questions, and the best questions I can ask don’t have simple answers. I invite you all to come visit my classroom and meet some wonderful young Oregonians who are learning to critically examine every side of the most difficult questions I can think of.
"Today I'm here to ask a question that's not just difficult; it's impossible. Our school districts have been told they must encourage at least 95% of all students to take tests we know won't help in the education of those kids. If there's any doubt about that, let's put that to rest; the tests are not designed to provide diagnostic information. That's not their purpose. The companies that make them and sell them admit that. Furthermore, we don't get the results until after those students are through with the school year. The tests don’t even help students indirectly by improving the system. We’ve been living in the shadow of No Child Left Behind for more than a decade, and the most important thing we’ve learned is that directing resources away from instruction doesn’t improve instruction; testing students more doesn’t mean teaching them better.
"Many districts freely admit they would rather not give the tests. While giving these tests under duress, the districts also have to deal with the fact that parents have the right to opt their children out of the tests, but only if those students have a disability or a religious objection. Caught in this bind, the districts try to limit which of those opt-outs they will honor. Some districts say certain conditions, like anxiety, don’t qualify unless they rise to the level of an IEP. Others say that moral objections don’t qualify as religious. A different district’s superintendent told me he wouldn’t accept a religious objection which hadn’t been presented to him before the new SBAC test because he didn’t believe a person suddenly converted. Both these kinds of denials create dangerous legal liabilities for the districts. If a parent challenged a denial stating that their child’s condition didn’t constitute a disability, the district could find itself in an expert-filled courtroom. If the parent challenged the denial of a religious objection, or even a moral objection, the district would almost certainly lose a legal fight because the district personnel or the elected school board members would be acting as government representatives establishing which religions or lack-of-religions gave parents certain rights, a clear violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment. But because parents don’t know about these rights, and because many parents wouldn’t consider suing, the opt-out provision, as it currently stands, creates an equity issue; students with parents who have more education and means get one set of rights, and parents who don’t get denials. But then, when a district is faced with dual mandates to test every student while allowing some students to opt out, how is a district supposed to behave? Like I said, the question is impossible.
"As a parent and a teacher, I found myself in a nearly impossible situation, too. I knew I had the right to opt my son out of the testing and, as a teacher, I knew the testing would do him no good. But I also knew that a battle with my son’s school district was a battle with my bosses. Ultimately, I chose to opt him out, despite the fact that it put me and my employers in a tight spot. It came down to my moral beliefs, and I ask you to consider if they rise to the level of a religious objection.
"Here’s what I believe, and what I don’t believe:
"I do not believe the people who run my school district want to make third graders cry for no reason. The district’s leaders are scared, scared that they will be punished by the state, that they will lose funding or be sanctioned in some way, and so they hurt those children because they have made the calculation that those children’s unnecessary but temporary pain is offset by the pain the state could inflict on all the children year round.
"I don’t believe that you, the members of Oregon’s legislature, want to make third grade Oregonians cry for no good reason. I think you are scared that the federal government will do to us what they have already done to the state of Washington if you choose to abolish the whole testing regime.
"I don’t believe that the legislators at the federal level want to make third graders cry for no reason. They’re scared, too. They are scared that the contributions from their corporate donors might dry up. They’re scared voters might not think they are being prudent with tax dollars if they don’t continue wasting them on measuring schools and actually spend them on more instruction.
"Here’s what I do believe: I believe it’s wrong for adults to needlessly hurt children out of cowardice. I believe every religion agrees on that point.
"Passing a universal opt-out takes the decision out of the hands of frightened adults and puts it in the hands of brave parents. I’m asking you to give parents the power to decide what is best for their children. Maybe those parents’ courage will flow up the chain of command and be felt in Washington D.C.
"Please, be brave for Oregon’s parents and Oregon’s kids. Support a universal opt-out.
Follow-up: It did pass out of committee, then went to the Senate where is also passed. The bill is now headed to the Governor's desk. Woot!
Joce Johnson, Statesman Journal
"The Oregon Senate approved a bill that would enable parents to opt their children out of statewide tests despite warnings from the federal government that the state may lose federal funding for schools if the legislation passed.
"HB 2655, otherwise known as the Student Assessment Bill of Rights, passed 24-6.
"The bill says that parents have a right to excuse their student from a statewide summative assessment, the Smarter Balanced Test, and that districts have an obligation to to provide notice of that right to families."