This letter is posted on Facebook. The parent sent it to me:

Dear (school principal),

This letter is to respectfully inform you of the decision my husband and I have made to opt our children out of the 3rd grade STAAR tests on Apr. 24 and 25 and the make-up tests on Apr. 26 and 27. We understand it is Austin ISD’s position that “by law there is no opt out for students” and that even though the test will not count towards school ratings this year, our children’s “unexcused” absences may negatively impact the school’s Adequate Yearly Progress report. We have been active, involved members of the school community, and our family has always supported the school and its many wonderful teachers, but after long and careful thought about what is best for our children and a great deal of reading on the topic of high-stakes standardized testing, we feel we must act on our convictions and engage in civil disobedience rather than be coerced into participating in a testing system that is deeply flawed morally and pedagogically, the result of corporate greed and political agendas that do not serve our children or anyone else’s.

The decision to engage in civil disobedience is not an easy one, and I would like to explain how we came to it. Our opt out story begins exactly two years ago when David, then a first-grader, came home from school and blurted out, “I hate the TAKS test!” At a loss to understand how he could be so upset about a test he didn’t have to take, I started asking questions and was stunned to learn that his class had had a substitute most of TAKS week because his teacher was required to serve as a proctor for the test. The substitute, it seems, was little more than an unenthusiastic babysitter who sat at her desk and handed out worksheets day after day. As David understood it, she told the children they couldn’t use the bathroom so much because the noise of the flushing toilet would disturb a child testing in the next room.

As the mother of first graders, the TAKS had barely been on my radar, but when I questioned David further, I was upset to have to learn from my seven-year-old what impact the TAKS was having on the entire school: all specials and recess had been cancelled not only for testing grades but for every grade.

In his email to school administrators explaining that “Parents may not opt out of testing of any kind,” AISD General Counsel Mel Waxler encourages “parents who believe the standardized tests place undue pressure on their students . . . to meet with their child’s school counselor to develop solutions tailored to their child’s needs.” But “undue pressure” is endemic in high-stakes testing! When schools are virtually hermetically sealed during testing weeks, when all visitors, mentors, and parents who just want to have lunch with their child in the cafeteria are virtually banned from the school, when everyone must tiptoe and whisper in the hallways, when adults responsible for children’s well-being tell them they can’t go to the bathroom because the toilet flushing makes too much noise, children absorb it all, and the damage is done. I vividly recall my own “culture shock” seeing the window in the door of the testing coordinator’s office covered in black construction paper. No matter that I was an adult who didn’t have to take the test, even I felt anxious.

It was after I posted a rant on the school listserv the following fall, hoping to start a discussion with the new school year, that I learned I needed to redirect my outrage. Without legislative change, the teachers and administrators, too, are under “undue pressure,” trapped in an education system in which there is way too much emphasis placed on standardized test scores.

I learned from talking with you after your STAAR presentation on March 20 that what children endured with the TAKS was even worse than I had realized. I had had no idea that because the test had no time limit, some children were still testing at 5:30pm and later, laying their head down to nap when too tired to continue. Since the STAAR is timed, hopefully no child will be testing into the evening, but a four-hour exam for third graders is still far too long.

You explained to me that it’s not really a four-hour test but a four-hour testing window, and you fully expected the third-graders to finish the test in 2 to 2 1/2 hours, after which they would return to their usual schedule.

I’m still concerned that most of testing week will be far from “learning as usual.” First of all, Ms. A, the AISD administrator you referred me to, confirmed that the test will contain field test items and “the inclusion of field test items will make for a longer [than four-hour] exam.” Almost certainly there will be at least a few children who use most or all of the time allowed, so for two days in a row many children may be forced to sit in their seats after finishing a long, stressful exam and read silently for over an hour while others struggle to finish the test. Also, unlike a normal day, not only are all specials cancelled but so, too, are afterschool classes, which I cannot understand the need for now that there is a time limit on the test and presumably no students will be testing anywhere in the school at that time. The sad irony is that it’s the creativity class that’s cancelled.

I’m even more concerned about the quality of the test. The dearth of information from TEA about how the STAAR was written and field-tested casts doubt on the validity of the test itself as an assessment tool. Are the test items fair and well written? Do they measure what they’re intended to measure?

I emailed Ms. A with several questions about the STAAR. First, I asked if I might be able to see not only sample test questions but also the corresponding standards a sample question assesses to help clarify for me the difference between standards for the “current year’s grade,” vs. “readiness for the next grade” vs. “readiness for the year after that” (from your PowerPoint presentation). Without examples, this is obfuscating language. It seems to me that success at the current grade in itself should indicate readiness for what comes next. Ms. A took the time to send me what sample test items she could, and I sincerely appreciate the effort she put into her reply to my email, just as I do yours. Unfortunately, what I was looking for is not available.

The only information I could find pertaining to STAAR field-testing on the TEA website states, “field-test items will, for the most part, be imbedded in the actual test,” (as Ms. A confirmed) but nothing about how the test has been field-tested. After reading the Pearson test passage about a sleeveless pineapple that’s been in the news and learning that same nonsensical passage with its ridiculous questions has been in several Pearson tests, I’m more skeptical than ever about the quality of test items on the STAAR, which is produced by Pearson.

Based on all I’ve read, even if I could confirm the test questions are valid and well written, I still could not agree with you that the STAAR is of value to parents because, as you say, it will “provide valuable information on [a] child’s performance relative to others in the school, district, and state.” Just as researchers have rejected TAKS test results as bad data, so, no doubt, will they dismiss the results of the STAAR, another criterion-based test with arbitrary passing scores, which won’t even be decided for this year’s test until fall!

How did we get here? The obsession with high-stakes testing, it seems, began with NCLB; Education Commissioner Robert Scott recently called the current system a “perversion” of what was originally intended. Even when research shows that standardized testing is a poor measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness, even when we know a test-driven curriculum does not “promote innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking” (National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing), our legislators pretend the emperor has clothes. Why?

Superintendent John Kuhn speaks truth to power when he says, “Follow the money and you will find where our education dollars go and who benefits the most from those dollars. You will not find teachers. You will not find students. You will not find parents. You will not find effective teaching and learning. You will find Pearson [with whom the state of Texas has a $500 million contract] and legislators,” and “when it’s about profit, it’s not about kids.”

A system that fails to cultivate creativity and innovation will never prepare our children for the future. “The Creativity Crisis” describes Indiana University professor Jonathan Plucker’s tour of China, where “there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach. Plucker recently toured a number of such schools in Shanghai and Beijing. He was amazed by a boy who, for a class science project, rigged a tracking device for his moped with parts from a cell phone. When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. ‘After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,’ Plucker says. ‘They said, “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”‘”

As strongly as we feel against high-stakes testing, we would not be opting our children out without their full support. When it came time to ask both boys, “What would you say if I told you that you could choose whether to take the STAAR test or not?” David started cheering and hugged me and Paul grinned. I’ve explained to them the gist of what I’ve learned and assured them that we know and their teachers know they’re fully capable of passing the test; opting out has nothing to do with concern they won’t pass. They understand that they will miss out on a post-test celebration, and they’re fine with it. “That’s okay, Mom, I’ve missed other parties.”

In fact, I briefly considered asking their teachers if they would allow them to do a research project as an alternative challenge to earn the right to attend the party, but when I started to tell David and Paul about my idea, I got no further than “research project.” David, who this year grew from a fact sponge into a researcher, was literally bouncing up and down with excitement, “I LOVE research projects! I want to research more about deep ocean creatures and learn more about creatures I haven’t studied yet! I want to make a poster, I love making posters!” Paul, who loves learning about the natural world just as much as his brother, was very excited, too. At that moment I realized they really just want to learn and have fun doing it, no reward necessary, and the knot in my stomach over the decision to opt out completely disappeared.

We are taking full advantage of opt out week and David and Paul will be night fishing in Port Aransas and visiting the Texas State Aquarium, where they will gather information for a poster display. On Thursday they will have a tour of Amy’s Ice Cream, go to Amy’s website for a reading scavenger hunt, and use the menu for math practice.

To conclude, our reasons for opting out of the STAAR are twofold: to do what we feel is best for our children and to protest against the high-stakes testing industry by choosing not to participate in it. Now that the school board has passed the resolution on high-stakes testing, my hope is that the momentum will build and the legislature will gather the political will to tackle real education reform. When you see David and Paul next week, you might ask them what they learned this week. If you do, you’re likely to be buried under a happy avalanche of information about the ocean and ice cream.

Texas Parent Against High-Stakes Testing