Parents (and kids) opposed to standardized testing took their fight to the streets this past weekend during the annual Zombie Crawl. With bloody pencils protruding from their skulls, kids held signs with messages such as, "Testing Kills Brains."
"Standardized testing is actually harmful for our children," says Amber Olson, a mother of three and the founder of Denver Opt Out, which encourages parents to opt their children out of the so-called TCAP tests, which the state says are mandatory.
"It is not a diagnostic test to help our children learn," adds Olson, who plans to opt her two youngest children out of testing for the first time this year. "It's a test purely made to asses teacher ability and school ability. But unfortunately, it's biased to individuals of color and children with special needs.... These tests do not help children know where they are and what they need to learn in their school. They unfairly take time away from actual learning in the classroom and focus more on memorization."
Two of Olson's children have special needs; her oldest son has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and her youngest son struggles with ADHD. Her oldest son, who's now eighteen and out of high school, once walked out of a standardized test because his school wasn't following his Individualized Education Plan. The plan dictated that he be allowed to take tests alone rather than in a crowded classroom and that he not be tested for more than an hour at a time in order to cut down on his anxiety issues.
"Because standardized testing is so strict when it comes to rules, he was required to sit in class for three hours without a break, among other students," Olson says. "He...knew it would cause him issues, so he actually walked out of the test. I'm proud of him."
The testing has caused stress for her younger children, too. Her middle son, who's nine and in fourth grade, took the TCAP for the first time last year. "He would come to me on a nightly basis, crying and afraid he was going to fail and would never do well in school," Olson says. "You don't want your kids crying. You want your kids to be happy to be in school. You want your kids to love school."
Olson learned about the opt-out movement this past summer while attending a social justice conference in Chicago, where she spoke with the union representative from a Seattle high school whose teachers boycotted standardized testing. "Their story was so inspirational to me that I decided to bring this fight to DPS," Olson says.
So on Saturday, Denver Opt Out participated in the Zombie Crawl, handing out flyers and raising awareness about its nascent campaign against standardized testing.
"The reason why we did the Zombie Crawl is because we wanted to make a statement that these tests are turning our children into test zombies -- literally," Olson says. "We had a tremendous response. Children were running up to us asking about these things. We had Latino students who were translating our flyers to Spanish-speaking parents. We had parents and educators finding us in the crowd to get information from us and to talk to us about how they are done with these tests."
Olson calls opting out a "legal right." When asked how a parent goes about opting out, Olson points to a website called UnitedOptOut.com, whose Colorado webpage has a guide for parents. It includes a sample letter for parents to send to the school principal:
I am writing on behalf of _____ to opt him/her out of the (test name). He/she is neither permitted to take the exam during mandated testing days nor during designated make-up sessions. Additionally, I am requesting that the school make accommodations for meaningful alternative activities or assignments that will continue to promote his/her academic and intellectual growth. My child will not be in attendance if academically viable alternatives are not available. Furthermore, I must be guaranteed in writing that whatever option is taken, either alternative assignments or absence, my child will not face any negative consequences to, for example, course grades, social or behavioral evaluations, workload, promotion, or future classroom assignments.
Strict adherence to state and federal high-stakes standardized testing, including the extensive classroom preparation that occurs prior to test administration, prevents my child from receiving a well-rounded and engaging educational experience. Until focus on testable skills diminishes to a reasonable extent, I will continue to withhold my child from participation in the testing program, and I ask that you honor that decision.
I do apologize in advance for the inconvenience or scrutiny that this decision may cause the administration, the school, and staff.
But will that strategy work? The Colorado Department of Education says the TCAP tests are mandatory -- and that the only realistic way for a parent to opt their child out is to keep him or her home from school on the testing days. Here's an excerpt from a TCAP FAQ document found on the department's website:
Q: Can parents "opt out" and not have their students take the TCAP?
A: No. Per state law [22-7-409(1.2.a.1.d.I)], every Colorado student enrolled in a public school is required to take either the TCAP or CoAlt in the appropriate grade levels and content areas. Some have argued that State Law 22-1-123 (5) (a) gives parents an "opt out" for state assessments because it states, "Schools (etc.)... shall obtain the written consent of a student's parent or legal guardian prior to the student being given any survey, analysis, or evaluation..." However, this law only pertains to certain types of sensitive, personal student information such as political affiliations, mental illness, and income. State required achievement assessments are not affected by this section of the code.
Q: If parents cannot opt out of the TCAP, what is the "parent refusal" bubble used for?
A: If, despite legal requirements, parents keep their students home on testing days and test make up days this constitutes a refusal and the "parent refusal" bubble should be shaded in. For assessment purposes, parent refusals will be accounted as a "no score". Schools may treat parent refusals as unexcused absences and schools are not obligated to provide alternative activities for students whose parents refuse the state assessment.
Denver Opt Out's next move is to hold a meeting on November 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gypsy House Cafe, at which Olson hopes to organize a rally for January.
But before then, she says it's important that parents vote in the upcoming Denver Public Schools Board of Education election. Four seats on the seven-member board are up for grabs, and Olson says she'd like to see them filled with candidates who want to take DPS in a different direction -- candidates such as Rosario C. de Baca, who's running in District 2, where Olson lives. "The tides can turn pretty quickly," Olson says.
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