Forums focus on right to opt out

 During a recent forum in Hingham, educators and parents discussed their concerns about the negative effects that high-stakes standardized tests are having on students.During a recent forum in Hingham, educators and parents discussed their concerns about the negative effects that high-stakes standardized tests are having on students.

Even parents who are active in their local schools often don’t know that it is their right to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized tests such as the MCAS and PARCC exams.

But what many parents do know — and are growing increasingly frustrated about — is how such tests negatively affect their children.

This spring, the MTA’s Education Policy and Practice Committee has been helping locals organize community forums so that parents and educators can share their stories and learn how to refuse standardized tests.

Members of the committee recently worked with Hull Teachers Association activist Deb McCarthy to organize a forum in Hingham at which parents exchanged emotionally charged stories and educators lamented the way standardized testing has co-opted learning. Participants also received samples of opt-out letters that parents can send to school administrators.

"People look at data and think they are getting a picture of the kid, and that’s not an accurate depiction at all of that student."

— Norton teacher
Jennifer Skowronek

Alain Jehlen of Citizens for Public Schools and Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, attended the forum on April 5 and told the audience that despite what some school districts claim, students are not required by the state to take the MCAS, PARCC or the forthcoming "MCAS 2.0"; that students won’t be penalized for opting out; and that schools will not lose funding if students opt out.

Nationally, standardized testing in English language arts and math is coming under intense scrutiny, with parents and educators questioning the necessity and accuracy of the tests in determining how well students and their schools are performing.

At the Hingham forum, a group of mothers from Hull described how their children grew more sullen — and disengaged about school — once standardized testing became part of their academic lives.

One mother burst into tears when she described how her son, now 20, was a bright student who felt like a failure because he did not do well on the MCAS.

"I can’t opt out anymore, but I’m here to tell you I support you," she said.

Educators at the event took issue with standardized testing’s impact on what happens in the classroom. Not only do the tests drain too much time from learning, they said, but they have an insidious side effect: making students feel that they must always pursue the one right answer.

"Kids want that one definitive answer to a problem, and they are not as willing to be creative and look at all possible answers," said June Gustafason, vice president of the Hingham Education Association. "That’s very sad for me as an educator."

Norton special education teacher Jennifer Skowronek was glad to see an opt-out forum in her district. She views the issue from the perspective of both a concerned teacher and a parent.

"I left corporate America so I didn’t have to look at data all day," said Skowronek, who began teaching eight years ago. "People look at data and think they are getting a picture of the kid, and that’s not an accurate depiction at all of that student."

Skowronek decided she did not want to subject her daughter, a fourth-grader in Raynham, to such testing, but she didn’t know that refusing the tests was an option until she heard about it through the MTA.

"My daughter’s teachers know her better than the test does," Skowronek said.

MTA delegates vote for opt-out movement

At last year’s Annual Meeting, delegates voted to support the right of parents to opt their children out of high-stakes standardized testing and urged the MTA to assist locals that want to organize forums.

Dan Clawson, a member of the Education Policy and Practice Committee, emphasized the importance of publicly sharing the decision to opt out.

"You want to protect your kid, and at the same time it’s sending an important message," he said. "When you discuss this decision, others feel comfortable doing it."

When Skowronek discussed her own decision on a Facebook group page of Raynham parents, others followed suit, and more parents began to consider removing their children from testing.

Across the state, the opt-out movement is spreading in the form of resolutions passed by school committees, city councils and other municipal bodies.

The resolutions pledge support for parents and students who refuse testing, support for educators who speak out against standardized testing, and in some cases supporting MTA-backed legislation in favor of a moratorium on the high-stakes uses of testing.

On March 10, the New Salem/Wendell School Committee unanimously passed a resolution supporting parents who opt their children out of PARCC tests this spring.

The resolution also encourages teachers and staff members to let parents know they have the choice of opting out.

Pushback from districts

But in other places, parents and educators have been subjected to misinformation. In Framingham, for example, the school district circulated a press release stating that students are required to participate in standardized testing.

Framingham Teachers Association Co-President Sarah McKeon told the School Committee that it was wrong for parents to be told their children must take the tests and affirmed the FTA’s role in supporting parents no matter which decision they make.

Bob Erlandsen, vice president of the Cohasset Teachers Association, told the participants at the Hingham forum that educators are not against accountability; they just want assessments that are meaningful.

"We’d love to see performance-based assessments created by teachers," he said. "That’s not something easily standardized. But kids aren’t big data."