Commissioner misleading educators on testing opt-outs


Educators, parents and students need to be aware that Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester is disseminating misleading information as he seeks to discourage parents from opting their children out of high-stakes standardized tests.

In a recently published policy statement, Chester notes that districts are required by law to give the tests, but states this in such a way as to suggest that individual students are therefore required by law to take the tests. They are not. Our compulsory education statutes require a student's attendance at a local school, but not participation in state-mandated standardized tests. Except in the case of the 10th-grade tests, which are required by law for graduation, individual students may opt out without personal educational repercussions. Chester's memo goes further by saying that MCAS is a "mandatory part of the curriculum" - a statement whose meaning is unclear, but which seems to be written to imply legal requirements where there are none.

Individual students may opt out of standardized tests, and parents may opt their children out. As citizens, our members have a right to inform parents about their right to make decisions for and with their children, including the decision to opt out. As educators, we have a duty to be open to their concerns about testing and over-testing.

The Less Testing, More Learning Coalition sent a letter to the commissioner in response to the recent policy statement, expressing outrage over the tone and content of the message sent to districts, which some are apparently now distributing. Compared to a previous advisory about standardized testing from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Chester's latest memo is shocking because of its directives to educators on how they should treat children who opt out of MCAS testing.

By resorting to a threatening tone, the DESE reveals its fears that the public is starting to realize what so many educators already know: High-stakes testing hurts education and impedes true learning. It is troubling that rather than responding to the growing discontent with high-stakes testing by stopping and listening, the DESE has doubled down on shutting down dissent.

Over the last six weeks, the MTA has sponsored two meetings of educators, parents and other community members to discuss the impact of high-stakes testing on students and educators - and how to organize to resist these tests. Based on these meetings, plans are being made to hold local forums and to reach out to parents through house parties and coffee hours. We will share information at these events about opting out. We will be offering support to those who choose to opt out and using testing audits to organize and educate members and the community.

Some educators are also going to seek "conscientious objector" status and ask to be reassigned during testing so they do not have to give the tests. Those interested in claiming conscientious objector status should contact me since there are important tactical considerations in how to use this request as a way to draw attention to the devastating impact of testing on students and the moral quandary of educators required to give the tests.

The MTA remains committed to supporting students and families who opt out of standardized tests. Regardless of Chester's latest memo, no law or right has changed to prevent opting out of MCAS tests.

I strongly encourage members to join us for our next Less Testing, More Learning meeting, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 26. We will have one meeting in our Quincy headquarters and another meeting at the same time at a location yet to be determined in Western Massachusetts.

Mark your calendars. Join the struggle. Do not let misinformation and threats distract you from our mission: to do right by the students of Massachusetts and to provide educational experiences that allow students to grow in myriad ways so that they know school as a joyful and loving space - and so they come to know and trust themselves and their world.

In solidarity,