Last week, the 16-year-old daughter of friends came home from a Minneapolis public school with a form that would allow her to opt out of the upcoming state standardized test.
According to the girl, her 10th-grade English teacher had handed out the forms to everyone in class and had urged them to get their parents to sign it. The teacher said that if enough students opted out of the Minnesota Comprehensive Exams, eventually the state would stop giving them. He also said he'd conduct regular classes for everyone opting out, leaving the impression that those who took the test would fall behind.
"Please," the girl pleaded, "Everyone else is opting out."
My friend said no. He thinks the state should annually assess how students are doing. So his daughter appealed to his wife, who also said no. Three hours of high drama, tears and anxiety ensued, after which the mom caved in and signed.
So that's the little tale behind one opt-out family. Six quick points:
1) I don't blame the 16-year-old. Who wouldn't want to opt out of a long standardized test — especially when your own teacher urges you to skip it and implies that you'll fall behind in class if you don't?
2) I don't blame the mom, either, because honestly, unless you've been besieged for hours by a teenage daughter, you really can't judge. Teens in full meltdown know how to expertly ratchet up the psychological pressure on their parents; they make Guantanamo interrogators look like amateurs. I'm surprised this mom held out for three full hours.
3) I do blame this teacher and others who urge their students to opt out. Can we be real here? Much of this recent movement has been organized and funded by the teachers unions, who seem to have a clear goal in mind. Namely, dumping the evidence.
Ever since passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, the feds and the state have required annual testing in grades three through eight and then once during high school. The results show how our schools are horribly failing black and brown children who now make up the majority in many of our cities. Alas, Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.
Granted, poverty plays a huge role and we need to fix it. But there are two more ways of getting rid of the gap.
• Option No. 1: We can change our schools to better fit the needs of students in the 21st century.
• Option No. 2: We can stop collecting the incriminating data. No evidence. No gap. No need to change a thing.
I can see why the teachers unions like Option No. 2, since this group is notoriously resistant to change. So let's stop pretending this is all about the terrors of testing and the loss of childhood and creativity, etc., because —
4) Historically, teachers have never had a problem with so-called "high-stakes" or "high-stress" testing. Hell, this is the profession that invented the dreaded final exam and surprise pop-quiz. Nor is standardized testing something new. The SAT exams were introduced in 1926. The Iowa Basic Skills Test, which even I, an ancient crone, took back in my elementary days, was first administered in 1935.
So why the new fuss? I think the real catalyst is the recent Minnesota law that requires 35 percent of a teacher's job evaluation to be based on students' academic growth, some of which can be measured by standardized test scores. The law went into effect last fall and — surprise, surprise — come spring we have teachers organizing students to opt out of testing.
5) There's something really off about a teacher urging his students to opt out of the very exam the state uses to measure the teacher's job performance. I mean, if the guy is so worried about his students being stressed by tests, he could dump one of his own exams. Or he could urge his students to opt out of a different standardized test. But, no, he chose the one test the state uses to measure both teacher and school performance. It's sort of like a doctor urging his patients to forgo blood pressure tests because he doesn't want to be evaluated on their health outcomes.
6) The state currently pays about $14,000 per pupil per year for students to attend Minneapolis Public Schools. All three of my kids went to MPS, so thank you, fellow taxpayers. But we're talking no small chunk of change here. Statewide, K-12 spending takes up 42 percent of the state's general fund. So I think the state, i.e., We The People, have both a right and a responsibility to assess how students — and their schools and their teachers — are doing.
Why not skip the bubble tests and simply trust a teacher's own assessments, as some teachers have urged? Because too many kids have received straight A's only to flunk college entrance exams. Others have been tracked to low-ability groups only to ace standardized tests. We use standardized tests for a reason.
Do I support overtesting, endless test prep, and getting rid of art, music or gym? Nope. I'm happy to stand with teachers and parents and fight all of those things. But if that 10th-grade English teacher doesn't want his students to take a state standardized test, he should stop taking state money. Go work for a private school. Ditto for parents who are opting out.
Lynnell Mickelsen is an education activist who blogs at Putkidsfirstmn.org.