Sunday, May 13, 2012

Opting Out of State Testing: Motherhood and Boys' Dreams

Skyrim Screen Shot from here.
I. Boys Dream.

During breakfast my son explains how he and a few others are designing a 3D-RPG set in ancient times. The "few others" hail from England and they are actively recruiting other online friends from Japan and Australia and inviting them to bring on their mad programming and design skills. Although they are still discussing roles, they have identified game engine designer, pixel artist, 3D-modeler, environment builder, base programmer, and first person character model designer as essential roles that they believe they can fulfill.  My son's 13 and the boys he's designing with are between the ages of 12 and 15. None have taken official programming classes.  They learn from each other, others on line, reference materials, trial and error.  Their goal is to design and produce a kick ass game that has better graphics than Skyrim. I'm rooting for them.

As a mom, I recognize that the distance between my son's on-line learning life and school is vast and seems to be growing more so each week.  At home he is imagining himself as a programmer and has been learning C++ quite ardently for the last year.  C++ is a programming language and functions as a composing tool.  At school the composition models he is given and expected to follow are of the five-paragraph kind that are designed to replicate state testing.  The reading he does at school is limited to text book passages, test prepping, and YA fiction and children's literature, such as The Outsiders, The Giver, or Freak the Mighty. Alongside the literature are multiple choice NJ-ASK-like tests and short answer responses.  At school, social media is banned and collaboration is limited to peer response to state testing prompt writing.

Screen Shot from Skyrim.
Nary a Skyrim in sight. And frankly, that's problematic. Few of the school activities actually match what literate people do.

The quality of learning at public school is directly connected to the state mandated testing emphasis that has grown out of control since NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and has intensified even more so since RTTT (Race to the Top).  If we want to know why public school learning is less than we want and need, we need only look at those beyond the public school door who have removed the teacher from the classroom and replaced him or her with test prepping. Teachers are kept from teaching in some schools and instead are made to "do test prep."  Electives are replaced with test prepping courses. Curriculum is narrowed. The number of minutes dedicated to science, social studies, art, music, and language has been lessened. All of these actions reduce learning, interest, passion, and commitment.

It's discouraging as a mom to see how narrow the range of learning is at school and how test-centric it has become.  For example, my son, like all students at his middle school, had to take "Creative Math" as an elective, so that students had even more time to learn 'school math.'  What teachers and children at my son's school love and feel passionate about seem to be less an impetus for curriculum design than school reading, writing and math that are privileged on foolish and foolishly made state tests.

The one-to-one correlation between state testing and school curriculum is a mistake and is killing learning.

II. Parents Act.

My husband is a public school educator and I was one for more than 20 years, so it was challenging in many ways to say no to state testing mandates this year.  We did so realizing there could be professional ramifications to our actions.  Nonetheless, we sent a letter to the superintendent of schools and the Board of Education where we live requesting that our son be excused from the NJ ASK (New Jersey's state assessment for reading, writing, math and science).  Here's a portion of the letter:
We are writing to request that our child, XXXXXXX, who is currently a seventh
grader at XXXXX Middle School, be excused from all state testing (NJ ASK). We
have given this great thought and have concluded that the current diet of state
testing in New Jersey is potentially harmful to our son and does not yield important
information about our child. Since 2008 when XXXXXXXX was in third grade he has sat
for the week long assessment. Four years of testing have not provided us with any
reliable or important information about our son’s intellectual capacity. Rather, we
see that our tax dollars have simply been used by state officials to enrich companies
who profit by creating or scoring these measures.

We live in complex times and the archaic method of paper and pencil tests to
measure school math and reading/writing information need to be retired. These
tasks do not reflect the learning we seek for our child, nor do they represent the
complexity of thinking he needs in order to be both joyful and productive in his life.
Further the narrowness of the measures is also highly problematic.

As the state test is a privileged event in New Jersey, we are concerned that our son
is learning that the test content represents the totality of what is important to learn.
If this event occurred once in his life we would be less concerned. However, the
testing culture that permeates schools as a result of NCLB (2002) and the continued
emphasis by President Obama’s education department is informing what our
child thinks is important to know. We do not consider school-based mathematics,
reading and writing tasks as represented on state assessments as being important
and certainly disagree that these slices of contrived disciplinary knowledge are
representative of what a healthy child might come to understand. Simply put, we
want far more for our child and know that these tests stand in the way to better and
more complex understandings of what it means to know, create, and collaborate in

We do not want to resort to removing our child from the school for the two weeks
of testing. Our concern is not with the public school or the board of education, but rather with the federal and state imposition of mandatory testing. We seek to be
honest and deliberate in our request for our son to be able to opt out of NJ-ASK
testing. Again, we request this primarily as we see this testing regime to be harmful
to him.

Please advise.

A week later we received an email from the superintendent who we like and respect that indicated that our request would not be honored as testing is written into state code and must be obeyed (at least by school officials).  I then forwarded to him a letter in which another family from a public school district in NJ with a seventh grader had been excused from the testing.  This seemed to give some pause as the return email from the superintendent indicated that my son would need to be out the following week of testing as it is make up testing and he also gave me the name and number of the state official in NJ. I did phone the NJDOE representative who to date has never returned the call.

The absence of a shiny letter giving us permission, gave us pause and we are better for it.  No authority was going to directly support our parental decision to remove our son from state testing.  We simply needed to take action. And so we did. During the testing week, our son attended school after the morning test was concluded and arrived late during the make up week.  We hope our actions are replicated and that a collective of parents helps to re-balance public school curricula so that teachers' and children's lives and interests may once again matter.

III. Love.

Circa, 1967 (M.A. Reilly)
Parents' love of their children represents a force far more powerful than multinational corporations or politicians and their political appointees.  In the weeks since our son opted out, the news stories about state testing from both New York and New Jersey reaffirm our decision.  From Pineapplegate to a daily tally of Pearson test errors to making 8-year-olds confess their secrets--the idiocy is apparent and reveals the greed that motivates state tests regardless of the rhetoric about "being ready for this century."

I ask you what is writing a five paragraph essay on a secret you've never told anyone getting a child 'ready' to do? 

I want to believe that love is greater than corporate greed; that it is greater than re-election hopes--regardless of what cloth these ideologies get wrapped in.  Beneath such dressing is a stink we cannot deny--one that is killing our children's dreams, motivating fine teachers to leave education, and oddly creating less and less skillful and confident learners.

When boys and girls dream...we ought to pay attention. As parents we need to stand up for our children and say NO to federal and state testing impositions.


  1. Great piece Mary Ann,

    It is a tough call for educators on the opt out because often it's about state law. I've become convinced that the parents and students will ultimately be the voice that turns this in to a national conversation and ultimately action to stop the test frenzy. Yong Zhao has a great argument about why our drive towards China-centric and corp-driven standardization will produce the exact opposite of what we need to do as a nation. He has by nation entrepreneurial capacity vs standardized test performance data to support his position. He calls the strength of the US the "accidental" curricula - what your son and others are doing - vs what they are directed to do in school today as a result of the test-prep curricula. He notes that China can't produce a Steve Jobs or a Lady GaGa because of their drive towards mass standardization of thinking and doing - we need, in Zhao's opinion to return to mass localization and make the accidental curricula - arts, extracurricular, coder dojos, maker spaces, shade tree mechanics - informally and formally the driving force of public education - it's all about choice, curiosity, collaboration, connectivity, creativity.

    Hats off to the boys for their playful learning with programming- they'll be leading the next generation of imaginators!

    1. I love the idea of the accidental curricula. What a clever way to characterize the everyday collisions that can and do occur when people are free to explore, create, connect. I also deeply worry about the many boys and girls who for any number of reasons are stuck in the standardized curricula with no connection beyond or none that are legitimized.

      Yes, it will be parents and children who lead this. We are a significant voice that together might counter those who stand to profit. BTW, have a fabulous time in Ireland. Catherine mentioned when I was in England that you and Ira were coming to Ireland to keynote at a conference. Had I lots of funds I would have made that conference. :)

  2. my heart cries every day. this is huge. I mean.. this is about people. the human spirit.. our kids.
    I laugh every day as well... each time I realize how simple it could be.. to get back to what matters. we have all we need.. we just arent using our heads... talking to ourselves.

    maybe we don't even need to be saying no.. as much as we need to start following our own whimsy. I mean.. why even afford the energies to rally. let's just start waking up every day intent on being fully alive.

    thank you for sharing MaryAnn.. bravo.
    do we not live in the land of the free? we're letting laws keep us mindless.

    1. I'm less convinced we live in the land of the free. It is why action needs to be taken. There are lots of ways though to take action. Saying no, is just one among many. Hope to make it out to Loveland in the next year. Thanks :)

  3. I pulled my boys from school this year, the week before testing because they refused to let us opt out. Been homeschooling them since. Plan on continuing till I can't any more because of this issue. I was told they would still be required to test and I told them they would have to arrest me first.

    1. It's a shame, Sheila that such actions are even need to be taken. I can only imagine the stress this has put on you and your family. I think the more opting out stories that are circulated, the more parents will understand that there are alternatives to compliance. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for standing up for your children and for sharing your stories. Keep them circulating!

  5. Anticipating having to do this for my son and daughter, who are three and one, someday in the future. Any concerns about ramifications for the teachers responsible for your kids, or for the school as a whole? That is what gives me pause. I don't want to cause harm to my colleagues.

    1. There's no ramifications that I know of or can think of.

  6. Mary Ann-

    As concerned parents in our small North Jersey town, we are trying to support our children through the over testing crisis. Our group is interested in talking with you prior to our presentation to the Board of Education.


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