As the end-of-the year standardized testing season gets underway in North Carolina’s public schools, a few families from across the state are quietly refusing to participate, echoing national protests against the practice.
The families are frustrated with the number of tests students must take and how they measure performance, the way test preparation has changed how teachers must spend their time in the classroom and the way test results are used to rate students, teachers and schools.
In North Carolina, there is no official policy that allows a family to opt out of testing. If a student refuses to fill in answers, he or she receives a failing score that is factored into student, teacher, school or district performance evaluations depending on the test.
The families refusing the tests say they’ve carefully considered the consequences and feel theirs is a necessary step.
“I think in order to have change you have to have someone get the ball rolling,” said Ilina Ewen, the mother of a Raleigh third-grader who is enrolled in Wake County Public Schools. Her son will not participate in some of the standardized tests for third-graders.
Ewen is confident her son would pass the tests and is not opposed to all testing. But, she wants fewer, higher-quality tests that don’t punish students and teachers based on one score.
While Ewen doesn’t know of many North Carolina parents making the same decision to refuse the tests, she’s aware of plenty who are paying close attention to how testing affects their children and schools.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration about the testing, but they don’t realize what their options are,” she said.
Across the country, parents and teachers are rallying against standardized testing, making headlines in New York City, Seattle and elsewhere. The number of standardized tests have climbed in recent years along with state and federal mandates designed to measure performance.
In Wake County, some school board members have been vocal critics of standardized tests. The board’s latest legislative agenda includes lobbying the state legislature to consolidate the tests.
School board member Jim Martin said he frequently hears from families concerned about the volume and quality of testing.
“I share a lot of those concerns,” he said. “I often say, the world doesn't come to you in a multiple choice test.”
Martin said he believes in the value of assessment but thinks few of the tests are worthwhile, in part because of the emphasis they put on one day of testing, when a child could be sick or anxious. The tests may highlight broad trends in the student population, he said, but they can’t tell the full story of an individual child or teacher.
No opt-out policy
In March, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction issued a memo to superintendents that spelled out the state’s policy on testing: all students are required to participate because of state and federal laws, even if parents request otherwise.
“Although we recognize these parents’ concerns, to date the North Carolina State Board of Education (SBE) has not allowed any student to opt out of required State testing unless there were extenuating circumstances, primarily related to serious health conditions,” the memo said.
Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at the department, said the state issued the memo after hearing from a few parents with questions about refusing the tests, to ensure families and school districts would have the guidance they needed.
She said that though the number of parents refusing is small, there is more interest in the process of opting out.
“It has been more of a conversation this year than ever, at least in my experience,” she said.
The tests N.C. students must take include end-of-grade reading and mathematics assessments for third- through eighth-graders, end-of-grade science tests for fifth- and eighth-graders, and end-of-course exams in subjects such as Math I and biology.
Renee McCoy, a spokeswoman for Wake schools, said the district follows the state guidelines and requires all students to participate in testing. Without an official state opt-out policy, the school system can’t track how many students do so, although officials estimate their numbers are very few, she said.
Pamela Grundy, the mother of a seventh-grader in Charlotte, said an official opt-out policy would be a good first step to help families navigate the complicated world of standardized testing. Her family will refuse end-of-year tests this spring for her son, a seventh-grader.
“The tests keep expanding, the stakes keep rising, and we don’t see any end in sight,” she said.
The decision is not one Grundy and her family undertook lightly. Families should look carefully at whether failing a test will affect promotion to the next grade level or course placement, or have no direct effect on an individual, she said.
Grundy said another concern for her was how a failing score would affect teachers. She said she would like to see a policy that ensures a teacher’s performance measurement isn’t skewed by a blank test.
After a student takes a test, administrators send all of the data to SAS, which runs the statistical analysis that measures teacher performance. The analysis does check for anomalies in the data, so if a student has typically scored well, the blank test may be considered an outlier and excluded. But, if a student turns in blank tests annually, those failing scores eventually would no longer be unusual.
“If they systematically opted out of tests year after year, the subsequent tests wouldn’t be outliers,” said Thomas Tomberlin, director of District Human Resources at DPI. He said the state can’t guarantee a teacher’s effectiveness growth score won’t ever be affected by refused tests.
Grundy, who is co-chair of the education advocacy group MecklenburgACTS, said that without an official policy in place, parents should approach their children’s teachers and principals early to develop a plan for what will happen when they refuse. She knows of about a dozen families refusing to participate in testing.
State Superintendent June Atkinson sent a message to the state’s superintendent’s last week noting that students who complete tests early are allowed to read novels or other non-textbooks while they wait for the testing period to end.
Grundy said she hopes the policy will be an option for students who decline to fill out the test as well.
In Raleigh, Ewen said she is working with her son’s school to develop a plan that either allows him to read or to work on another project outside of the classroom.
“We don't want to be a disruption and distraction to the class,” she said.