Why NC needs an opt-out option for school testing

I am the mother of a wonderful 9-year-old who has some learning differences. His challenges make school days very hard. He has fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorder and mood disorder. Quite a list for such a little guy. To say we have had a rough time at school is an understatement.

At my son’s last Individualized Education Program meeting, considerable time was spent discussing how to help him get through the English Language Arts benchmarks and the End of Grade tests.

It was the consensus of his team that the tests were above his ability. Why should he be required to take tests that are above his ability when we already know what the results will be? The answer: “It’s the law.”

As his mother, I have spent all his life trying to protect him and doing what I believed to be best for him. So this did not sit well. I envisioned him having to sit at a desk for three hours at a time, trying to answer questions he doesn’t know the answers to. To me, that is child abuse. State and federal leaders are currently debating how many standardized tests children should be required to take and whether parents should have the choice to opt out of tests they see as harmful to their children. These leaders need to pay closer attention to the experiences of children like my son.

Imagine if your boss told you that you needed to take a three-hour test and that, when you opened it, you discovered it was in Latin. What would you be feeling? Anxiety? Fear? Anger? Embarrassment? Am I going to lose my job? What will my boss think? Was I supposed to know this? If your boss told you not to worry, that it didn’t matter whether you knew the answers, would you believe it? If your performance didn’t matter, why would you be taking the test in the first place?

Now consider this happening to a 9-year-old with emotional issues. How, in good conscience, can I let this happen to my child?

I can’t. North Carolina does not have a procedure for officially opting out of state tests. But as my son’s mother, I have a constitutional right to make important educational decisions for him. While schools are required by state law to administer the tests, no law can force a child to pick up a pencil and start filling in bubbles. Like a growing number of parents around the state, I wrote a letter explaining that we would refuse to take the test.

The Friday before testing was to start, the principal told me

my son must sit for the tests even if he did not answer any questions. I called the county testing specialist and received the same answer. Both were sympathetic but told me they had no choice. Again: “It’s the law.”

A flurry of calls and emails to senators, state representatives and officials at the Department of Public Instruction left me even more frustrated. The most frustrating were the conversations in which I was told that my son was being forced into this painful experience in order to protect his rights.

I am sure there is some value in collecting data on a large number of students, including those with disabilities. But when data collection comes at the cost of a difficult and humiliating experience for an already fragile child, that price is too high.

I kept my son home for the two official testing days (a child who is already behind, mind you). We went to the Greensboro Science Center because the school had cut out science class to prep for these tests. On test makeup day, he had to give a note to his teacher saying he refused to take the tests she handed him.

This was a giant step back for him. We have been working hard all year to get him to follow the directions of his teachers. Now he had to tell them “no.”

If you know anything about children with disabilities, you know that you can do things right 100 times and that all it takes is to do it wrong once and it’s like starting over. For what? Why can’t his school be allowed to make a sensible, child-centered decision? Why can’t I do what I know is right for my child? To me, this is just crazy.

Many state legislatures have established official opt-out procedures that recognize the right of parents to make decisions in the best interests of their children. If North Carolina’s legislators care about children like my son and about the rights of parents, they will take similar action.

Mary Nelson lives in Guilford County.