My STAR (not STAAR) pupil

25 Nov

After the last day of school last year, I asked my son Charlie: “Aren’t you excited? It’s the first day of summer tomorrow.”

He hung his head low and mumbled something unintelligible.

“What?” I persisted.

“Now I will be in third grade,” he said with absolutely no enthusiasm. “I will have to take the STAAR test.”

And that was it.

That was the moment I decided my son’s summer wasn’t going to be ruined. He wasn’t going to define his advancement to third grade by the stress of a standardized test.
So I answered, “No, you don’t. If you don’t want to take the STAAR test, you don’t have to.”

Charlie, being the ultimate rule follower, looked at me in confusion. “Yes, I do. Every third grader has to take it.”

“Not you,” I said. “I am your parent, and I will decide.”

A tiny smile started to stretch across his face as he asked if I really could do that. I assured him I could, and the tiny smile grew wider and wider.

As a former teacher and a rule follower myself, this proclamation was a little scary for me. I meant it. Charlie would not take the STAAR test, but I was still nervous about following through.

I did for a brief moment think, maybe I should explain to Charlie that he would, indeed, pass the test. He shouldn’t stress about it. He already knew that our family thought the test was not meaningful or helpful for teachers or students. Maybe he should just take it and let it go.

That would have been easier for me.

But this wasn’t about me. It was about my son. It was and still is about protecting my son and fighting for him. Backing out was not option.

I started to read and I started to research. It wasn’t hard to find well-written articles by parents and educators that spoke about the uselessness and horrors of high-stakes testing. I heard a testimony on NPR from one dad, a college professor, who claimed religious reasons for opting his son out of the Pennsylvania standardized tests. He explained to the administrators that it was against his religion for his son to take the test. The family was Methodist, and they didn’t believe in torture.

It was brilliant. I thought I would give that angle a try. I failed. Apparently, Texas, a state deep in the Bible belt, doesn’t allow for religious exemptions from their almighty test.

So I read some more. I found a Facebook group “Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests.” More brilliance. On the site, parents who oppose high-stakes testing pose questions and talk strategy. The site even offers a thorough and thoughtful letter to give your administrators to explain why your child should not take the test.

My courage was building.

The final block in my courage wall was finding Diane Ravitch’s book, “Reign of Error.” To say that this woman is brilliant and passionate about educating children would be the understatement of the year. Every word she wrote spoke to me. Every word.
My courage was solid.

I emailed my son’s teacher to set up a parent/teacher conference with Charlie in attendance. Charlie’s teacher was confused. She said she was happy to meet but was clueless on what I wanted to meet about. She described Charlie as the “model student.”

When I arrived that morning with Charlie in tow, I was a bit nervous. Today, I was going to break a rule – a big rule.

As the teacher and I sat down at the table, I peppered her with questions. “Is Charlie reading on grade level? How are his math skills? Does he struggle in any area?”
And with every question, she assured me Charlie was doing great – reading at grade level and performing at or above grade level in all areas.

“That’s great,” I said. “I trust you; so Charlie isn’t going to take the STAAR test.”

She looked a bit confused so I explained further. “Somewhere in the late 1980s when the government published ‘A Nation at Risk,’ America stopped trusting teachers. The report instilled an unfounded fear of our of public schools. As a result, parents lost their confidence in teachers. I don’t feel that way. I trust my kids’ teachers. I don’t need a high-stakes standardized test to tell me where my kid is, and I don’t want my kid to be used as a pawn in this fear-mongering.”

I explained that Charlie would not be at school on test day. I wanted her to know that I believed in what she was doing every day in the classroom. I wanted her to know I trusted her.

As I explained this to his teacher, Charlie smiled. He trusted her, too. Third grade was going to be okay.

Last week I met with the principal to explain my position. Again, I was a bit nervous, but I believe in what I am doing. The principal, a little to my surprise, was as supportive as he could be. As a parent, I think he understood why I was opting my son out of the test. I know hundreds of educators, and not a single one thinks high-stakes testing improves education or helps students. These are the experts. These are the people who are with our children every day teaching them how to read, how to problem-solve, how to think critically. But no one is listening to them. Honestly, it’s not in their best interest (if they want to keep their jobs) to speak out against the test.

So it’s up to parents. Until we start speaking up, our kids are going to suffer, and our teachers are going to continue to be blamed and ignored. Last year, a group of high school parents convinced the Legislature to reduce the number of STAAR tests at the high school level from 15 to five. It was an incredible success.

But it’s not enough. Our youngest students shouldn’t have a marred experience in elementary school because of this test. They shouldn’t feel anxious or scared or nervous. But that is what the test is doing. My 9-year-old niece who loves to read cried for weeks last year before she had to take the test for the first time.

Our teachers shouldn’t be forced to spend their days preparing the kids for a test they know very little about — a test that cost taxpayers millions of dollars. They shouldn’t be told they are ineffective because their bright students are too anxious and too scared to do well on the test.

In my book, this high-stakes testing is almost criminal and definitely irresponsible.

So my boy will not join in the madness. He will not take the STAAR test. He will not spend hours sitting in a desk bubbling an answer sheet or writing a meaningless essay. He will spend those days at a museum, reading a good book or working on a cool project.

He will spend those days learning. Really learning.


5 Responses to “My STAR (not STAAR) pupil”

  1. Celeste Zachry November 25, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Thank you a million times over. My daughters have never once batted an eye over these ridiculous exams, so I’ve never rescued them from the stupidity of the tests; however, if there was a bit of stress involved, I sure would.

    I dread the loss of basically 4 days of instruction, when we return to school, due to retesting. It’s so maddening, but teachers lost our power long ago.

    Thank you for doing what you should and advocating for your child!!

  2. ashleynaarons November 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    Love love love this! Hopefully there will be a better system when Emily is of age – can we make a difference in 9 years or will she have to take a test in kindergarten?

  3. ptraveler November 26, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    Charlie is fortunate to have you as his mom, a strong advocate, like every child should have. I wish you were back in a school, working as a principal who understands both students and teachers.

  4. Peggy Robertson December 1, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Thank you for refusing the test for Charlie. Every parent that refuses the test gets us one step closer to reclaiming authentic teaching and learning within our public schools. Your refusal of the test was a vote for public schools, for teachers – and for Charlie and all children who deserve a whole and equitable education in a warm and thriving school community environment.

    Peggy Robertson,,

    p.s. If anyone else needs help with refusing the test please let us at United Opt Out National know – we have guides for every state!

  5. Texas Parents Opt Out December 2, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    Thanks for writing and sharing this. Glad to see that your principal was receptive and supportive. Maybe some others folks at your school will also opt their kids out of STAAR testing, because that’s what it is going to take; widespread civil disobedience.

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