Join the Obamas and "Opt-Out" of High-Stakes Testing

04/06/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

It was easy for Barack and Michelle Obama to opt-out. They send Sasha and Malia to the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC where tuition is about $35,000 a year and students do not take high-stakes Common Core aligned tests. Michelle and Barack chose this school because it offers children an enriched curriculum, not constant test prep. It was also easy for New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to opt-out. According to her 2013 tax returns, her children, ages twelve and seven, attend the Capitol Hill Day School where they do not have to take high-stakes standardized tests either.

Wealthy celebrities who are part of the opt-out movement because their children attend or attended expensive private schools where they do not have to take high-stakes standardized tests include Tom Cruise (daughter Suri, Avenues school in New York) and the children of the Jolie-Pitt clan (Lycée Français de New York).

Now you can join Barack, Michelle, Kirsten, Tom, Angelina, and Brad and have your children opt-out of high-stakes testing too. Children from families that opt-out of the tests, even ordinary children like ours, cannot be punished in any way and it is not that hard to opt-out. NYS Allies for Public Education has a sample "refusal" letter and video instructions on its website. All parents have to do is fill out the letter and deliver it to the school principal, either in person or via email. They also recommend a follow-up call before the test dates to remind school personnel. Last year approximately 60,000 New York State students refused to take the tests. In New York State, high-stakes Common Core aligned math and reading tests will be administered in grades 3-8 from April 14 - 16 and April 22 - April 24.

Karen Magee, president of the New York state teachers' union (NYSUT) is calling for a statewide boycott of the Common Core aligned tests in protest against new testing regulations and test-based evaluations of teachers propagated by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Despite evidence against the validity of evaluating teachers using student scores on these tests, Cuomo demanded that 50% of every teacher's evaluation be based on test results in their schools. Meanwhile, he is unable to explain how the 70% of teachers who do not teach tested subjects can legitimately be judged based on the tests.

Magee dismissed the tests as "not valid indicators of student progress" or of teacher performance. "I'm a parent. My child is in 11th grade at this point in time. Had he been a third to eighth grader, he would not be taking the test. The tests are not valid indicators. The American Statistical Association has said there is no direct link to tie these tests to student performance or teacher evaluation."

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, the governing body for schools in the state, is trying to undermine the growing opt-out movement by offering to exempt teachers from high-performing school districts from evaluations based on student test scores. But children in those districts would still have to take the high-stakes tests and sit through months of test prep.

Jen Debler, a middle school teacher whose own children attend school in a high-performing Long Island district is not tricked by Tisch's offer. She emailed me that "I am refusing testing for my children again this year because I want creativity to return to their classrooms. I miss projects, book reports, and artwork. My middle schooler wishes for more hands on activities. I see a stark difference in the learning experiences of my older child compared to my middle and youngest. A flurry of module based worksheets has left my first grader uninspired by math."

Long Island parents Henry and Christina Dircks also had both of their children opt-out from the high-stakes tests last year and they will opt-out again. They discussed it as a family and the children and parents all signed the opt-out letters. The Dircks family's reasons for opt-out were featured in a letter published by a local newspaper. Henry wrote, "I'm opting out my two children because I believe that these assessments are developmentally inappropriate, pedagogically untested and politically motivated. Our decision was not made lightly and included all members of the family in the discussion. As a high school social studies teacher, I hope that opting out will teach my children to question the conventional wisdom imposed by others, become informed and act on their convictions."

Debra Capone is organizing parents at PS 154 in Brooklyn to opt-out. She explained to me that last year her kids took the test, but her son, who is now in fourth grade, just finds it stressful and she sees no reason to put him through it again. Her daughter, who is in fifth grade, has no problem taking the test and does well, but she decided she wants to opt-out because the test are not fair to other children.

Beth Dimino, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Comsewogue School District and president of her local chapter of the teachers' union is refusing to administer the mandated standardized tests. The superintendent of her district, Dr. Joe Rella, is also a leading opponent of Common Core testing, as is Newark, New Jersey Mayor Ras Baraka. Baraka is the first mayor of a major United States city to publicly endorse the right of parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests that have "undermined the promise of equity and opportunity."

Sydney Smoot is a nine-year-old fourth grader from Hernando County, Florida. In a speech to the county school board, available for viewing online, Sydney condemned the Florida version of the high-stakes tests for reducing children to numbers. She also objected to a confidentiality policy that bans children from discussing questions on the tests with their parents. In New York State, teachers and administrators are pressed to sign confidentiality agreements, but not nine-year-olds.

Carol Burris, award-winning principal at South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York is a leader in the opt-out movement. In an essay posted on the Washington Post Answer Sheet, Burris has essentially declared war on high-stakes testing and Congressional and State politicians from both major political parties. Burris charges "It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing . . . Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder." "The only remedy left to parents," according to Burris, "is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in."

Burris concluded, "I am a rule follower by nature . . . But there comes a time when rules must be broken -- when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing's high stakes. The time to Opt Out is now."

PS: My grandchildren read this column before I posted it, discussed it with their parents, and the entire family decided they would opt-out!