By Angela Engel
Today CSAP testing begins and my 10-year-old daughter, Grace, is home studying Sickle Cell Anemia. Her father and I opt her out of the test because the scores are used to label schools, even though the test is not designed as an indicator of school quality.
My 8-year-old daughter Sophie keeps asking if she can please take the test next year in the third grade. She’s a fragile little soul. She’s been watching how during CSAP week children get special snacks, extra recess and ice cream parties at the end. She’s also heard of some administrators excluding children who opt out from advanced programs, extracurricular activities and in some cases prom. She doesn't understand why she can’t go along with all of the other kids.
So I explain to her that over the course of America’s history people have had to take a stand even though it meant being different. I tell her how it took nineteen years of protests, petitions, boycotts and demonstrations in order for her and women to be able to vote. I share the story of Rosa Parks and that day fifty years ago when she was too tired to give up her seat to a white man who paid the same fare as she in order go stand in the back of a crowded bus. I sit her in my lap and I tell her that it is courage that informs our decision and that we want the best education for her and every child - so much so that we’re willing to stand out even though it is uncomfortable.
Yes, there are other mothers who won’t look at me and still others who give me dirty looks and whisper to each other. They have not yet made the connection between high-stakes testing, shorter recesses, larger class sizes, and laid off teachers. They complain about Everyday Mathematics but they refuse to accept that the same publishers of CSAP also own the Wright group and are dictating all curriculum decisions. Some parents silently praise me. They say they would opt out too but they have bought into the lie that opting out will cause their schools to lose funding. Schools do not lose funding based on the number of children who do or don’t take the test. Only title I schools have a small portion of their funding re-directed to improve test scores, something administrators are already spending money on.
Unfortunately parents and school administrators are trying to play a game they can’t win. It’s a mathematical impossibility because 100% of our children will never score 100% proficient on standardized tests. It will have nothing to do with their abilities or their grasp of basic concepts such as reading and writing. It’s because the tests are not designed for highly gifted children who do not think linearly or singularly. Nor are they designed for children who’s primary language is Chinese or one of the other 64 languages being spoken in our public schools. And standardized tests are not designed for children with unique abilities and disadvantages, which pretty much includes everyone.
I don’t have anything against standardized tests. My daughters both take the MAP test and the COGAT. However, when a standardized test is used as the sole indicator of teacher quality, student achievement, and school success we reinforce the wrong kind of learning and the lowest levels of thinking. The pressures associated with high-stakes testing and the subsequent ratings turn our classrooms into hostile territories and some teachers and administrators into bullies. They too are victims of a failed ideology and they make poor decisions out of fear.
I’m afraid too - afraid that in our country where we have capitalized on our differences and prospered because of innovation and collaboration that we will now graduate an entire generation with the same mind set and identical skill set. I’m afraid that our classrooms are beginning to look a lot like factories. I’m afraid that CEO’s are having far too much say in the educational decisions than the teachers who spend each day with my child. I’m afraid too that leaders aren’t listening to parents who believe that a balanced childhood is the best preparation for adulthood and an uncertain future.
As I drop Grace off at the end of the morning and watch her make the journey to the school room door, I see the courage in her too. I whisper a prayer that someday her education will be for the purpose of pursuing her own destiny, not a school rating, a state standard, or a national goal. I pray that she will not have to stand alone for fairness, opportunity and respect for our differences but that she will be joined by others. Perhaps then someone will be listening?
Another parent shares:
My son, who is in fifth grade this year, and I sat down a month and a half ago and started talking about the CSAP. He articulately told me that he did not want to take the tests, that they gave him no benefit and that he did not want to sit through the 13+ hours of testing.
He has had a history of anxious behavior with these tests that started in the first grade. His teacher at that time was loving and caring man who could have passed for Santa on any given day. The kids absolutely loved this man, and unfortunately he felt that he needed to prepare his first graders for a life time of tests. He would give kids spelling tests and use his 'test' voice and threaten to throw student's papers in the trash. Half of the class would be crying and all were confused, but he continued because he "wanted kids to learn to deal with the anxiety at a young age so they wouldn't have to go through what he did as a kid." In other words, he wanted kids to be numb to their feelings and anxieties about testing.
In fourth grade, he had a teacher taking notes on the students as they were taking the writing test. He went to hand in his CSAP and saw a list on the teachers desk with his name on it. Next to his name was written "weak." He came home devastated and in tears that his teacher, a person in trust and power, thought he was weak. Especially, when "I tried my best."
So, this year we had a long talk. I had him make a list of the positives and negatives of taking the test. For positives he wrote: free breakfast, getting CSAP bucks (an incentive program where kids can 'buy' goods from a CSAP store), extra recess, no homework during testing.
For negatives he wrote: stressful, long hours sitting, boring.
His voice was insightful to me that all of his 'positives' were external motivators that the school put in place and there was no mention of it being a chance to display knowledge or learning.
His mother was the first person to contact the principal at the school and tell them that we were opting our son out of the CSAP.
The principal became upset on the phone and began firing back un-truths. "You can't because its too late and we have already started testing" (we had a schedule in front of us that showed tests starting 5 school days later). "You realize that you will be hurting the school." "I don't think you can do that."
I later decided to make an appointment with the principal and my son. The three of us sat in her office and I had my son explain why he did not want to take the test. I supported him and explained to the principal our reasons. This principal is a good person and a wonderful instructional leader and I empathize with her. She finally showed her compassion when my son started crying in her office. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"I am tired of this school and the district constantly telling us to do your best, do your best……..we DO do our best." The principal explained that Do your best on the test (or something to that effect) was what the district adopted as a CSAP slogan and they had posters and an assembly to 'motivate' kids for the test.
She needed to get some answers, and got the director of assessment on the phone. He asked to speak to me and when I got on the phone, the first thing he said was, "you realize that you are breaking the law." I replied, "no, I realize that I am exercising my legal right as a parent to opt my child out of this test." He then went on to make a not-so subtle threat and said that if I did opt my child out of CSAP, my child may not be allowed to attend school there next year.
Now, this school is a k-8 open enrollment public magnet school. My son has gone to school there for six years, gets good grades and is involved in extracurricular activities. I asked this director of schools to please put that threat in writing to me. I know for a fact that schools and districts may not refuse a child's open enrollment application because of a parental opt-out for CSAP. This IS illegal. No parent or child wants to 'hurt' a class, school or district for opting out of a test, but it is our constitutional right to determine what is best for our children. In summary, I was told or it was inferred that:
1. I could not opt my son out of CSAP
2. I would be breaking the law
3. My son 'may not' be able to attend school there next year.
Parental rights are broadly protected by Supreme Court decisions (Meyer and Pierce), especially in the area of education, so why not in our Colorado state statutes? The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents posses the “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children.” Furthermore, the Court declared that “the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35) The Supreme Court criticized a state legislature for trying to interfere “with the power of parents to control the education of their own.” (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 402.) In Meyer, the Supreme Court held that the right of parents to raise their children free from unreasonable state interferences is one of the unwritten "liberties" protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (262 U.S. 399).
In recognition of both the right and responsibility of parents to control their children’s education, the Court has stated,
“It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for the obligations the State can neither supply nor hinder.” (Prince v.Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158)
Another parent shares:
CSAP has become the tail that is wagging the dog and as a parent of a seven year old and a nine year old (first and third grades) I am becoming more and more frustrated with the impact that it is having on my children’s education.
I received a letter from my third grader’s teachers giving me tips on how make this a “more successful-less stressful time” for my child.
1. Keep all appointments and special events away from CSAP test weeks.
I am not at all sure how that will help my child. Will he be less stressed if I tell him that he can’t participate in a gymnastics meet because it happens during the CSAP testing weeks? It feels to me like they are telling me that his whole life should be re-arranged because CSAP is more important than anything that could possibly be happening in our lives.
2. Make sure your child has 8 – 9 hours of sleep each night.
3. Eat a healthy dinner the night before each test day.
4. Eat a healthy breakfast the day of each test. (We will not have time to provide an extra breakfast on these days.)
I really resent the implication that my child’s health is more important for testing than it is for learning, though I should not find that as a surprise since recess has been reduced in order to give more time for test preparation (OK, so they call it literacy block, not test preparation).
Since the beginning of school my son has had essentially the same homework every week. On Friday he brings home a folder with spelling, math, and writing homework and a reading log that is supposed to be returned the following Thursday. For math I am supposed to give my son a timed math test at the beginning of the homework cycle and then have him practice all week and then give him another timed test to see if there is improvement. He is to read each day for 20 minutes and then give a one or two sentence response. The writing exercise is specific practice for the CSAP test. The spelling sheet says “Our spelling lists are based on the phonics rules being practiced in our Houghton-Mifflin reading series. We realize that some of the lists will seem “easy” to a few of our students……” In reality, the list is easy for most of the students.
Up until about two years ago this was an excellent school that gave meaningful homework and had enthusiastic students and teachers and the school did, in fact, have high CSAP scores. Unfortunately, a number of schools in the district were not doing well and the district was put on academic watch. As a result the district changed the curriculum in all of the schools to be “more closely aligned with CSAP,” put all of the schools on exactly the same schedule for literacy blocks, etc., and took recess out of the schedule. The CSAP scores did increase slightly in some of the low performing schools. In the high performing schools the scores either stayed the same or went down slightly (though I would find it hard to believe that either the ups or downs are statistically significant). However, the atmosphere at our school has gone down very significantly. The curriculum has been so watered down in order to prepare our children for CSAP that parents have sought ways to move out of the district, have moved their children to charter schools, and have decided on home schooling. We had an excellent school and have excellent teachers. Changing the focus from teaching our children to preparing them for CSAP is destroying our school.
CSAP is not about my child. It is about a score for a school and ultimately for the school district.
I believe that we do need a system of accountability for the schools but CSAP is not producing accountability. It is producing mediocrity and creating incredible frustration for good teachers and for parents and children.
This week there are two pieces of legislation being considered that will help take CSAP out of the position of being the primary focus of our schools. I am asking you to support this legislation and to put children back as the primary focus of our public school system.
Under the law, schools must raise scores for all groups of students, in most grade levels: whites, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled, limited English speakers and so on. Schools that miss goals for several years running for any group are labeled “in need of improvement,” and their students become eligible for transfer to higher-scoring campuses and free, after-school tutoring. But the law has treated a school that misses targets for many student groups the same as a school falling short for only one.