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Why I opted my child out—not of tests, but of test prep

As I was tucking my third-grader into bed a few weeks ago, she asked “But what if I don’t pass the test?” It pained me to think she had gotten the idea that this week’s state English language arts test is either hard or significant for her personally.

She could not say where the fear came from. City and state policies linking promotion and teacher evaluation to test scores, resulting in incessant chatter by administrators and teachers, are surely one factor. Parents doubtless amplify it. Mania is in the air all around her.

I reassured her she would do fine. That regardless, her mom and I would love her just the same on Friday as we did on Tuesday, when the tests began. Okay, she said, “But can I get extended time?”

When a typically performing, well-adjusted eight-year-old asks for testing accommodations that are reserved for students with special needs, I’d say things are out of control. Some of the anxiety could be unique to her gifted and talented school, but her older sister attends a non-selective middle school, and the atmosphere is similar.

My wife and I won’t refuse to have our children tested. Taxpayers spend $25 billion a year on K-12 education in New York City. Someone needs to check not just that the money is not wasted, but more importantly, that children’s lives are not wasted. Even Principal Anna Allanbrook of the Brooklyn New School, the heart of the opt-out movement, accepts that “parents and schools want to know how their children are doing and standardized exams are one way of measuring that” (although she has fueled the opt-out sentiment at her school).

If we want to fix something, it’s not the tests, which are required under federal law. It’s the test prep that overtakes far too many of our public schools each spring. By devoting hours each day to preparing for tests, schools imply that their typical instruction in reading, writing, and math is somehow insufficient to prepare children to succeed on a pass/fail test.

If we instead committed to building our students’ background knowledge through a comprehensive, coherent, and sequenced curriculum that includes foreign language, arts and music, we’d make our children’s education more meaningful, and the lives of their teachers far less stressful. As I’ve been saying for some time now, a credible, centrally-developed curriculum provides critical scaffolding for students and teachers alike, especially to our neediest students.

But until then my family’s personal form of opting out is to ask that our children not participate in test prep. We’ve sent them to school with books and asked that they be given extra independent reading time. We’ve refused to purchase school-sanctioned test prep books. Their teachers have been uniformly supportive. Some parents have even thanked us for speaking up, or just letting them know that this was an option.

Alas, we’re shouting against the wind. Our eight-year-old still stresses out. As does her teacher. We can ignore multiple-choice worksheets and lessons in “how to find the main idea,” but the lost teaching time hurts us all. (After students answered 46 multiple choice questions on the first day of testing Tuesday, our sixth-grader’s school had them watch “Frozen” for 90 minutes.)

I’m happy that Albany may yet delay the use of test results to evaluate teachers. Higher standards and meaningful teacher evaluation are critical to our students’ success. But if a one-year “cooling off” period results in a more thoughtful approach, it could pay huge dividends for our kids.

Mayor Bill de Blasio could prime that pump with a meaningful discussion about curriculum. And even better, he doesn’t have to ask permission from Albany.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.