Sunday, January 25, 2015

Orginal version of op-ed for Sun Journal published Jan 25

I want to share with you an insider secret about education in Maine. Something schools and teachers are afraid to tell parents. Ready? No law requires students to take standardized tests.

This March, the Smarter Balanced exam begins for Maine students grades 3-8 and 11. Parents might not recognize this test because the state Department of Education refers to it as the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) as if no change occurred. Yet, Smarter Balanced is brand new. Other than a sample of schools that field tested the exam last spring and practice tests currently underway (You can take a practice exam yourself here:, no one has much experience with this new exam. Both the content and format are new. The skills and knowledge assessed are based on the Common Core State Standards, which were adopted into the Maine Learning Results in 2009 replacing Maine written standards in math and literacy. Meanwhile, the questions on the test are far more complex than clicking the best multiple choice option.

There's plenty about Smarter Balanced not to like. And there's also plenty to dislike about the national obsession with accountability through standardized tests leading to bad educational policies, including Maine schools administering the Smarter Balanced exam.

But remember: Your child does not have to participate in the Smarter Balanced exam. Or any standardized test, for that matter.

Various regulations require schools to administer standardized tests, but no laws require students to take them. As decided in several supreme court cases, parents direct the learning of their children and hold the right to make choices in that regard. Specifically, Pierce vs Society of Sisters states: “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments of this Union rest excludes any general power of the State to standardize children.” National groups such as United Opt Out and Fair Test provide information on how and why parents should refuse testing. Many education gurus, including former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch and research scholar Sandra Stotsky, clarify and support parental rights to refuse testing. And, as stated in the Washington Post October 6, 2014, the National Educator's Association, of which the Maine Educator's Association is a branch, “support[s] parents who chose to exercise their legal rights to opt children out of standardized tests.”
So, why did Lewiston schools not tell you any of this?

Previously under No Child Left Behind, schools needed a 95% participation rate as well as specific growth rates to make annual yearly progress, or else annually face increasingly harsh consequences. (Some may remember the extreme consequences Longley Elementary faced in 2008). When Maine applied for a Race to the Top grant, we received a NCLB waiver, and thus that system became obsolete. However, RTTT required the implementation of a school ranking system; the state answered with Governor LePage's school report card, which grades schools on a bell curve almost entirely on standardized test scores that reflect primarily socioeconomic status. Under this system, schools with low standardized test scores or participation rates once again face potentially harsh consequences.
Thus, the DOE and the Lewiston school department don't want you to know you can refuse testing for your children because the threat of consequences looms for low participation rates. However, for those who do know and chose to refuse testing, Lewiston respects parental rights and only asks for a letter to the principal detailing the parents' wishes.

To all of this I say: The choice of whether my children sit the exam belongs to their parents. Do I compromise my parenting decisions because of a threat from the state? Should the consequences the school faces even factor into my contemplation of what is right for each of my children? Wouldn't low participation due to refusals give schools and the state clear data “to drive instruction” -- data stating that parents will not be partners in policies which ignore student needs?

My decision: No, I won't allow the government to dictate if my children must take a test.

And now that you know you have a choice, I encourage you to decide what is best for family based on the needs of your children, not the needs of the state or school.

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