Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Some Indiana Parents Won't Let Their Kids Take State Tests This Spring

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

A small group of parents and educators meet at an Indianapolis art gallery. Most expressed concerns over the current direction in education policy, and discussed students "opting out" of state testing as a way to get their point across.

They’ve tried organizing. They’ve tried criticizing. They’ve tried testifying.

But despite efforts to get their message out, some parents still feel shut out of the discussion about changes in education policy across Indiana and the nation.

So now, a handful of them is trying a new way to make their point — resisting.

Having long criticized laws like the federal No Child Left Behind act and Indiana’s Public Law 221 for relying too heavily on test scores, small groups of parents are planning to have their students “Opt Out” of statewide testing this spring. On test day, their kids simply won’t show up to school.

‘We Don’t Have A Problem With Testing Per Se

Though state officials doubt the legality of such a move, organizers say Opt Out is a vehicle parents can use to vent their frustration with education policies. National opponents of high-stakes standardized testing say if as few as five or six percent of students were to skip statewide exams, state officials could no longer consider the rest of the test results valid.

“Opt Out isn’t a solution, it’s not an end. It is simply a tool, it’s a catalyst. It’s a way for parents to get their voice back, or realize they have a voice.”
—Matthew Brooks, parent & administrator of Indiana’s Opt Out Facebook group

Shaun Johnson, an education professor at Towson University in Maryland and administrator of a national Opt Out Facebook group, tells StateImpact that few other nations use test scores to so closely dictate education policy as officials in the U.S do.

“We don’t really have a problem with testing per se. The problem that we have is with the high-stakes nature of it — the way that these single test scores are used to make all sorts of decisions. These tests weren’t really intended to make those decisions,” Johnson says.

Indiana education officials disagree with Opt Out organizers’ assessment, saying they’ve changed the guidelines of the state’s school letter grading system to consider figures other than test scores alone.

“There’s an attempt to make it about the test, and that’s not true,” says Stephanie Sample, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education. She points out the state will use multiple measures in addition to test scores in determining next year’s school ratings, such as graduation rates and “college and career readiness” measures.*

Sample says parents do not have a legal right to opt their children out of testing. State law requires each student be tested, department officials say. But Matthew Brooks, an Indianapolis parent who runs Indiana’s Opt Out Facebook group, says that’s the opinion of IDOE lawyers.

Brooks says he knows skipping state tests doesn’t address broader concerns about labeling schools as “failing” and increasing influence of private companies in public education.

“Opt Out isn’t a solution, it’s not an end. It is simply a tool, it’s a catalyst. It’s a way for parents to get their voice back, or realize they have a voice,” Brooks says.

Parents ‘Testing’ The Waters

As Brooks suggests, some parents involved in Opt Out see pulling their children from the exams as a means to express concerns about the pressures they say high-stakes testing puts on schools.

Indianapolis parent Merry Juerling says those pressures trickle down from administrator to teacher, and from teacher to student. Her daughter one day came home in tears after a long day of test preparation.

“They’re spending a month to two months of my daughter’s time where she’s bored to tears because she’s not learning anything — she’s at a gifted school,” Juerling says. “It makes no logical sense. It wastes my child’s education time. It wastes the teachers’ time. It wastes the school’s time in tracking and preparing for this.”

Although she’ll let her daughter weigh in on the decision, Juerling says she plans to keep her children home on the ISTEP testing days.

But even Opt Out organizers admit that Juerling is one of few parents who’s committed to their cause so far. To meet their goal of 5 percent absenteeism, more than 56,000 Indiana students would have to skip state tests. As of post time, less than 100 have joined Brooks’ Facebook group.

Indianapolis parent Amy Goldsmith says her daughter has also come home extremely anxious about testing. But while Goldsmith feels state officials have turned a deaf ear to parents’ concerns in the past, she’s skeptical of the Opt Out idea.

“Knowing that my kids are kids who’re going to pass and going to do well, I’m afraid that if I don’t let them take the test, then that’s going to hurt my school by reducing the number of passing and participating students that they have. And then, that reflects poorly on the school and the school district,” Goldsmith says.

She worries Opting Out could lower schools’ test scores, meaning more state takeovers — something she says she fears more than high-stakes testing.

“[Opt Out organizers] might not be understanding the damage that they could be doing to the community as a whole,” Goldsmith says.

* CLARIFICATION: As originally posted, the story did not clearly point out that test score data remains a part of the state’s letter grading system. The wording was altered after posting to make that relationship clear.


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