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.


  • Peggy Robertson

    Thank you Indiana parents for stepping it up. These parents are trying to save their public schools. We OPT OUT because we SUPPORT public schools. Taking the state test PUNISHES public schools – they use this data to shut down our schools and privatize our schools. If we want to keep racing along on that hamster wheel so they can more quickly dismantle the public schools, then, by all means, take that test. If we believe that public education is the foundation to our democracy and we believe that all children deserve a whole and equitable education, then stand with these brave Indiana parents and say NO – I will not allow my child to take a high stakes test that is narrowing curriculum, creating test prep schools, depriving children of arts and electives, punishing students – especially those living in poverty – while lining the pockets of the one percent. Take away the data that allows them to take away our public schools. High stakes testing is child abuse. Join us at
    Peggy Robertson

    • Michelle Slekar

      So amazingly said Peggy – You made my eyes well up.

  • Sarah Johnson

    Way to go, Indiana parents! It is too bad that the students have to stay home during the testing. The school should provide an alternate activity.
    Parents should not feel guilty about opting out. School administrators, principals and teachers who shun these brave parents should feel guilty for not speaking up about the problem themselves. The problems with public education will not be solved if the voice of parents remains hidden.

  • Matthew

    The students will not be staying home. They will attend school in search of the free and appropriate education they are entitled to.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Matt. The “staying home” line comes from the experience shared by one of the parents at the January 5 meeting, who said her Opt Out experience last year involved students staying home from school. If it’s wrong, we can discuss changing it. But practically, given the state’s position, isn’t there no other practical way to Opt Out a student this year other than keeping a child home?

  • Timothy D. Slekar

    Why do they need to interview the parent “afraid” of hurting the school? This is such a ridiculous point when you understand the purpose of state testing is to prove that all public schools are failing. When is somebody going to ask, “So in 2014 when your school fails to make AYP what plans to have for the future education of your child? Where will they go to school now that the public schools have been eradicated? Are you surprised to find out that your public schools have been closed? This is what these “afraid” parents don’t get! Again, this is not about hurting the individual schools, this is about throwing a wrench into the gears so the system can crash long enough for us “opt outers” to redirect the conversation concerning the future education of OUR children!

    • Anonymous

      Hi Timothy, thanks for your comment.

      To your question about need to interview the parent afraid of hurting the school: We need to consider all voices in the discussion — just as we need to consider the state’s point of view in all of this. This parent is also a stakeholder in the discussion over public education.

      It’s worth noting that both parents in this story have children attending Sidener Academy, a gifted magnet school in Indianapolis — incidentally, with the highest passage rates on state tests. Both had similar experiences with their children having test anxiety. Both feel that the education their children are receiving in this school is good, despite the bad rep the district tends to get.

      I want to see if I can understand your point: By your point that ‘this isn’t about hurting schools, but throwing a wrench into the system,’ do you mean that Opt Out can occur without any short-term pain for schools?

      • Anonymous

        ALL schools are going to fail by 2014 because no school is going to have 100% of their students pass the tests (the goal of NCLB).

        I’m in Washington State and our test results are absolutely useless to parents, students and teachers. We get them when the next school year begins. They are extremely expensive and the state sets the cut scores. I assume Indiana’s state tests are similar. If we HAVE to test, why can’t we use a nationally-normed inexpensive tests such as the ITBS or SATs? At least the high schoolers could use the SATs for their college applications.

        Opting out is the only recourse parents have to make the education decision makers listen to them. All of the education policy decisions are being made by people who 1) have never attended, and their kids don’t attend, public schools, or 2) they have never stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher so they have no idea what teaching is actually like, or 3) just want taxpayer money to increase their corporate profits (testing, software and textbook companies), or 4) they are an education administrator whose job depends on the testing continuing.

        Students and parents are the customers of education and teachers are the providers. Until all of those groups have a say in public education, opting out is the only option they have left because many of us have tried working with lawmakers and education officials to do the right thing regarding education reform.

  • Michelle Slekar

    What Amy Goldsmith needs to understand is that in 2014 ALL schools will be labeled as failing. Amy needs to stop being “skeptical” and start getting informed. If she truly fears “more state takeovers” more than high-stakes testing then she has no option BUT to “OPT OUT”.

    PLEASE AMY – Get informed. Your public teachers, public schools and community need you to stand up and Opt Out.

  • StateImpact Indiana

    To all of the comments about NCLB failing all schools by 2014…

    The Opt Out debate in Indiana takes place in a different context, since Indiana is one of the states applying for a waiver from NCLB from the U.S. Department of Education, which gives the states license to judge schools by metrics other than NCLB’s infamous AYP system.

    So, assuming the waiver process goes through, the criteria by which schools will be rated will by different. By 2020, Indiana’s proposed system aims to have all 3/4 schools earning A’s by 2020 under the state’s rating system (which has been in place in some form or another since 2005), and 0 schools earning F’s.
    (The waiver application that’s supposedly linked there isn’t showing up. I’ll fix later.)

    That doesn’t mean schools will actually attain the ratings (3/4 getting A’s, etc.), that’s just what the state projects. That doesn’t shut the door on the argument over whether Indiana’s system is any fairer than NCLB/AYP. The state says it is. I’ve heard arguments from many others that it isn’t. Again… ongoing debate. Just want to clarify some of the “2014″ comments I’m seeing.

    • Matthew

      As I understand, with the new metrics system they want to use here in Indiana to grade schools, 34% of our schools will always be failing.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the clarification. It sounds like the only thing the waiver does is delay the fail by date. In reality, no school is ever going to get a perfect grade unless the measuring stick is set pathetically low. All the resources that go into achieving the goal would be better spent IN THE CLASSROOMS letting teachers teach and providing them with whatever resources they need to accomplish that task.

  • Lollipop

    I went out on the web hoping to find a movement like this. My 4th grader was very sick during ISTEP testing this year–it was the flu and he was still sick the next week during the make-up testing. His principal called me and pressured me to bring him in to take the test, despite his 101 degree fever and general lethargy. At the time, I was tired from two weeks of caring for a sick child and so taken aback by the request that I did it. With some time and perspective, I’ve grown angrier and angrier at myself for agreeing and the school for asking. What kind of system have we created when a child’s test scores are more important to his school (and momentarily his own mother) than his health. I also found out that he had been warned that local real estate prices were going to be impacted by his performance on the test. That’s a crazy amount of pressure to put on a child. I think when the testing rolls around again next year, we’ll be opting out. Whatever the goals of the testing might have been, they have so degraded the priorities of educators that it is clear resistance is the best course until something changes. My son’s health is far more important than any test in the world.

  • Tmspencer

    Ok I understand the parents need to have a voice in their child’s education, but there has to be a better way to bring attention to the problem. What people are not realizing is that opting out of these test not only hurt the school but our children as well. I’ve read about the anxiety these tests cause our children but try to understand that these tests also prepare our children for the stress of tests such as the SAT’s and ACT’s which largely dictate our children’s acceptance into college. These tests give our children the proper confidence and preparation skills needed to do well on those important tests that can greatly affect their future (ACT and SAT). I scored in the top 10% of the country on every standardized test I took and still found myself too anxious to take the SAT in high school. Now I realize how silly that anxiety was and am studying to take it now but imagine how terrified I would have been if I had never taken a standardized test. I would have never found the confidence to take it now and I wouldn’t have had a clue how to prepare myself on my own. If you’re really worried about your child’s future you need to stop and weigh the benefits and the consequences of your actions more closely otherwise you could be doing more harm than good for your children. Is your voice really more important to you than your child’s future?

    • kwilson

      These parents are raising their voices in SUPPORT of their children’s futures. What kind of preparation for the larger world, is an education in taking a test?
      The NCLB Act should be left behind. If parents want a voice it our children’s education, I believe home schooling is the best option.

  • Teresa

    Hi we are struggling with an issue in our school here in indiana. Our young kids are given laptops for school and home use. They will not allow us any parential controls and they have access to facebook, chat youtube and on and on. They say their protection is ample. It is not ample for the age of our kids. We have struggled to find any parents to stand up with us and have written several groups. This is exausting. Our daughter got a soft porn sent to her through the school directory which we opted out of ( they ignore) and refuse to remove them from. We are getting exausted…Thanks Peggy for your email and anyone that has any input bring it on…:)

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