‘Too stressful’: why some students are saying no thanks to standardized tests

The Choice: In an annual boycott that has become routine, a persistent minority opted out of ‘mandatory’ state tests again this spring.

| 02 May 2024 | 11:23

As students across the tristate region sharpened pencils - or, increasingly, fired up computers - in preparation for multiple days of state testing this spring, a persistent minority of their peers sat out the tests, enacting an annual boycott that has become routine.

In Orange County as across New York state, nearly one in five public school students in grades 3-8 refused to sit for the federally mandated math and English Language Arts tests last year, including more than half of the students in the Greenwood Lake School District. New Jersey and Pennsylvania also are seeing small numbers of students sit out the state tests, though fewer than in New York, birthplace of the opt-out movement.

Though it’s soon to tell, a couple early reports from this spring’s testing suggest that opting out may be on the wane. Administrators from the Chester and Monroe-Woodbury school districts in New York say they saw lower opt-out rates this year, for at least the second year running. In Chester, an early draft count showed that 33 students had opted out of the ELA test this year, down from 111 in 2021-22, Chester Superintendent Catherine O’Hara said in late April.

In some pre-pandemic years, more than half of the students in some buildings were opting out, said Matthew Kravatz, Monroe-Woodbury assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for pre-K through fifth grades.

With that many, students not taking the tests would go to the library or the cafeteria. Now that there are fewer opt-outs, some students stay home during testing while the rest read or do something quietly in their classrooms while their peers take the tests.

But far from going away, the boycott of high-stakes testing has become part of the nationwide conversation, affecting the tests. In New York, the state tests are two days shorter and un-timed, and in Pennsylvania, they are being shortened by about half an hour per test as they move entirely online.

It’s not just students and parents chafing at the federal tests. Announcing the computer-based overhaul of the Pennsylvania state tests, Gov. Josh Shapiro on April 18 said he would like to get rid of the tests altogether but that would mean losing $600 million in federal aid.

Who’s opting out and why

“My son has a bit of anxiety. Test-taking, to me, he doesn’t need it. Just so they can get some scores off of him,” said Michele Meyer of Monroe, a special education teacher for 27 years.

Her daughter took the state tests; Meyer opted her son out. “Why am I going to frustrate him, why am I going to make him feel bad about himself ... I just said, You don’t need to take this.” Now he’s in college, studying psychology.

“It’s just the parent looking at their child and saying, Is this going to benefit their child?” Meyer said. “You’re not going to look at your child and say, Now how is this going to benefit the school or the district?”

In New York and New Jersey, there technically is no “opt out” option; the test is considered mandatory. But written into the New York testing protocol is a “not tested” code for students who simply refuse to take the test. Realizing they could similarly refuse on behalf of their child, parents latched onto this code - the loophole that gave rise to the opt-out movement in 2015.

“A parent might jot a note on a piece of paper or send an email to the teacher or call the building, and they often don’t give an explanation as to what the rationale is,” said Eric Hassler, Monroe-Woodbury assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for grades 6-12. “They just say that their child is not taking the exam.”

Administrators therefore don’t necessarily know what’s driving the decision: whether a child’s anxiety, a learning disability that parents worry will make test-taking agony or a family taking a stand against the “testing industrial complex,” in which profit-driven corporations, rather than educators, have taken the reins in determining what students are learning.

In New Jersey, parents write to the school saying they refuse to have their child take the state test, said Assistant Superintendent Tara Rossi of the Sparta Township Public Schools. The district makes it a point to engage with these parents to “answer any questions and ensure that they have the information they need to make that determination,” offering accommodations for children if needed, she said.

There is no “canned approach to that conversation because every child is different,” she said. “There might be some really good reasons why a parent feels for one particular child that this isn’t an appropriate evaluation tool for that child.”

Rossi said “a very small number of students” refuse state testing in Sparta. The district did see a slight uptick in refusals for New Jersey’s Start Strong assessments during the coronavirus pandemic. That test was designed and administered by the state to assess gaps in learning after pandemic disruptions.

In Pennsylvania, parents can formally opt their children out of state testing if they have a religious or philosophical reason. They need to go in person to the school, review the test on school property, sign a confidentiality agreement regarding the test’s contents, then submit a letter to the district opting out their child. Parents who opt out their children generally do so throughout the course of their educational career, said Brian Blaum, superintendent of the Delaware Valley School District in Pike County.

The district has received a handful of opt-outs by the week of Pennsylvania’s state testing, he said. “We have some buildings that are in the single digits, we have one building with zero, we have a couple in the teens. It’s really, really small numbers.”

The state tests do offer a benchmark, although an imperfect one, and districts tend to urge students to take them. Some teachers report that they are discouraged from sharing with parents that opting out is a possibility.

“It really helps give us a baseline. The majority of kids are taking the same exact assessment,and we can use the results to better understand how our kids are performing against New York state standards,” said Kravatz, the Monroe-Woodbury administrator who oversees instruction for pre-K through fifth grade.

The nail-biting over scores has calmed down since the grades 3-8 assessments began with the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, said Kravatz.

“When high-stakes testing first came out, there was a lot of uncertainty. There were years individual grade level scores were put in the newspaper: You would open up the paper and see how every school district did. We’ve moved away from that in a big way. This is just one indicator,” he said.

“We value these, there is an importance to them,” he said, referring to assessments in general, “but it’s just one indicator.”

That said, there’s no getting around the fact that the anxiety level ratchets up in schools as the state tests approach.

“Some teachers, no matter what, are still going to get nervous,” Kravatz said.

New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania require districts to use state test scores as a component of teacher evaluations, a practice that other states have been dropping.

Data are helpful in making decisions, said O’Hara, superintendent of the Chester School District, where parents receive letters from the principal about the importance of the assessments.

“By analyzing varied assessment data at the classroom, school and state levels, we can identify trends,” such as how to allocate resources and where to focus professional development for teachers, she said.

The state scores data, however, are of limited value as an educational tool because the results take so long to come back - arriving at the tail end of the school year or even the next school year, as happened with last year’s New York state test scores.

“We don’t get the results until a month later,” said Kravatz. “I mean this year we got them in September,” by which time teachers “have a whole new set of kids in front of them.”

Hassler, the Monroe-Woodbury administrator who oversees instruction for grades 6-12, said, “We try to obviously paint a whole picture of our kids, so the state assessments contribute another data point on how our kids are doing. But when you have many months in between when the kids sit for the exam and when we ultimately get the results, that’s problematic in terms of designing support for the kids.”

State test scores also are a major component in school ratings, such as those on greatschools.org, which can be a major draw - or deal-breaker - for potential homebuyers.

Critics point out that because test scores say more about socioeconomics than they do about schools, wealthy districts tend to look good in the ratings, drawing families with financial means and exacerbating the problem of school segregation.

Evolving skill

Test taking is an ever-evolving skill. To prepare for the new computer-based tests, it’s not just the math that students have to learn. “There is some additional prep work because they have online tools to use and how to use the equation editor,” said Hassler. The goal is “to make sure it is truly a measure of reading, writing and math and not their ability to sit and use the online tools.”

State tests are still administered with paper and pencil in some schools or in certain grades within schools that are gradually phasing-in the computer-based tests. But across the board, the process is moving online. Computer-based tests save paper, money and time - possibly time for students taking the streamlined tests; - and definitely turnaround time for educators to get the scores back soon enough to be of use.

New Jersey is using computer-based testing, and New York and Pennsylvania will move entirely to computers by 2026.

The digital test is the way of the future, but it’s not without its downsides. An internet outage can leave schools scrambling, as happened to Monroe-Woodbury in April, forcing the district to push back a scheduled day of state testing.

There are concerns about 12 additional hours of screen time in children’s already tech-saturated lives and the real-time effect of staring at a computer screen for three-hour chunks during four days.

Caroline Martin of Warwick, a parent of two elementary schoolers who is a high school chemistry teacher, recalls her fourth-grade daughter coming home from a day of computer-based testing at Sanfordville Elementary School with a headache - possibly exacerbated by the Dum Dums offered during testing, a major perk from the children’s perspective.

Still, Martin has no qualms about her children taking the tests. “I don’t even contemplate opting her out,” she said, referring to her elder daughter.

“I don’t mind. You know, most of my schooling was in a room with no radiators,” said Martin, who grew up in Ireland. “And you just suffered a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with that. They shouldn’t be overly pampered as children. They can suffer once or twice a year and do a state test - no big deal.”

‘I’ve had kids who just break down’

It’s a different story, though, for children who are “destined to fail academically,” said Martin, something a parent is likely aware of by about fourth grade. “You’re only subjecting your child to sort of misery, and misery to the point of the child actually disliking themselves, or if it damages their self-esteem.

“If there’s no utility to it at all, you do what’s right by your child,” she added. “There are very clear indicators if a child is really suffering.”

Whatever you decide, Martin advises sticking to your gut. If you decide to go test-optional for your child, don’t go back and forth; champion that decision and talk to other parents about it.

For English as a Second Language students recently arrived from South America or students with special needs, ADHD or dyslexia, sitting through four days of testing that they know they’re expected to be able to handle but can’t can be painful at best and possibly even damaging, said Meyer.

“You give a test to a child, and they can’t do it for any one of those reasons, what is that doing to that child? I’ve had kids who just break down, they cry, you know, because I teach special ed.”

New arrivals to the country who speak a different language are exempt from the ELA test for a year and take a translated math test. The second year, they take the English test along with everyone else, explained Kravatz. Imagine arriving in Japan and after nine months of schooling being asked to demonstrate your proficiency in Japanese along with a roomful of native speakers, he suggested.

Impact on college prospects

Whether a student takes the state English and math assessments in elementary and middle school has no impact on college prospects down the road, said Sharon Davis, a Warwick Valley school board member and co-founder of College Mode Consulting.

However, Martin, parent of two elementary school students, said gaining early experience taking tests is useful in “preparing the child from a young age to be a test taker,” though she noted wryly that she finds the society-wide frenzy over test scores “absurd.”

The opt-out question gets more complicated down the road, when it comes to the college entrance exams.

“We always suggest that our students prepare and take an SAT or an ACT,” said Davis. “Then we review the data at each of their schools to decide whether they will submit that score or not to each school on their list. Also, we remind them that a standardized test is not a test of intelligence - it’s one component out of many that can provide evidence that a student is ready to perform college-level work.”

Martin, too, advises caution to students with collegiate aspirations who are thinking of skipping the regimen of college exams. “We’re running a risk with telling students that test-optional is actually an opportunity for them to shine in other ways. I think that colleges are still looking at test scores heavily.” Students opting out of the SATs or ACTs “have to really know what it is about the application that they can ensure is top quality in lieu of the tests.”

That said, she finds the minority of her students who are opting out to be inspiring. “It takes somebody to break the mold, who has also the strength to see the vision of the mold being broken, and push through and make it better for others. They’re very much aware that they’re focusing on a better path. They’re not doing it because they’re lazy, because they don’t want to take the test - we have those too. But they’re their own breed. They’re a new breed: the opt-outers, and they’re taking it very seriously.”

Correction: The story originally mis-stated a past year’s opt-out rate at Chester Union Free School District. In 2021-22, there were 111 students who opted out of the ELA test; not last year.