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Opting Out

April 26th, 2015

The past several weeks brought renewed attention to the question of testing related to the Common Core curriculum developed in response to the No Child Left Behind act.  The objective of bringing all children up to a certain level in basic subjects, involves tests given to children in third through eighth grades.  Apparently, these tests have reflected the hoped for level that children would have achieved at these various points rather than where they are, or what they actually already have been taught.

Teachers and schools as well as the children themselves have been evaluated based on these tests and the result has been that testing and test preparation have had a profound effect on the content of the curriculum, often to the detriment of creativity and originality in teaching and learning.  An unintended consequence has been a high stress level for children, parents and teachers. In response, a movement started by some parents to have their children opt out of taking the tests seems to have caught fire, supported by many teachers as well.

Much attention has been paid to the “opt-out” movement over the math and language arts tests administered during recent weeks.  By one count, 150,000 children in New York alone were kept out of the tests by their parents.  During the discussion  raging about whether parents should keep their children out of the tests, a father asked my opinion as to whether or not to give his daughter permission to opt out, as many of her friends were doing.  What were the pros and cons on both sides of the decision?

On the side of not taking the tests was the fact that the testing situation is very stressful.  The fact that they go way beyond what children have learned can leave a child feeling negative about her own abilities.  In fact, a major criticism of the tests has been that they do not actually indicate what a child has learned or is capable of learning.  In other words, expectations are being set that don’t match where children are, leaving children with a feeling of failure.

In favor of having a child take the test was the idea that test-taking is part of school and there is value in getting used to taking them.  Beyond that is the idea that some things are hard, and moving forward can mean doing things that are hard.  Also, taking the tests is an expectation of the school, and in one sense opting out is a rebellion against authority.  On the other hand, one could see it as a constructive protest given in the hope of bringing about change.

These questions are challenging to think about, and in a very real sense are questions that as parents we are trying to answer at various stages of a child’s development.  As children grow and mature, parents have certain expectations about what they should be able to achieve at various stages.  Since children develop differently, one of the challenges in child-rearing is to set our expectations realistically based on where our own children are in their development.

Parents are leaders as well as followers so we do set goals of next steps for children as well as judging their readiness to take those steps.  Often conflicts occur if parents’ expectations are out of sync with what a child is capable of at any given point along the way.  When that happens, both parent and child may feel a sense of failure, or worry that something is wrong.  At times children protest the effort to have them move on to a next step they are not ready to take.  The protest may be expressed in behavior that is difficult and adds another layer of concern to the situation.

As with the current question about academic test-taking, the developmental question for parents is whether an expectation is realistic and matches a child’s abilities and readiness to take a next step.  When the response from a child is a protest, we have to determine if our expectation is unrealistic or if the child just needs some help from us in taking a step that may be hard.

Protests may feel like a problem but are useful in determining if we need to rethink our expectations or if our children need a helping hand in taking the next step.  Hopefully, the powers that be will also use the current protest to rethink the test expectations.

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