Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ann Arbor’s Move to Punish Opting Out: Even For This Test-Taking Family, It’s Bad Policy

A guest post by Naomi Zikmund-Fisher

If you look at the sidebar on the right of this blog, it asks that we assume that everyone wants the best for schools. There are (and I’m generalizing here) two general ways you can think about what is best for schools:

Philosophy #1: It is best for schools when schools are well funded, everything is going smoothly and achievement is high.

Philosophy #2: It is best for schools when each individual child, as a whole person, is getting what he or she needs.

As you look at those two possibilities, you probably are thinking that you don’t disagree with either of them. But one may seem more the way you look at schools than the other. Parents tend more towards #2 – we want our kids to get what our kids need. School officials tend more towards #1 – we want our schools to get what they need to serve all kids.

In a perfect world, these two views would never conflict. However, this being the real, imperfect world, they sometimes do. Recent issues surrounding Michigan’s standardized test, the MSTEP, have brought those conflicts to the forefront.

On the one hand, the law says that schools have to test the vast majority of children in order to maintain their government funding, which they certainly need. Philosophy #1 dictates that kids take the test. On the other hand, many parents say that this test is bad for children – their individual children and/or children in general, and therefore do not want their children to participate. Philosophy #2 says kids should not take this test.

During this most recent round of testing, much larger numbers of families than in previous years “opted out” of testing as a protest against the test itself and/or testing policy and/or to protect their own children from the effects of prolonged testing. The school district understandably is concerned with the possibility that this trend could cost the schools money they really need.

At last week’s School Board meeting, the Board had a first briefing on a policy to address this issue. It states that:

Failure to participate in all state assessments may result in exclusion and/or removal from any application-based school or program.

In other words, you let your child take the MSTEP or they cannot attend Ann Arbor Open, Ann Arbor STEAM,  Community, the IB Schools, or the Skyline magnets. And where are the opt-out families disproportionately clustered? At the school whose philosophy emphasizes the whole child and de-emphasizes standardized testing: Ann Arbor Open.

I am going to assume, for the sake of argument, that this policy is legal. Someone with more expertise than I can discuss that aspect. But let’s just suppose for the moment that it is legally permissible. Legally permissible is not the same thing as right.

And this is wrong.

Instead of taking a stance that says, “We respect what you’re trying to do but we don’t think it’s the right thing,” the Board said , “Agree with us or we will punish you.” But by “you,” they mean only parents of children in certain programs. If your child goes to a neighborhood school, there is no consequence at all.

What’s more, instead of opening a conversation with parents who are proponents of opting out, or even discussing the policy openly in advance of the meeting, they voted on it late in the evening and without the proposed policy being attached to the Board agenda.

I don’t think any person on the Board or any member of central administration can look me, or you, or anyone else in the eye and honestly say that they believe these tests are good for children. They may not think they’re as bad as some of us do, but they are flawed.

The Board sees this as purely a financial issue, even though no funding has ever been lost for failing to test enough children. Parents who opt out see this as a question of what is right for children. Faced with that conflict, what do we do?  The Board’s answer not only is to go with philosophy #1, but to flatly punish people for going with philosophy #2.

So I’ll say it again. This is wrong. It is a bad policy moved forward using bad process. If you agree with me, I hope you’ll let the Board of Education know.

Author’s note: At this point, you may be asking yourself:  who is writing this and where does she  stand on the testing issue?

Who am I to say this is wrong?

From 2002-2010 I was the Principal of Ann Arbor Open School. There were a handful of test opter-outers every year, and one year it cost us our “Annual Yearly Progress” certification. I do, however, support the idea that schools should not be able to get out of the fact that they are educating some groups of kids much better than others by only testing those who will do well. The emphasis on testing all children does have a point.

My children took the MSTEP this year. They attend Ann Arbor Open and Community. We decided that, while we think that standardized testing is a poor measure of student growth and school and teacher quality, and that draconian policies that require more and more testing diminish the quality of education for all, opting them out would likely not achieve much, and sitting around not taking a test wouldn’t get back the time wasted.

At the same time, I have a lot of respect for those who made the opposite decision. Good people with good intentions have different ideas of what to do, and I can’t fault someone for doing what they believe is right for their child. It is long past time for the Board to honor the real convictions of those who opt their children out by having an open, honest dialog about how to handle this situation in Ann Arbor, and I believe the proposed policy is a drastic step in the wrong direction.

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  1. I also believe this test, in particular, was written poorly. The fact that the information used from this test is used to punish schools instead of help, is the antithesis of good assessment practice. It seems taking the test just feeds the beast of bad undulation policy. Just think if we used the information/data (ugh) to fully fund those schools that were struggling? What if we used the data to look at clusters of poverty (since this is really what it measures) and we began funding free pre-schools, and putting books in homes and teaching parents how to read to their children, and Teaching parents how to help their students be the best student they could possibly be, by providing a routine for homework and a quiet place in which to do it. I know I'm rambling, but you get the point.

  2. I don't think I can get past the fact that the school board met after midnight and voted unanimously to punish a group of parents who are advocates for public education. There wasn't a single board member who stopped for a moment and said--"Is this really the relationship we want with the parents of Ann Arbor schools." Instead, it was how can we force this group to do what they want in a very underhanded way. They can claim it is due to issues of school funding but we have been dealing with issues of school funding for a long time. This is just very poor leadership. I have lost all respect and any confidence I might have in this group and the superintendent making good decisions for the schools.