Education

The assistant principal urged Sarah Stalker to let her son, Bran, take Kentucky’s standardized test.

After careful consideration, Stalker and her husband decided to keep their son from taking the test this past spring at St. Matthews Elementary School.

“We’re just not going to do it. I’m not comfortable for a myriad of reasons,” Stalker recently told WFPL. “A letter on a paper does not define your abilities and how intelligent you are.”

Across the U.S., parents are choosing to shield their children from taking standardized tests. It has occurred at a greater rate in recent years; in some places, teachers have even refused to give the standardized test.

The trend hasn’t reached Kentucky.

Stalker’s son, Bran, is one of just two Jefferson County Public Schools students who opted out of taking Kentucky’s statewide standardized test during the 2013-14 academic year.

The Kentucky Department of Education says students must take the tests required at the specified grade level. Students may not opt out, according to the department.

But that’s not entirely true.

“The (state education) commissioner really discourages from people opting out of testing,” said Bob Rodosky, director of JCPS accountability.

“We feel, as a school district, that if a parent wants to opt out of testing, then what we want to do is we want the parent to, basically, make an informed decision.”

For a school, the consequences of a student opting out are a knock on the school’s overall score. Students who don’t take the test get a zero. If students don’t take the test, the school’s overall score can drop, which affects the school’s rank. And schools that score poorly face state intervention.

The Unbridled Learning tests are given throughout the year. It’s used to measure basic knowledge of the major core subjects ranging from math to social studies. In high school, students are also tested to see whether they are college or career ready. Plus, the end-of-course exams count toward a student’s grade in the subjects tested.

Parents of children with learning disabilities or English language proficiencies might opt out because they don’t think the test is necessary under their student’s condition, Rodosky said.

Stalker’s fourth-grader has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but that’s not why she didn’t want him taking the test.

“Our concern is that we don’t feel that this is the proper way to gauge what his abilities are,” she said.

Many parents across the nation, including Stalker, have argued against standardized testing for accountability purposes. They say the tests stifle learning, take too much classroom time and have high costs.

In some school districts, like Atlanta, a group of teachers are on trial for allegedly cheating on the state’s standardized test:

The Atlantic writes:

“The defense is expected to blame a corrosive environment where boosting test scores had become the sole priority, and that teachers and administrators were motivated by fear—rather than personal gain—when they changed students’ answer sheets on statewide exams.”

But local education leaders say standardized tests have a purpose.

For starters, the test scores help educators identify problem areas and help all students.

“These tests and exams really do help us focus on where the kids are and it really does help us serve them better,” said Rodosky.

Should a parent decide to opt their student out of testing, JCPS first informs the parent of the consequences. Rodosky said there are three things they tell or ask of the parent:

  1. The school will get a zero score.
  2. The student will get a zero score, which is recorded and may negatively affect an application to one of JCPS’ competitive magnet programs.
  3. JCPS asks the parent provide a reason so the district can monitor trends.

Stalker said JCPS reviewed those points with her.

“It wasn’t just a simple process. There was a lot of conversations and pressures,” she said.

Educators at Bran’s school seemed concerned that the school would be receiving zero points for him, she said. But Stalker maintains that testing would be doing more harm than good to her son.

“If you’re asking me what is better for the school or what is better for the individual child, I will always 100 percent advocate for what’s in that individual’s best interest,” said Stalker.

Related: See test results for Kentucky schools

Stalker eventually removed Bran from public school and he now attends Ascension Parish, a private school.

Reforms and Tests

In 1997, a ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the Kentucky Board of Education’s “authority to require all students in public schools to participate in standardized assessments.”

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday pointed to that court decision this year in an online memo, adding “districts are under no obligation to honor a parent’s request to ‘opt out’ of the Common Core State Standards, curriculum or testing.”

But there are neither legal consequences nor a statewide “opt out” policy if a parent chooses to remove their child from a standardized test.

Accountability testing has been in place since the early 1990s, after the Kentucky Education Reform Act KERA was passed. The law was seen as a progressive step, which purpose was to make education more equitable for all students and to ensure proficiency in the major subjects.

“We were testing in too many content areas,” said Rodosky.

Under KERA, students were tested in all the core content areas they are now, plus arts, humanities and practical living assessments (more on that later).

The testing window was around 10 to 12 days, said Ken Draut, director of assessment and accountability for the Kentucky Department of Education.

“Even in those days we didn’t have opt outs,” said Draut, who worked in JCPS from 1996-2007.

Fast forward to Kentucky’s most recent education reforms passed in 2009 under Senate Bill 1. The new accountability model—under which data was just released—reduced the number of tests (leaving in the core content areas) and it reduced the testing window to five days.

It also added “program reviews” which are meant to counter standardized testing and measure a school’s programs in arts and humanities, practical living and careers, and writing programs (foreign language will be added later). These self-scored reviews are worth 23 percent of a school’s score and ultimately have a large impact on where a school ranks.

The accountability system also tries to balance student growth measures—how much improvement students are making year over year—and makes sure that minority and other student groups don’t fall through the “achievement gap.”

Testing makes up a large chunk of how schools are graded and what public perception of schools will be. And beginning next year, student growth and test scores will play into teacher and principal evaluations.

“When significant consequences are attached to the results of tests, the tests drive what occurs in schools and classrooms,” Jefferson County Teachers Association Brent McKim said in an email.

Kentucky teachers have not protested or refused to give standardized tests, as has happened in other states. In 2013, for example, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle refused to administer their state test. Ultimately the test was dropped for high schoolers.

“This is an individual decision that has to be made by each educator,” McKim said. “But if teachers reach this conclusion and are punished for following their ethical convictions to ‘do no harm’ to their students, the association will do everything within its power to advocate for them and their students.”

The Kentucky Board of Education is currently reviewing changes to the new accountability system and will consider modifications in December. It’s not likely there will be dramatic updates , according to state officials. KDE has also asked for public comment on the system.

Rodosky said he’s a proponent of the current system, but added there are other ways to see if kids understand the content “other than bubble tests.”

“When you’re testing, you’re not teaching,” he said.

In fact, Rodosky seemed excited to discuss an element of the KERA that offered more project-based learning opportunities for assessment. But, he said, it failed because it was too time consuming and hard to standardize.

“I still wish we could go that way,” he said.

In many current education circles, “project-based learning” has become a hot term and some districts are even using it for some assessments (while still taking state tests).

Even Commissioner Holliday has seemed interested at times of moving more toward other ways to assess besides the standardized tests we’re accustomed too.

It’s “up the road a bit,” but the education department is looking at assessing on more performance-based tasks, Draut said.

Students would perform work “that would be similar to the work they would do as, say, a scientist,” he said.

This would be more engaging and might reduce tests, “somewhat,” he said.

Stalker’s decision to remove Bran from public school was not related to standardized testing. She struggled to create an appropriate education plan with St. Matthews Elementary staff that would suit Bran, she said. She also wanted him to have a consistent school going forward.

Her 6-year-old daughter Lucy is in first grade at JCPS’ Coleridge-Taylor Montessori. Stalker said she’s always asked whether she plans on sending Lucy to private school.

Her answer: No.

“Lucy is doing great where she’s at. She’s thriving,” said Stalker. “I think it’s really important to make sure that [kids are] in an environment where they can do the best they can.”

Stalker does not plan on allowing Lucy to take the test the first time it’s administered in third grade.

Correction: This story has been updated from an earlier version. Only the assistant principal urged Stalker to opt out of the test. Counselors were not involved. It’s also clarified why Stalker chose to remove Bran from public school and her intention to have Lucy not take the test.