Words and Books: Keys to Academic Success

When parents ask me how to improve their children’s academic success, I often want to shout, “Words and books!”

In my view, too few parents and children understand the importance of words and books as keys to academic success. Big words, little words, descriptive words, precise words. Big books, little books, fiction books, other books. Words and books matter for babies, toddlers, young children, teenagers. Words and books matter for English, history, science, and even math. Large vocabularies facilitate easy reading; avid reading facilitates the acquisition of even more words. Words and books work together to build academic success.
Love You ForeverChildren arrive at school with various levels of vocabulary knowledge. Some children know a large percentage of the words in their grade level vocabulary books even before the first day of school; other children know almost none of those words. A student’s performance on a vocabulary pre-test in September more often than not predicts the student’s academic success at year’s end, not just in language arts classes, but also in other courses.

“How do we best acquire new words?” you might ask. Babies and toddlers best acquire new words by talking and interacting with their parents. Older children acquire new words not only by verbal interactions, but also by reading books.

In this article, I focus on words and books as the keys to academic success. If I inspire just one family to increase their number of parent-child verbal interactions or the number of books their children read for pleasure, my time spent writing this article will be worthwhile.

Words in Pre-School Years

Thirty years ago vocabulary researchers Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. James Risley studied the vocabulary development of children from low, middle, and upper class families. Over the course of two and a half years, the researchers spent one hour per month recording all the speech interactions and utterances between the parents and young children in forty-two families.

Hart and Risley’s results reveal shocking disparities between the number of words heard by lower, middle, and upper class children. Children on welfare heard an average of 616 words per hour, children from working class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour, and children from professional families heard an average of 2,153 words per hour. Astonishingly, Hart and Risley (1995) found that the vocabularies of four-year old children from professional families were larger than the vocabularies that the parents of the children living on welfare used when interacting with their children.

In their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995), Hart and Risley note that according to their research, an average four-year-old child living in a family on welfare might hear 13 million fewer words that a child living in a working class family. The difference in numbers of words heard by children in lower and upper class families supplied the title for an article on Hart and Risley’s follow-up research: “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (2005).

The vocabulary gap suffered by poor children persists beyond the preschool years and negatively affects academic achievement and career opportunities. To help improve the lives of poor children, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, led by Dana Suskind, M.D. of the University of Chicago is “an innovative parent-directed initiative designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.” Buildingvocabulary is critical for the academic success of all children.

CaterpillerVocabulary in the School Years

Although educators agree that vocabulary growth is a key to academic success, educators debate whether to include regular vocabulary instruction as part of the curriculum. Margaret McKeown and Mary E. Curtis (1987), experts in the field of vocabulary instruction, note that although vocabulary instruction can provide rich encounters with a small number of words, only frequent and regular reading can provide repeated exposure to large numbers of words. Vocabularies grow best through repeated exposure to words in a wide variety of books, e-books, and other high quality reading material.

McKeown and Curtis point out that an average high school senior knows 40,000 words. If we divide that number by 18 years, we find vocabulary growth rate of 2, 222 words per year. McKeown and Curtis write,This astounding rate of vocabulary growth by average children sets a mark against which the contribution of any program of vocabulary instruction must be measured.” In their book, McKeown and Curtis make a case for building vocabulary via reading rather than via direct instruction. They write, “the single most important goal of vocabulary instruction should be to increase the amount of incidental word learning by students.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 11.02.45 AMFifteen years later, McKeown joined two other authors to write a book advertised as providing a “research-based framework and practical strategies for vocabulary development with children from the earliest grades through high school.” In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Beck, McKweon, and Kucan (2002, 2nd edition 2013) note the reality that (1) there is a four-fold vocabulary size difference between top students and lowest students upon high school graduation, and (2) many students do not read. The authors argue that because may students do not read, schools should provide direct vocabulary instruction, despite the fact that the most effective method of vocabulary acquisition is through reading.

The sad fact that many students do not read makes direct vocabulary instruction in schools a necessity for their academic success. If all students were avid readers, direct vocabulary instruction would not be necessary, except for instruction relating to word affixes, roots, and origins.

As teachers and parents, we must do all we can to encourage children to read widely and deeply. Children benefit from repeated exposure to words necessary for high levels of academic success. Children suffer when, for whatever reason, they choose not to read books for pleasure and academic success.

Today’s Challenge

Books on ShelfI fear that the lack of book reading among today’s students has risen to unacceptable levels. I am not alone in my fears. Today, as I am editing this article for publication, two major organizations are releasing studies about how technology is changing the way students learn. The study by Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center, surveyed 2,462 teachers about their students’ technology-related research. The other study, by Common Sense Media, surveyed 685 teachers about whether technology hurts students’ abilities, including their ability to write and communicate.

In Technology is Changing How Children Learn, Teachers Say, the New York Times quoted Jim Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, as follows: “Boy, is this a clarion call for a healthy and balanced media diet. * * * What you have to understand as a parent is that what happens in the home with media consumption can affect academic achievement.” I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Steyer’s statement that parents need to understand that media consumption at home can affect academic achievement at school.

I urge all parents to learn exactly what media their children are consuming during long hours online at home. Are their children engaging in sustained reading of a wide range of challenging material online? Are their children spending excessive hours watching silly YouTube videos? Are their children reading news articles or learning about technology?

I wish all parents well in their journeys to understand their children’s reading behaviors and online hours, and in their efforts to help their children understand the importance of words and books to academic success. During my teaching years, I did my best to help my students understand that books bring words, and words bring academic success. I hope my students continue to make choices consistent with their academic goals.


Beck, Isabel L, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan. (2002). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press: New York.

Hart, B., &​ Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The thirty million word gap by age three. American Educator, 27(1), 4-9. http:/​/​www.eric.ed.gov/​ERICWebPortal/​detail?accno=​EJ672461

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

McKeown, Margaret, and Mary E. Curtis. (1987). The Nature of vocabulary Acquisition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: London.

Richtel, Matt. (2012). Technology is Changing How Children Learn, Teachers Say.  New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/education/technology-is-changing-how-students-learn-teachers-say.html


I first wrote this article for publication on November 2, 2012 on a now-unsearchable webpage on the TASIS England website. I have updated the article and added hyperlinks. I thank my students at TASIS for inspiring me to write the article, and I thank Cait of My Little Poppies for inspiring me to update it and post it here. The photos are mine, except for the screenshot of Bringing Words to Life.


How To Avoid Accusations of Inequality: Share the Heart of Giftedness

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 10.37.53 AM I recently met an interesting couple at a social gathering. At one point, the father mentioned that his 16 year old high school junior, who is taking two college courses, finds those courses to be easy. Fine, I get that. Then the father quickly added, “we didn’t push him or show him flash cards when he was young.”

I found the father’s “disclaimer” to be disturbing. I wasn’t sure whether to reveal myself as a gifted advocate or not. The only thing I said in response was, “I understand, I understand.”

In this blog article, I give parents of highly intelligent children advice about how to talk about their children’s successes, challenges, and needs without risking accusations of inequality. I admit that’s a tricky business: avoiding accusations of inequality where inequality obviously exists. But it’s possible. Here’s how.

1. George Orwell’s Horrible Pigs

In the last chapter of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s horrible pigs abridged the seven commandments of Animalism to one sentence: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The pigs used that sentence not to explain a natural phenomenon, but to justify their murderous and grossly unfair behaviors towards the other animals.


When we speak of children having different levels of intelligence, we are not justifying any murderous or grossly unfair behaviors. The inequality of intelligence levels among children is a simple difference, not an injustice as Orwell’s horrible pigs intended with their commandment of inequality. Some children have lots of hair on their heads; some children have lots of intelligence in their heads. Nutrition and hair caring behaviors might change the amount of hair on a child’s head; nutrition and mind caring behaviors might change the amount of intelligence in a child’s head.

2. The Heart of Giftedness

The heart of giftedness is that intelligence is a real phenomenon. If you don’t believe me, check out the following studies finding brain differences related to intelligence:

To avoid accusations of inequality, remind people that intelligence is a real phenomenon, not an evil plot. Remind people that an individual’s intelligence can change through time as a result of a myriad of factors. Remind people what when we talk about different children having different levels of intelligence, we’re not advocating the mistreatment of anyone. Instead, we’re advocating that all children receive an education appropriate to meet their individual needs.

3. The Worshipping of Intelligence

Once upon a time, I taught middle school at a private Catholic girl’s school in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America. I loved the school’s mission statement because rather than embracing academic goals, the mission statement embraced the much deeper goals of faith, respect, awareness, community, and freedom. Most of the girls in the school came from wealthy families. Many of the girls told me that their parents pressured them to earn high grades, and to aim for Ivy League colleges.

At one point during that school year, my 17 year old daughter spent a day shadowing me at the school. My students marveled that she was already a sophomore at a highly selective college.

DSC02243One day, as my students’ voices rose to fortissimo levels as they sang their admiration of my daughter’s intelligence, I interrupted with a loud, “Stop!” The girls, surprised by my seriousness, became quiet and listened intently as I reminded them that both their school’s mission statement and the tenets of their religious faith hold other aspects of human lives to be far more important than smarts. I urged the girls to admire their own strengths of character in lieu of worshipping intelligence.

From that experience, I realized that worshippers of high intelligence usually are not people with high intelligence themselves, but rather are people who wish they or their children had *higher* intelligence. Underneath the worship lies a thin layer of discontent. And underneath that discontent often lies a deeper layer of envy. For more information about envy with respect to gifted children, I highly recommend Catharine Vetter Alvarez’s essay, Envy and Giftedness: Are We Underestimating the Effects of Envy?  In the essay, she nails the sources, varieties, and consequences of people’s envy of giftedness.

Whenever you encounter people who worship high intelligence, I recommend deflecting their worship from intelligence to whatever their religion or philosophy considers to be most important to life. Remind them that few people on their deathbed ever say, “I wish I was smarter.” Instead, people looking back on their lives talk about friends, family, happiness, and love.

4. The Foundation of Love

As I write this article on Valentine’s Day, I’m savoring Newbery Honor Book author and gifted expert Stephanie Tolan’s recently essay, What’s Love Got to Do With It?  In the essay, she writes,

What we call “gifts,” could also be thought of as “loves.” Now imagine an education in which love really did have everything to do with it. Imagine, instead of categorizing and grouping children by their abilities, we were to purposely set out to help them find what it is they love and then to support that, even as we help them learn what else they’re likely to need on their life journey. What would that change? How would such a world look?

For years, I have steered conversations about intelligence back to basics…back to my belief that we need to affirm the worth and dignity of every individual. Tolan goes one step further: she advocates that people focus on love.

HeartI love Tolan’s idea. Instead of talking about our children’s grade skips as better meeting their academic needs, let’s talk about the grade skips as giving our children a chance to love what they do in school. Instead of talking about our children’s honor roll status, let’s steer the conversation to how wonderful it is when schools give students multiple places to express their passions, whether those passions include a love of history, sports, math, music, science, art, or leadership. Let’s use love to deflect our neighbors’ praise or criticism of our children’s achievements.

5. Concluding Cautions & Hopes

When I shared the title of this article with a friend, she cringed. She reminded me to tell parents, particularly those with highly or profoundly gifted children, that often it’s better NOT to talk about giftedness. I agree that it’s sometimes better to remain silent. Giftedness is a taboo topic in many circles. Parents of the other 95% generally don’t want to be reminded that your child has a higher level of intelligence.

But when we gently share the heart of giftedness with our children’s teachers, with curious neighbors, and even with parents we meet at social gatherings, we can avoid accusations of inequality. When people understand that differing levels of intelligence are a real phenomenon, they are less likely to accuse us of pushing our children. When people understand that we view love and passions as more important than intelligence, they are more willing to listen to our concerns.

Together, let’s remove the taboo that suppresses honest discussions of giftedness, let’s douse the fire of intelligence worship, and let’s reach common ground by agreeing that although we affirm the worth and dignity of all children, no two children are exactly alike.

Brain Research References:

Brans, R.G.H. (2010). Brain plasticity and intellectual ability are influenced by shared genes. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21 April 2010, 30(16): 5519-5524; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5841-09.2010.

Cole, M.W., Yarkoni, T., Repovs, G, Anticevic, A., and Braver, T.S. (2012). Global connectivity of prefrontal cortex predicts cognitive control and intelligence. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27 June 2012, 32(26): 8988-8999; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0536-12.201.

Haier, R. J., White, N. S., & Alkire, M. T. (2003). Individual differences in general intelligence correlate with brain function during nonreasoning tasks. Intelligence 31, 429–441.

Shaw, P., et al. (2006), Cortex matures faster in youth with highest IQ. Nature 440, 676-679 (30 March 2006) doi:10.1038/nature04513.

Singh, H. & O’Boyle, M. W. (2004). Interhemispheric interaction during global-local processing in mathematically gifted adolescents, average-ability youth, and college students. Neuropsychology, 18(2), 671-677.


I took all the photographs in this article. 

I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the February 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.


The Perfect Presentation Proposal in 9 Easy Steps

Proposal AcceptedLong ago, partly due to the high cost of attending conferences, including hotel bills, travel expenses, and registration fees, I decided I would attend only those conferences that included me as a speaker.

Why? Because when I’m a speaker, I have extra motivation to learn more about a topic and to prepare the best conference presentation possible. When I’m a speaker, I hear valuable feedback from audience members. When I’m a speaker, I contribute to the organization’s mission.

Today I share what I have learned over the years about conference proposal writing. If you follow my advice, you’ll soon be wearing one of those snazzy speaker nametags and adding lines to your curriculum vitae. 

1. Bull’s Eye Aim

The perfect presentation proposal is aimed exactly, like a bull’s-eye, towards the theme of the conference and towards the subdivision of the conference that might be responsible for reviewing the proposal. Some conferences have strands, others have divisions, still others have departments or networks. A large organization always breaks itself down into bits, and parcels out the proposal review responsibilities to committees.

You need to know exactly what group of people will be reviewing your proposal, and how that committee will be reviewing your proposal. If you cozy up to one of the members of the committee (or someone who served on the committee in the past) and ask for a rubric, so much the better. If the organization is transparent enough to post the rubric on their website, for goodness sakes follow it to perfection.

2. Catchy Title with Promise

Make sure your presentation proposal has a catchy title that includes a promise to participants of what they will learn, and a promise that attending the session will be a valuable use of their time.

3. Flawless Grammar

The perfect presentation proposal has flawless grammar to ensure that even if a grammar police officer sits on the proposal review committee, you’ll get as many points as possible towards winning one of the coveted presentation spots.

4. Tools or StrategiesTools

The perfect presentation proposal promises that participants will leave the session with useful tools, strategies, or whatever synonym you can find at the time to promise usefulness. The perfect presentation proposal lists enough of those tools, strategies, or whatnots to entice not only the reviewing committee to choose your proposal, but also to entice conference attendees to choose your session.

5. Strength in Numbers

To ensure success, submit as many proposals for the conference as the organizers allow. If the conference allows people to submit only two proposals as a lead presenter, collaborate with other people in the field to submit joint proposals. If you know enough people in your field, dream up the perfect panel, which includes a variety of viewpoints on a controversy facing members of the organization.

6. Novelty

If you think the organization wants novelty heading in a particular direction, go in that direction. Find out what controversies are currently facing the organization. Determine what fields outside the organization might help resolve those controversies. Learn as much as you can from those outside fields, and come up with a proposal that promises to teach conference goers new information that might help resolve a controversy.

7. Share Early and Often

Of course, submit your proposals on time. Aim to finish them at least a week in advance, and use that last week to send them around to friends for careful editing, proofreading, and suggestions. Don’t be shy about sharing your work with others. Think of it this way: if you don’t share your work with others before you submit your work, whatever embarrassing errors your friends may catch will be the downfall of your proposal, or if your proposal is accepted, may be your own downfall if no one takes pity on you and edits your proposal before it’s published. Always, always, get as much editing and proofreading help as you can. (Get more help than I’ve gotten as I’m rushing to publish this article ahead of a major proposal deadline facing many of my friends.)

8. The Thumb Game

Thumb GameIf your advance planning goes belly up and you need to do your own proofreading on deadline, play the thumb game. I learned the thumb game from Matthew Bagley, a well-loved teaching colleague of mine in England. He taught his sixth grade students to take the thumb on their right hand and place it upside down on top of the first word in the paper to be proofread. The thumb must then be moved from word to word as the mind stops and savors each word, its spelling, and its relationship to the words around it.

The thumb game had other details designed to catch punctuation and capitalization errors, but I’ll spare you that level of detail. The important thing is to remember that your mind plays tricks on you. You may think that you have read every word in your proposal, but as you were reading, your mind likely filled in the gaps with what you had hoped to see on the paper. You simply cannot proofread and edit your own work. Trust me, I’m a mistake-making champion. As an example, I’m giving you this blog article before it’s 100% ready.

9. Beware of Your Success

Try to learn the usual success rate of proposals submitted to the organization. Once you master the art of writing perfect presentation proposals, expect a higher than average success rate.

How high? Expect your chances of success to double, or even triple. During my years of reviewing conference proposals, I found few that met my high standards for rubric-following, grammar-perfecting, novelty-offering, research-citing, and strategy-giving. You can do better. Much better.

Be careful, though. Trust me…you do not want to spend your entire conference time polishing and delivering presentations rather than enjoying the presentations of others. Pay attention to whether the organization makes you promise to present in the event your proposal is accepted, or whether the organization has a process whereby after your proposal is accepted, you are given a chance to accept or reject an invitation to present.

If the organization does not have a process for opting out after you submit your proposal, be prepared for all of your proposals for a certain conference to be accepted. In that case you’re going to be one busy beaver during that particular conference and in the weeks leading up to that conference. Make sure you’re prepared to present all those sessions. If you can’t act like a super hero, don’t submit so many perfect presentation proposals, ok?

Good luck! 

Ceilings and Ceiling Tiles: A Call for Civil Disobedience

Last month I wrote Pop the Bubbles: Thoughts on Standardized Testing. In that article, I talked about the Opt Out movement, I criticized the January 8, 2015 Brookings Institute paper entitled The Case for Annual Testing, and I described the testing situation at one Ohio high school.

After I wrote the article, I learned from teachers and administrators that the testing burden on students and schools nationwide is worse than I described. The burden is so bad, in fact, that for the first time in my life, I am asking parents to consider a form of civil disobedience.

In particular, I am calling on parents of high-ability children who attend non-poverty school districts to consider keeping their children home on standardized testing days. In this article, I give reasons for my request.

Worse Than I Described

One elementary school administrator wrote to me, “We will be administering 21 different tests, some spread out 2-3 days, from February through May. Nothing about this is right for students, and I wonder what it will take for this to stop.”

A former elementary school teacher told me that part of the reason she left teaching last year was because even tiny first graders were subjected to 11 tests each year, including one screening test at the beginning of the year, one test at the end of the year, eight tests to determine achievement levels twice each quarter, and one standardized reading test “to determine if the children will be gifted in fourth grade.” All those tests were in addition to the usual classroom-based formative and summative assessments. And all eleven tests had to be given regardless of whether children in that high-poverty area arrived at school on testing day with breakfast in their tummies.


On January 26, 2015, a superintendent in Illinois sent a truth-telling “warning” letter to her community. The letter, picked up by the Washington Post, explains that the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test:

  •  takes 13-14 hours to administer to students in grades 3-8;
  •  requires students to manage multiple screens, prompts, and tools;
  •  requires each student to be tested over a two-week time period;
  •  necessitates full use of the schools’ computer labs for six weeks and consequently makes those labs unavailable for teaching and learning purposes during those six weeks;
  •  has been the primary focus of the tech staff, the administrative team, and building principals since late fall.

Two teachers, one in Ohio and one in Illinois, alerted me that their high school students’ PARCC test experience will include a half day of “testing the test”–meaning that every student in the state who will take the PARCC test must first take a pretend PARCC test in order to help PARCC officials and school officials make sure that the real PARCC test will proceed as planned without computer glitches.


Imagine that . . . a half day of school time wasted on a fake test. What happens if the fake PARCC test administration is plagued with problems? Will PARCC require another test of the test, thus eating up another half day of school time? My questions are not just theoretical. From the PARCC’s own sadly cheerful website here: “We have been answering your test administration questions all week in the live field test updates on our news page. Thank you all for your feedback! We couldn’t test the test without your hard work.”

If you would have told me ten years ago that a multi-state testing organization funded by the federal government would be helping states conduct a “test of a test” involving millions of school children, I would have said you were nuts.

Although 26 states joined the federally-funded PARCC in 2010, today only 10 or 11 states remain in the partnership, and only 8 of those are using both the elementary and high school versions of the PARCC test, according to a November 9, 2014 Chicago Sun Times articleMississippi’s well-publicized exit happened just two weeks ago–apparently not enough time for PARCC to remove Mississippi’s name from the list of PARCC states.

Educators and their unions are rising up against standardized testing. According to an October 29, 2014, Fair Test report:

  • The National Education Association (NEA) launched a national campaign against “toxic testing.”
  • The American Federation of Teachers and the NEA are leading the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) which involves dozens of national, state and local organizations uniting across a range of issues, including testing.
  • The Oklahoma Education Association allied with parent groups to soften grade 3 test-based promotion and helped defeat the pro-testing state education secretary.
  • Oregon and Massachusetts NEA affiliates called for three-year moratoria on all testing consequences to allow time to overhaul state assessment systems.  
  • The Massachusetts Teachers Association is holding testing forums with teachers across the state.
  • The Oregon Education Association is designing, with state officials, a possible new assessment system.
  • The Chicago Teachers Union helped organize boycotts and opt outs.


Ceiling Tiles

For children who struggle in school, taking nearly a dozen overly challenging standardized tests per year might cause emotional stress. For children who do well in school, being forced to sit in a classroom long after successfully finishing a standardized test might cause emotional stress. For all children, taking that many standardized tests in a school year—more than one a month—gobbles up lots of learning time.

I’ll never forget what one child in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District’s self-contained program for highly gifted children said on the day before taking the old Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test in 2000. I’ll call her Testla, just for fun.

At the time, Texas required all children to remain in the testing room during the entirety of each TAAS testing session. Texas didn’t care if Testla and her friends in the highly gifted program finished their standardized tests in 1/4 to 1/3 the normal time, as they usually did. The state wanted all children, regardless of their test-taking speed, to sit quietly until the end of each testing period, without any books for reading, or paper for writing, or markers for drawing. The highly gifted children dreaded the fact that they would have nothing to do but sit and stare, sometimes for up to ninety minutes at a time.

Testla’s comment to the school’s well-loved band teacher, who enjoyed a classroom room large enough to accommodate all 65 students in his popular band program: “Mr. X, I want to take the TAAS test in your room because you have more ceiling tiles to count.”



Speaking of ceilings, how often do you think Testla and the millions of other children in gifted programs around the country hit the ceilings of the standardized tests administered to them? Answer: Far too often. When a child hits or approaches the ceiling of a standardized test, the test results are suspect. How can we know the true abilities of a child when the ceiling effect limits our knowledge of those abilities?

Why do we force children who hit standardized test ceilings year after year to continue to take the tests? To answer that question, let me tell you a true story about schools fighting over the standardized test scores of high-scoring children.

Fighting Over High Test Scores

The test scores of high-scoring children are valuable to schools. So valuable, in fact, that many years ago the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School district struck a deal with its elementary schools. The district wanted to make the self-contained highly gifted program located in just one of the district’s elementary schools palatable to administrators in all the other elementary schools. For that reason, the district decided that the highly gifted students’ standardized test scores would count as coming from their neighborhood schools rather than from the school that those children actually attended.

If standardized test scores were about individual children rather than about politics, and if differences between individual children were honored rather than treated as fodder for adult competition, such a strange deal would never have existed. The agreement boosted the aggregate scores of neighborhood schools not because those schools contributed anything to the education of the highly gifted children–those children attended school elsewhere. The agreement boosted the aggregate scores of the neighborhood schools simply because the highly gifted children’s pillows, beds, and blankets were located in those neighborhoods.


A Call for Civil Disobedience

If you have high-ability children attending school in a non-poverty school district, please consider keeping your children home from school on standardized testing days. Pretty please. For the benefit of all children. In order to help end the testing insanity that currently plagues our schools.

I invite parents of other children to consider opting out, too, but I specifically invite high-ability children in non-poverty schools because I feel that those children have the least to lose by opting out. Let me explain.

By “high-ability children,” I mean those children who would have done well on their standardized tests even before they walked into school at the beginning of the school year. Why force them to spend hours of their childhoods proving what teachers already know about those children’s abilities? Why let high-ability children be fodder for competition between schools and school districts? Why give high-ability children nothing to do, sometimes for more than an hour at a time, except to sit quietly and count ceiling tiles?

By “non-poverty school districts,” I mean those school districts without large percentages of children living in poverty. Because there is a chance, however small, that some states will enforce monetary penalties against schools that are unable test large numbers of their students, I do not want schools in poverty areas to risk losing some of their sorely needed government funding.

By “please consider,” I mean please assess the risks and benefits of opting out in your state, and then make whatever decision is best for your children, for your school district, and for all the other children in your state. Some states allow opting out. Some states do not allow opting out.


Does Your State Allow Opting Out?

On November 9, 2014, the Chicago Sun Times reported, “California, Wisconsin and Nebraska are among states with a specific opt-out statute. New York and others don’t, but thousands of New York schoolchildren refused to take their annual state test last year with no repercussions, said Robert Schaeffer, the group’s public education director.” Another state, North Dakota, is is currently considering an opt out bill.

Ana L. Rosado-Feger, a professor at the Ohio University, recently played devil’s advocate: “My interpretation of [the January 13, 2015 newsletter of the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrator (OASES)] is that in Ohio with the exception of third graders (TGRG), ESL students, and whatever the new requirement is for high school graduation (OGT for 10th grade and above, a series of end-of-year tests for 9th graders and below), there is NO consequence to the CHILD if the parents opt out of state-mandated standardized testing. There are, however, consequences to the TEACHER, the SCHOOL and the DISTRICT.” 

Then Rosado-Feger asks: “Why do we pretend testing is about “STUDENT” achievement?” Excellent question.

But back to opting out…I agree with Rosado-Feger’s interpretation of the OAESA newsletter’s list of penalties in Ohio. I add, however, that Ohio parents should be aware of the possibility that their children’s schools might impose penalties for unexcused absences on testing days.

For state-by-state information about possible consequences of opting out, and for many resources relating to opting out, see the Opt Out of Standardized Tests Wikispace.

A Closing Offer

By now, I suspect that any school district superintendents who have read this far are unhappy with me for squeezing them tighter between a rock and a hard place. But listen up. I’m going to make you an offer.

This energetic retired lady, with her a Ph.D. in political science focusing on education policy, and experience teaching in schools in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Connecticut, China, and England, and her experience working professionally on grant-funded projects doing focus groups, surveys, interviews, data crunching, and report writing, is offering her services, free of charge, to one or more lucky school districts. For you, I will:

  1. construct an easy survey for your staff members to complete,
  2. count up all the hours your teachers, administrators, and students spend on standardized testing,
  3. do the “how much that time costs” math for you, and
  4. write up a snazzy report for you to edit to your mind’s delight and then take to senators, representatives, state legislators, and news media outlets.

Call me if you’re brave enough to speak up, with data, in public.

Acknowledgements and Credits

Four of the comics are courtesy of Catharine Vetter Alvarez (Cathy A.) and the Comic-O-Matic website of Nina Paley and Margo Burns. I greatly appreciate Catharine for her willingness to create those four Comic-O-Matic cartoons especially for this blog post, and for encouraging me to create the two other comics by myself.

Many thanks to the educators who allowed me to use their quotes in the article above or below in the Additional Feedback from Educators section.

I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions. Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants. I appreciate Hoagies’ willingness to let us bloggers express our individual opinions in these blog hops. The opinions in this blog article are mine; please don’t blame them on anyone else. 


Additional Feedback from Educators

(I’ll update this section with additional comments from teacher friends of mine as I receive them this week.)

From Alaska: “We opted out of PARCC for a customized test written by a company in Kansas, to our Alaskanized Common Core standards! Yes, because Kansas is so like Alaska….not!! 8 weeks out from testing and we can’t even get the fractions to show correctly on the test…only multiple choice this year, typed essays next year, and adaptive the third year, so no usable data in the near future….oh yes, and we’re moving to partial merit pay next year! Ay yah!!”

From Maine: “Our state is using the other one — Smarter Balanced. It’s still going to take about 8 hours per kid. Tell me why it takes longer to test a 4th grader than someone applying to medical school or law school???!!!””

From Illinois: “To say I’m frustrated doesn’t even begin to touch it!  After finally looking at a calendar and plugging in all of the missed classes for ACT test, PARCC tests, late starts, Teacher Institute Days, holidays, and spring break, I have discovered that I only have 2 full weeks to teach students in February, 1 full week in March, and 0 full weeks in April (if you count the Algebra II students who will be pulled from my speech class on 4/20 for Math tests). Does anyone else see a problem with this? I literally cried today because I don’t know how to teach my students what they need to know with this kind of schedule.”