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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Ceilings

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.”

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20 Comments on “Ceilings and Ceiling Tiles: A Call for Civil Disobedience”

  1. Sarah Tan says:

    Just curious, since I come from a country with plenty of testing, with two main examinations a year, and then major national examinations at the end of 6 years in school at primary level, and then at the end of 4 years at secondary level.

    With so many standardized tests, do schools still have end-of-year examinations, or do these tests count as such? Is there a need for students to pass the tests in order to be promoted to the next level, or do they just go to the next level regardless of their grades?

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Thank you for your comment. Good questions. The testing rules and graduation requirements differ greatly from state to state, and even from school district to school district in the United States. I wish I had a better answer for you.

  2. Wenda, I love this. I can’t wait to see the updates from teachers. I have oodles of teacher friends so I’m sharing now. It sickens me to think of how many tests our kids have to take, and this blurb, in particular, made my head want to explode because I feel the same:

    “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.”

    Thank you for writing this post, it’s so important for parents and educators to read.

  3. MusicNut says:

    The problem with keeping your child home on testing days is that there are MAKE-UP days. So, whenever the child returns to school, he/she WILL be tested anyway. The student WILL eventually get pulled to be tested unless the parent has somehow made it clear to the administration that their child is not to be tested under any circumstances. (And then there is also the issue mentioned above that the school/county/administrators get in trouble if students do not take the test. So, as a parent, if you want to opt out of the testing, you may be hurting the school/teachers/school based administrators that you actually like).

    Another note – with PARCC where I live, it will take 2.5 MONTHS to test all the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in my school. One of the reasons is because the test is computer based, not pencil and paper based. We used to be able to do the paper based state testing for the three grade levels, for math and ELA in a matter of 4-5 school days, using the mornings only!! Instead, PARCC will stretch over WEEKS AND WEEKS. We have a computer lab and a mobile laptop lab, so we can test two homerooms per day – thus why it stretches the testing out for WEEKS on end. This disrupts and changes the normal daily schedule of the ENTIRE school, changing things like academic block times, special area class times, lunch times, recess times, and knocking teachers out of getting lunch breaks, and many other issues that I am not going to go into right now.

    Another reason for why it takes so long to test – Well, what many people do not realize is that there is the midyear PARCC testing window for ELA and Math which runs Mid-March to mid/end April, THEN there is the End of Year PARCC testing window that runs from mid/end of April to end of May. So, as soon as the “midyear” round of testing is over, the “end of year” round starts. (Keep in mind that not every child is tested during every day of that window – it is done by homeroom in our school, but still the point is that the entire school is in “Testing mode” for 2.5 months.) It is RIDICULOUS.

  4. bigecart says:

    Pretty sure that Mississippi is still using the PARCC test this year. Just last week we got a message that the third graders will be practicing taking the test. This is possibly high stakes since our legislature passed a law requiring all third graders to be proficient at reading. My child’s dyslexia does not exempt her from this law. First year testing Common Core, underfunding schools while blaming administration for poor test scores, unfunded reading gate, war on Common Core (because the standards aren’t rigorous enough for the stellar schools in Mississippi). Frankly, this state is a mess, mostly caused by politics. I’m not sure what the fallout of the sure-to-be-poor test scores this year will be, other than denial of course.

  5. Laura says:

    From Central Florida – Even better, when able, consider pulling your high ability child out and homeschool them. In the long run, allowing them to focus on their passions with others of similar interests will provide them a greater benefit than the once a week pull out program offered in Orange County, Florida.

    • Laura says:

      I pulled my profoundly gifted son out of the public school here just before the end of second grade last year. The excessive testing was affecting his classes, even though they weren’t being tested that year. The K-2 classes were not allowed to have recess, walk through the halls, or eat in the cafeteria when the rest of the school was in testing. They didn’t want their “noise” interrupting the other students being subjected to testing. These youngsters were contained in their classrooms all day for weeks at a time. I wouldn’t do that to my child at home, why should they be allowed to do it in the interest of testing?

      When I learned that recess was at the teacher’s discretion starting in 3rd grade, often based on overall class performance while test prepping, I knew I couldn’t waste yet another year of my son’s learning while he waited for others to understand what he knew before the school year even started. My son is not a pawn. While it is challenging to manage work, family, and homeschooling, I can already see the benefits with my son. He loves learning again (but still hates “school”) and is no longer filled with anxiety and depression (yes, diagnosed). I intend to continue homeschooling until this issue with over testing gets sorted out. I also intend to remain active in my public school community and continue pushing for less testing and more developmentally appropriate activities for elementary aged children.

      • Wenda Sheard says:

        Laura, thanks for your comments. How wonderful that your homeschooling choice is already benefitting your son. Your son is lucky to have you as his mom. And other children in your community are lucky to have you continuing to push for reform in the public schools. Thank you for your work.

  6. Patricia Hincks says:

    How does one take advantage of your generous offer in creating a survey?

  7. lookseetry says:

    My daughter went to a school district with a k-2 test for reading, etc that the kids took in the fall and the spring. She topped out the test in kindergarten. They told me that she would only have to retake it in the fall of 1st and 2nd grade but that in the spring they would give her an alternate test so she “wouldn’t feel left out of what the other kids are doing”
    WTF?

  8. Wenda Sheard says:

    Wow. Thanks for letting us know.

    I will say, though, that during my teaching years I would sometimes “protect” a child whom I knew would hit the ceiling on a test. How would I do that? First, I would excuse the child from taking a test that I knew to be meaningless for that particular child. Second, I would give the child choices of what to do during the testing time—perhaps sit and evaluate the test for me, or take an advanced test, or sit and read a book, or do something else of the child’s choosing.

    If the child chose to “look like everyone else,” I would help the child make that happen either with the real test or an alternative test that looked similar to the real test. Why would I help the child “look like everyone else”? Because children should have some degree of choice about whether and how much they want their special accommodations to be visible to classmates. Privacy is important, even to little children.

  9. Bill Peebles says:

    Ms. Sheard, Thank you for this. I have twin fourth grade boys who are high performers although not in gifted programs, they do well on all class work and classroom testing. Just last night after school they were very moody and emotional. We discussed why and the impending tests were the main reason. Through sobs one of them told me that they’d focused so much on the math and reading that he felt he didn’t have a chance in the social studies which he said they haven’t even prepared for.

    At one point the other boy said, again through tears: “I don’t even get it, there’s AIM and PARCC and MAP and who knows what else. Sometimes they are practice and sometimes for real and… I don’t even think the teachers get it.” The thing is, I don’t understand it either.

    This is my point. Schools in my district are absolutely non-communicative on the testing schedules, routines, practices and all of that. I am working on a letter to our Superintendent and this article will be a wonderful and pointed reference.

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Thank you for writing. How heartbreaking to hear young ones crying about excessive testing! I wish you the best during your conversations with the superintendent. I hope he’s like many school administrators–privately wishing the federal and state testing mandates would go away, but bound by law to test the children. I hope for better, for all children and for those dedicated to their care and education.

  10. lwallin says:

    I was a special ed teacher for 22 years and experienced the lack of services in the 70s to the incredible demands place on teachers, administrators and students by 2012. You can’t even imagine what it is like to test a 5th-grade boy at grade level when he can only read at 2nd-grade level. I had boys cry, I am ashamed to say. NCLB was especially harmful, I am told, because scores for that boy were counted several times – Hispanic, poverty and special ed. I always said, “Somebody in Washington can’t do the math.” Assessment is essential to instruction. We don’t want to teach what they already know or what is too hard for them. I think the problem began when politicians decided they couldn’t trust teachers to know what a child could or couldn’t do. As a parent of 3 gifted children, I was lucky that they were social enough to not be frustrated when they finished work early. It did make them a little bit lazy, but they overcame that in later years when we moved to an excellent district (1989). I had to laugh at the comments about counting tiles, because I used to count the holes in the tiles even though I skipped a year. Excellent article.


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