In a small brick house in Glen Burnie, Maryland, 9-year-old Thevy Mak sits at the piano, practicing before a lesson.
Small and thin, with long dark hair, Thevy is a little girl caught up in a big fight playing out around the country. This week, her fourth grade class will take the first round of the new PARCC assessment; standardized tests tied to the Common Core education standards. Thevy won’t be joining them.
“I was glad I didn’t have to,” Thevy says. “Sometimes the questions are really hard and I get really confused.”
Thevy's mom, Sheena Mak, tried some sample questions from the test and felt they were beyond Thevy’s grade level. Mak also doesn’t like what she views as corporate-driven school reform. Pearson, a multi-billion dollar education company, helped develop the test. Not that she went into all that with Thevy.
Sheena Mak (center), with daughters Sophia, 7 (left), and Thevy, 9. Thevy is not taking standardized tests tied to the Common Core standards this year. Amy Scott/Marketplace
"As a parent it is my duty, it's my responsibility, to make the decisions for my children that I think are in their best interest,” Mak says.
Thevy is among millions of students who are scheduled this month to take the first round of tests aligned with the Common Core standards. Depending on the state, the tests have different names and take different forms. They’re all designed to track kids’ progress toward college and careers. And no matter where you live, there are likely to be families who will refuse to let their kids be tested.
As more parents make that choice this spring, they’re wrestling with what it will mean for their kids. After all, the kids are the ones who have to show up and refuse the tests.
“The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Boy this puts a kid in an awkward position,’” says Joanna Faber, a former teacher who runs workshops about how to communicate with children.
With all the drama about testing — parents shaming each other on Facebook and protesting in front of schools — Faber says kids may feel torn between two authorities: parent and school. She suggests giving children a choice.
“If your child’s very uncomfortable about the idea of opting out, you might tell her, ‘Listen, if you want to just sit and take the test, that’s okay. I can protest in other ways,’” Faber says.
Lynne Rigby wanted to opt her kids out of Florida’s new Common Core test. She says it’s taking too much time away from learning. But she worried about how her seventh grader would feel going against the grain.
“He's such a rule follower and I expected him to want to take the test,” Rigby says.
So she let him and his older brother decide.
“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, and they’re not here to fight my battle,” she says. “They’re 13 and 14. They’re capable of making those decisions.”
Both boys chose not to take the tests. So did lots of other students at their school, Rigby says, so they didn’t stand out. Other parents worry about how that decision will affect kids later on, though, when they confront other challenges like in college or the workplace.
“I think it’s actually very destructive in a deep way to signal to kids that a test is hard or scary or that they can’t do it,” says Amy Briggs, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, a hotbed of the opt-out movement.
Briggs works for a nonprofit that helps teachers implement the Common Core, so she doesn't share the distaste many in the opt-out movement have for the standards themselves. As a mom, Briggs says she’d rather see her kids fail a test than be protected from taking it.
“I feel like my job is to cheer them on,” she says. “I’m not going to remove every obstacle. Tests are part of the deal.”
A lot of parents think they shouldn’t be part of the deal — at least not so many of them — and that test scores shouldn’t play such a big role in how schools are rated, whether get kids ahead, and whether teachers keep their jobs. They say opting out teaches kids a different lesson about standing up for their beliefs.
Public school parents and teachers remain closely divided when it comes to their overall attitudes toward the Common Core standards, split between positive and negative impressions. Kelsey Fowler/Piktochart
Brooklyn Ritter, 9, will sit out testing at her public Montessori school in Baltimore.
“I decided that I didn’t want to take it, because I am no good at tests — especially when it’s being timed,” she says.
Her mom, Elena Ritter, says Brooklyn was so worried about the test she didn’t want to become a third grader. That’s when annual state testing begins. But Ritter says refusing the test is not about saving Brooklyn from something scary.
“I always say ‘90 percent of fear is between your ears,’” she says. “But if I can’t get behind the test myself and they don’t want to do it, I didn’t feel like I could push them to do it.”
In the end, the lesson a kid takes away from opting out may depend more on the kid than the parents, says Faber.
“If your child feels empowered by it, then it’s empowering,” she says. “If they feel awkward and frightened about it, then it’s not going to be empowering.”
With kids taking 113 standardized tests, on average, by the time they finish high school, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to think about it.
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