By Mary K. Schaffer October 7, 2012
In third grade, Christopher Chamness’ grades started slipping, and his teachers told his mother he was not performing well in school. He just needed to sit still in class and pay attention to do better, his teachers said. They suggested his mother get him a prescription for Adderall, a drug used to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
His mother, Edy Chamness, suggested his teachers “try some effective teaching methods” instead of recommending she “drug her child.”
“My child was bored, not inattentive,” said Chamness, who blamed the volume of standardized testing and the mechanization of children as “bubble fillers” during test time for her child’s restlessness in class.
One year later, when Christopher Chamness was in fourth grade, his mother opted him out of standardized testing in the spring semester.
“Our children are not benefitting from accountability testing,” Chamness said. “Opting out is my only form of retaliation left as a parent. The legislature will only make it worse by adding a new layer of testing.”
Two years later, Chamness is the director for Texas Parents Opt Out, an organization that advocates parents opt their children out of standardized tests, such as the new public school end-of-year exam, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test. The STAAR test, which was implemented in the 2011-’12 school year, replaced the TAKS assessments in grades 9 through 12 with a series of 12 end-of-course assessments and requires stricter testing standards for 3rd through 8th grades.
“Schools are like penitentiaries, conformist models, with the sheer volume of standardized testing and the fact that it accounts for so much of how well a student performs,” Chamness said. “Schools are machines that lock up children on test days. It angers me.”
Chamness said her son’s fourth-grade education was incomplete last year because it was “driven solely by test preparation.” Christopher was supposed to learn about the Constitution but didn’t get past the Preamble, nor did he study a foreign language or have physical education everyday, Chamness said.
“I saw what my kid was learning–or wasn’t learning–and it’s crap,” Chamness said. “We shouldn’t be focused on bubbling in Scantrons, but we are.”
Chamness is not alone in opting out of standardized testing. An Austin parent considered bringing a lawsuit to stop the rollout of the STAAR testing system, according to a February 2012 Texas Tribune article. Even Robert Scott, former Texas Education Commissioner, called student testing in Texas a “perversion of its original intent,” calling for an accountability system that measures “every other day of a school’s life besides testing day.”
“At first, I was alone in this movement,” Chamness said. “But there are more disgruntled parents out there.”
There are also disgruntled lawmakers out there. Lawyer Ted Lyon, former member of the Texas House of Representatives and Senate from 1979 to 1993, said the new STAAR testing system is “harmful to our students and the educational process” in an August article he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman.
“Accountability testing is not viable,” Lyon said. “It absolutely does not measure student success.”
According to Lyon’s article, the state has not cut funding for high-stakes testing. Lyon said in his article Texas will pay Pearson, an educational conglomerate based in London, $486 million by 2016 for the STAAR exams. However, while the state has not cut its testing budget, it did lay off about 10,000 teachers during the 2011-’12 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.
“The legislature is pushing all these test days, all this money, to the detriment of students,” Lyon said. “I smell a rat.”
However, despite his suspicions of the harm testing causes students, Lyon does not believe opting a child out of testing is a viable form of protest.
“Opting out is a last resort,” Lyon said. “The legislature should change so that parents don’t have to do it.”
Edy Chamness said she is also suspicious of Pearson, which she said runs Texas schools because it controls state testing, now a year-round activity. Chamness believes her only form of protest is to pull her child out of testing.
“It’s corporate profiteering,” Chamness said. “The machine gets bigger and bigger, and Pearson makes almost $500 million off it. Opting my child out is all I can do to retaliate because the legislature will only make it worse.”
Debbie Ratcliffe, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson, said opting out is only a temporary solution.
“Lawmakers would have to enact a change for students to not have to take these STAAR tests,” Ratcliffe said. “These parents that opt their children out are hoping the legislature will change the law. It may, but it hasn’t yet.”
Ratcliffe said parents are not actually legally allowed to opt their children out of the STAAR tests. She said the Texas Parents Opt Out organization is ignoring part of state law when they claim they can opt a child out of state-mandated tests. Passing the STAAR exams in elementary and middle school is a grade level requirement. Passing the STAAR end-of-course assessments in high school is a graduation requirement, and parents are not allowed to opt their child out of a test that satisfies grade level or graduation requirements, according to state law. However, Ratcliffe said that almost no parents actually opted their children out of testing this past year.
Chamness and her organization still urge parents to opt their children out of standardized testing, arguing that trying to measure children by testing data is ultimately detrimental to students’ futures because it makes them “depressed and anxious.”
“One of the greatest scams of standardized testing is that it drains love of learning,” Chamness said. “It’s outrageous, and I am angry.”