It’s that time of year when tens of thousands of Colorado school kids are sharpening their No. 2 pencils, rolling up their sleeves and filling in multiple-choice bubbles meant to gauge how much they know.
The stakes are high around the TCAP — short for Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, the state’s temporary battery of standardized tests. Results can affect whether a student needs to take remedial classes, qualifies for a gifted and talented program, or even passes or fails. Scores are used to measure how well teachers, schools, districts and the state’s education system are doing their jobs.
It’s no wonder, then, that things get stressy from mid-March through mid-April, when each public school has a three-week window to test every student.
But this year, tensions are even higher as a movement of parents is opting kids out of the test and education officials, intent on qualifying for federal funds that hinge on results, are lashing out against the boycott.
“The Colorado Department of Education is trying to bully parents into making their kids take the TCAP, which isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” said Sean Black, a parent and teacher from Johnstown whose decision to have his son skip the test prompted police to come knocking on his door.
Black’s son is autistic. He gets so anxious about test taking that during a set of state-mandated tests in fifth grade he mutilated both of his arms by biting his biceps. This year, Black sent a letter to the principal saying his son would be opting out. The principal, trying to be accommodating, told Black that if his son weren’t at school on the days the test was given, he wouldn’t have to take it.
But keeping his kid home wasn’t an option for Black, who teaches in Denver and whose wife works in Cheyenne. Black called the state education department, where an official told him several times that opting out violates state law CRS 22-7-409 (1.2) (d) (I) (A). Black explained his son’s condition and how his anxiety about testing puts him at risk for more self-mutilation. Within about an hour of that phone call, a police officer was dispatched to Black’s house saying he was checking on the welfare of the boy at the request of the education department.
“I was flabbergasted. Flabbergasted. I tried to mask my absolutely livid sense of injustice with laughter. But I’m pretty sure I told the sergeant that this was bullshit,” Black said. “Obviously, my son is fine. As far as I’m concerned, it was an absolute threat to intimidate me into making him take TCAP.”
Education officials won’t speak specifically about the case, but say they’re obligated to call authorities when told there’s an imminent threat of harm to a child. That’s not bullying, they add, it’s the law.
Black finds their reasoning doubly maddening.
“One, the harm to (my son) is taking the test. And, two, if they cared so much about him, why are they telling me repeatedly he has to take it?”
The family’s doctors at Children’s Hospital wrote a letter recommending that the boy not take TCAP. Ultimately, the principal allowed him to spend time in the school library instead of testing.
Language around TCAP can be touchy. Education officials are careful to refer to it as an “assessment” rather than a “test.” They tout it as a multi-purpose tool to at once measure the performance of teachers, schools and their districts, and to gauge how students are faring at their grade level, how well they’ll perform on the ACT and SAT and, to some extent, whether they’re prepared for college or the workplace.
TCAP – a product of the Obama-era Race to the Top initiative – was put in place two years ago to replace the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program), a vestige of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. It’s supposed to be given to every student in grades 3 to 10 in each of Colorado’s 1,741 public schools. Depending on whom you speak with, the test requires either a few weeks or a few months of classroom preparation. Schools and districts decide how many hours and over how many days they space out the test to students in each grade level. This year, TCAP is costing $16.5 million to develop, administer, print, ship, score and report back to schools and families.
The paper-and-pencil TCAP will be replaced next year with a computer-based and more controversial test called (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) that’s tied to the Colorado’s new participation in the Common Core – a national initiative that streamlines standards for what students in the U.S. should learn at each grade level. Known in Colorado as “TCAP on steroids,” PARCC is a more high-stakes test that will have far more bearing on whether a student passes or fails a certain subject matter or is allowed to advance to the next grade.
Students and their parents have grumbled about standardized testing since it was mandated by the federal government in 1965. Objections range from the basic “it’s too long” and “it’s too stressful” side of the spectrum to weightier concerns about teachers being forced to teach to the test, racial and socioeconomic inequities, and private corporations taking over schools that, according to test results, are failing. In Colorado, a school’s performance – and, ultimately, funding — is largely determined by TCAP scores.
Educators across the country increasingly are objecting to policy-makers’ obsession with assessment.
“…The unexamined believe that test scores describe some form of reality about learning is creating a national crisis,” reads “Cognitive Capital: Investing in Teacher Quality,” a book by Arthur Costa, Robert Garmston and Diane Zimmerman. “The leap to multiple-choice test scores as the best measure is a spurious effort at improvement at best, and one that gives cause for frightening concern.”
There always have been some folks who have opted out in Colorado. As one state official tells it, they generally came from Boulder and certain liberal mountain communities with higher than average numbers of residents challenging mainstream parenting decisions in favor of alternatives such as “not circumcising, vaccinating or using diapers on their kids.”
In recent years, dissent has gone more mainstream largely due to a four-year effort by Peggy Robertson of Littleton, a founder of a site called unitedoptout.com that is leading the national movement against standardized tests. Through the website, frequent Facebook postings and local meet-ups with parents, Robertson has galvanized an unlikely alliance of soccer moms, neo-flower children, libertarians, helicopter parents, parental rights advocates and a sizable number of teachers who begrudgingly administer TCAP at work and don’t want their own kids subjected to the test and the stress surrounding it.
Robertson walks a fine line.
As a teacher in Aurora, she refrains from criticizing TCAP at work where, she said, in the third week of testing “TCAP has consumed our entire school.”
As a mom, she has opted out her eldest son Sam, a freshman at Littleton High School, which accommodated the family’s request without objection.
As an activist, Robertson is advising an increasing number of parents who are getting flak from school administrators.
“We’re getting insane pushback in Colorado,” she said. “Right now, I’d say Colorado is one of the states experiencing the most bullying about opting out. Parents are getting a lot of intimidation to have their kids take their tests.”
In dozens of cases across the state, parents who have opted out have been told not to send their children to school for the entire three-week period tests are given. Many students who have stayed home during test hours in the mornings but gone to school after testing is over later in the school day are being sent back home with unexcused absences. Others are being “sequestered,” “quarantined” and “segregated” in certain classrooms for fear that fellow students will tell them about the test. The logic is questionable given that, by definition, kids who won’t be taking the test aren’t at risk of cheating on it. There also have been reports of truancy officers being dispatched to students’ homes to haul them in for TCAP.
Said Robertson: “The Department of Education is panicking. These tests are tied to mandates they accepted by the federal government through Race to the Top. If enough people opt out, their funding could be impacted.”
In Colorado, schools that don’t meet 95 percent student participation rates lose points that factor into their “accountability assessments” and “performance frameworks” – measures that ultimately determine whether they stay open or are taken over, often by private companies, as charter schools. Last year, 18 (or .01 percent of) schools in the state fell below that participation requirement. As education department officials tell it, numbers dipped in those schools less because of the burgeoning opt-out movement than from other factors such as English learners not being able to complete TCAP because of language barriers.
Statewide last year, 946, 916, 912 and 547 parents opted their children out of the reading, writing, math and science portions of TCAP, respectively. Those figures were down from previous years but, “given the amount of discussion this year, we may see a move away from that trend,” said Joyce Zurkowski, the state’s executive director of assessment.
Over the past year, parents and students have protested and boycotted tests in Long Island, Oregon, Seattle, Long Island and Washington, D.C. The Associated Press reported that students dressed as zombies marched in front of the Statehouse in Rhode Island against a requirement that they couldn’t graduate without a minimum test score.
Zurkowski attributes this year’s impatience in Colorado to the state’s transition to its third set of statewide tests in four years.
“With the changes we’re going through, there’s more attention given to assessments. There’s more conversations among parents about the role assessments should play,” she said.
As Zurkowski tells it, TCAP takes less than one percent of students’ time each school year. Parents often don’t differentiate between the state-mandated TCAP and other batteries of tests required by districts and schools that, in aggregate, occupy more class time.
“I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t think that there’s a legitimate role that assessments play. I wouldn’t set out to make people’s life hard if I wasn’t convinced that assessments are necessary to give us information that we as a state need to know,” she said. “We totally acknowledge that TCAP is just one piece of the puzzle. School districts provide the rest of the picture.”
To buoy student participation rates for TCAP and other sets of standardized tests, schools and school districts are rallying to motivate kids by raffling off prizes on such as iPads and laptops on testing days. Many promise movies, pool parties and trips to amusements parks as rewards for taking the test.
When those methods fail, some schools are using guilt and fear as motivation. Parents have been told that skipping TCAP could cause the entire school to shut down – and that their child would be the cause of it. Some (even of third and fourth-graders) have been warned that their kids’ futures are in jeopardy. And some have been flat-out threatened to be reported to authorities for breaking the state testing law.
As written, education officials acknowledge, that law has no teeth.
“Opting out, it’s not something that we’re going to go arrest parents for,” Zurkowski said.
Still, she said, her department is urging schools to clamp down.
“Colorado law is clear that students will take the assessment. Schools and districts are obligated to make sure the law is followed. Not participating is a violation of the law.”
Carol Oyler, a longtime political activist and mother of a Denver Public Schools 7th grader, sees opting out as a form of direct action. Oyler has channeled much of the energy she invested in Occupy Denver a few years ago into Colorado’s growing opt-out movement. Over the past few weeks, her son, William Rivera, has been reading George Orwell’s “1984” in his school’s library instead of taking TCAP because, as his mom has taught him, the test is biased.
“You have English language learners, kids with ADHD, kids with special needs drowning in this thing,” she said. “And let’s say you have a reading comprehension question asking about the ballet when a kid comes from a family that has no clue what the ballet is. How can you call that fair?
“TCAP is a civil rights issue that’s closing down schools one by one so charter schools can take their place. It’s breaking up communities and somebody has to stand up and say no.”
Melissa Clark notified her middle school in Denver that her 13-year-old would be opting out.
“It’s not my daughter’s job, it’s not her responsibility to perform well on a test to benefit her teacher or her school. The school should be serving her, not the other way around,” she said.
Clark, who was trained as a teacher, also objects to the test being used as a tool for planning and progress monitoring.
“If teachers aren’t already doing that without the test, there’s a much bigger issue at hand,” she said.
The school’s principal responded to Clark’s opt-out notification by saying that skipping the test would hurt her daughter’s future and exclude her from an end of the year outing to Elitch Gardens.
Undaunted, mother and daughter moved forward with what 13-year-old Ayshia Clark says has been “the best lesson ever in civil disobedience.” Ayshia says classroom learning stops each school year in preparation for the test, when “Teachers just go over everything they’ve already said all year and just keep repeating themselves all stressed out and stuff.”
On testing days in recent weeks, Ayshia slept in and then worked at home on a PowerPoint presentation about how TCAPs are wrong. Nobody at school wanted to see it.
“I’m frustrated that I couldn’t go to school and that the Department of Education has put my teachers in this position and my principal and me and my mom in this position,” Ayshia said. “It’s hard being the only kid not taking the test. But my mom assures me that I’m not alone in this – that there are kids in other schools doing what we’re doing.”
Of about twenty opt-out families who were randomly interviewed by The Independent, the vast majority had at least one parent either working as a teacher or with a background in education. Ames Prather is a former Denver Public Schools high school English teacher who says he has “seen the insanity that testing wreaks on schools.” He objects to the claim that TCAP or any standardized test is an accurate predictor of a student’s capabilities. And he takes umbrage with the fact that nobody bothers to review test results one-on-one with students to work through areas they get wrong.
“How does that help you? How does it help anyone?” he asked.
Prather started researching opting-out last year, but was strongly urged against it.
“Like many parents, I was sold a bill of goods – ‘You can’t opt out, it will count against them, hurt their teachers, hurt their schools, etc…’,” he said.
Prather signed up with Badass Teachers – a group describing itself online as “for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning…” When he joined last summer, the group had 12,000 members. Now, he says, it has 40,000.
After a family meeting about TCAP, Prather busted a move and yanked his two 8th graders from the test. His kids were taken to the principal’s office to be “quarantined” — a word that sets him off. “Let’s hope they’re not running the CDC when the apocalypse comes,” he said. Prather finally convinced the school to let his kids back into class.
When it comes to testing, Prather knows he’s on the fringe.
“Here I am, on Facebook every day and I’m just this close from wearing a tin-foil hat,” he admitted. “But if it’s teachers’ kids sitting out TCAP, that tells you something – that the test is being misused and the people whose opinions matter most know it.”