When Ames Prather took his two sons to register for eighth grade at Denver’s Morey Middle School last summer, the boys were asked to fill out a form saying they would try their best on the TCAPs, state tests given every spring to third through 10th-graders.

Prather, a former teacher and now a technical writer, had his sons leave the forms blank and explained to school staff that they would not be taking the TCAPs.

Coalition for Better Education, which advocates opting out, plans to put up billboards like this in Denver and Greeley starting in January.
The Coalition for Better Education, which is based in Greeley, plans to put up billboards like this in Denver and Greeley starting in January.

His reasons were simple. Each year, around testing time, he noticed a change in his kids. They came home demoralized, with shoulders slumped and heads down.

“No joy in what they’re doing, no joy in education,” said Prather. And after the tests were over, it seemed that instruction mostly ceased for the remainder of the year.

This is the first time that Prather, who also has a 12th-grade daughter, will join hundreds of other Colorado parents in opting out of the tests. Advocates of opting out believe this could be a big year for the movement in Colorado, particularly in districts like Douglas County where there appears to be a groundswell of opposition to high-stakes testing.

And that opposition is not just among frustrated parents who believe testing narrows the curriculum, takes time away from instruction and is unfairly used to evaluate teachers and penalize schools.

Top administrators in Dougco, the state’s third-largest district, recently called the amount of testing “madness” and said students, at some level, are taking mandated tests almost every day of the year.

Superintendent Liz Fagen skewered the overuse of standardized tests on the district’s web site earlier this fall, saying they measure low-level skills and create a “focus on mediocrity.”

In Denver, outgoing school board member Andrea Merida attributed her decision not to run for reelection in part to her belief that “high-stakes standardized testing is destroying public education today.”

Scott Murphy, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools, said he sees the need for some mandated assessments because they can provide valuable data to teachers. Still, in the last couple years he’s become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of testing, particularly in early elementary grades and even preschool.

“It’s time to throw a flag up and say there may be a foul here,” he said.

Not just TCAPs

While refusing the TCAP is probably the most widely executed opt-out in Colorado, some parents have started to resist the use of commercial assessments at school long before their children reach third grade. These can include reading assessments like DIBELS, DRA2 or PALS, all approved for use under the READ Act, a new state law meant to ensure students read proficiently by the end of third grade. Other commonly administered tests include MAP, aimsweb and Acuity.

The increased number of tests being administered under the READ Act and the new Common Core Standards may be adding fuel to the fire of the opt-out movement, but testing proponents believe that such assessments can help schools do their job better. In addition to providing important information to parents about how their children are doing, they say test results help teachers tailor instruction and provide a common tool to help evaluate school effectiveness.

But not everyone agrees. Stefanie Fuhr, a former elementary school teacher, has a first-grader at Saddle Ranch Elementary in Douglas County. She opted her daughter out of the aimsweb assessment last year and aimsweb and MAP this year. She also opted her four-year-old daughter, who attends a private preschool, out of an early childhood assessment called Teaching Strategies GOLD.

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Fuhr, who has a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education Curriculum, said she saw the harm of standardized tests during her 20 years as a teacher. Although she attempted to sell one principal on authentic assessment, a method that relies on an array of student work samples to judge performance and progress, her efforts were brushed off.

“I knew…we were becoming obsessed with the numbers,” she said. “I know from the inside…this is not what’s best for children.”

Opt-out activist Peggy Robertson, who works as an instructional coach in a Denver area district, said assessments like MAP, DIBELS and Acuity don’t support real learning, take up lots of time and turn teachers into data managers. Teachers have so many corporate tests to administer, they no longer have time to use their own assessments, she said. Stripped of the ability to make assessment decisions, they have a hard time trusting their own judgment.

Syna Morgan, system performance officer with Douglas County schools, agreed that mandated tests are gradually squeezing out teacher-made assessments embedded in instruction, which she believes are the most valuable kind.

Although Robertson, one of six founders of the organization United Opt Out National, said it can be hard to witness the day-to-day impact of excessive testing, she added, “I think it’s incredibly important for experienced teachers to stay in the system and fight this.”

Looking at trends

The Colorado Department of Education tracks the number of students who opt out of the TCAPs each year. In reading, the subject with the most “parent refusals,” the number appears to have gradually declined over the last several years, from about 1,636 in 2010 to 946 in 2013.

Advocates say the true numbers of parents seeking to opt their children out has been suppressed because school administrators often pressure or cajole them into changing their minds. Parent Sylvia Martinez, of Greeley, said when she met with the principal at her daughter’s elementary school several years ago to explain her rationale for opting out, the principal insinuated that since the girl had choiced in, she could lose her spot at the school if she didn’t take the test.

Martinez, a criminal investigator employed by the state, replied that she would then begin an active and noisy campaign to rally parents at the school to opt their children out as well.

“I said, ‘You don’t want to go there.’”

While parents don’t always relent to intimidation, they may choose a method of opting out that doesn’t include an official letter to the school, a meeting with the principal or some other clear indication of their intentions. Instead, some may instruct their children to leave the test booklet blank, X out the first page or fill in random answers. Others may keep their kids home from school on testing days.

In addition, it appears that there’s no clear standard for how districts should determine the number of parent refusals. Morgan said the state’s tally is probably not very accurate.

“It’s very squishy,” she said, “And there’s not a process.”

Until this year, Dougco did have a one-page form that parents could sign to opt their children out of TCAP testing. In fact, parent Karen McGraw, who used it last spring to opt her twin sons out of the 10th-grade TCAP tests, remembers being surprised there was a defined procedure in place.

But Morgan said the district had to get rid of the form after the CDE clarified that any kind of opt-out forms or waivers are prohibited.

Despite that direction, Megan McDermott, assistant director of communications at CDE, said in an e-mail that “The documentation requirements for parent refusal are locally determined.” Asked why Douglas County had to eliminate its form, she replied in an e-mail, “State statute is clear that all students must be assessed. CDE has made that requirement clear to districts.”

If at least 95 percent of a school’s students don’t participate in the TCAP in two or more subjects, the school could drop to a lower “plan assignment” under the state’s performance framework. While parent refusals are one factor that can lower participation rates, there are several others, including incomplete or misadministered tests.

McDermott said in an e-mail that some Colorado schools have faced this sanction for not meeting the 95 percent threshold, but didn’t know if it was solely due to parent refusals.

Where things go from here

While the preferred strategies of strident opt-out activists may diverge from those of district leaders who are frustrated with testing, both want state leaders to hear their message, particularly as a new set of state tests based on the Common Core are poised to enter the scene next year.

Morgan said Dougco administrators are currently having conversations with state legislators and state board of education members about their concerns. She also said she understands parents’ reaction to the crush of mandated tests and hopes they go beyond opting out and voice their opinions at the state level.

“I appreciate the momentum and the interest…It’s been a lonely journey to raise the concern,” she said.

Murphy said district assessment specialists are another key group that should be heard.

“CDE needs to listen to these people. These people have concerns about the validity and reliability of some of these tests.”

Murphy said parents, meanwhile, should file strong objections to the current testing environment. While he did not endorse opting out among parents, he said, “I respect that and I understand a lot of it.”

For some parents however, opting is the strongest and clearest message they can send to local and state leaders. And while current opt-outs represent a tiny fraction of young test-takers, activists hope the movement will grow enough to render high-stakes tests non-functional.

Fuhr, who believes Colorado is the state to watch this year, said, “We’re trying to starve them of the data and they’re starting to notice.”