Moms share why they opt children out of STAAR

LISA LUNA

LIFESTYLE EDITOR

There is a growing movement among parents in Texas to opt their children out of the controversial STAAR test. Kelli Powell of Pleasanton and Kristi Hindes Schulte of Charlotte are two local advocates choosing to do so.
STAAR stands for State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Powell and Schulte are among the many active in social media, supporting other parents who do not want their child to take the STAAR test for various reasons.
Some of the Facebook groups include: Stop STAAR 2016, Texans Take Action Against STAAR, Conroe ISD Parents Opt Out of STAAR and Plano ISD Parents Opt Out of STAAR.
Powell is a native of North Texas. She and husband Keith have two children. Emily will be a freshman at Pleasanton High School this coming school year, while 8-year-old Gracie will be in third grade.
Schulte grew up in Charlotte and graduated from Charlotte High School. She taught school for 16 years in San Antonio, Pleasanton, Charlotte and most recently Jourdanton. Her son Dillon is going into sixth grade and son Caden is going into fourth grade.
She decided to opt out her children this past year, when her eldest was in fifth and her youngest was in third. It was her first time to make this decision, which stemmed from reading the different opt out pages on Facebook. Fifth grade (and eighth grade) are known as SSI years, or Student Success Initiative years. She also had a lot of knowledge from working at the school.
Powell was clued into opting out after former Pleasanton ISD Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Clinesmith suggested she and another parent look into TAMSA (Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment).
“At that time, high school students in college had to take 15 End of Course tests to get out of high school. TAMSA was working to get that reduced and they succeeded in getting that down to five. It was a grassroots effort, and Clinesmith encouraged us to look into this group, I think not knowing where it would lead,” said Powell.
So far, she has only chosen to opt out her eldest child and this is the second year they have done so. She sat on it for a year, to understand it better.
Although some may assume that parents opt out their child because they have difficulty taking tests, this is not always the case.
“Emily was always commended on TAKS (the test it was called at the time). She just finished 8th grade with all pre-AP classes. She also took high school algebra and high school Spanish, so there was never concern about her not being able to pass the test. I just don’t agree with the test on principle. I feel like it is a way for parents to stand up,” said Powell.
“We need to speak with our feet, by not sending our children to take the STAAR test. The more people that opt out, the more likely things will change,” said Schulte.
Powell explained that in Long Island, New York, 85 percent of children opted out of some of the tests last year and they are making changes.
“What would happen in Texas if that many people did, even in one city?” asked Powell.
“In Houston, they have a lot. They even have opt out academies where parents were able to take their kids there and they provided meaningful activities during the day on STAAR testing days and makeup days- for working parents,” said Schulte. “It was very promoted and more accepted. Every district is different in how they handle it. Opting out is unchartered territory. Oftentimes parents opting out is new to school (in South Texas) and they are learning the opt out process also.”
Powell added that even Emily had teachers tell her she could not opt out, which she believes is simply because they did not know.
“I love Pleasanton’s administration. PISD Superintendent Dr. Matthew Mann flat out said, ‘I know it is a parent’s choice and your kids will never be penalized for a choice that you are making.’ He stood by that, but many of the teachers who are not active on social media or who do not have children have no idea.”
Schulte listed the different ways in which testing has changed.
“Growing up it was TABS, then it was TEAMS test. The name of the standardized test typically changes every seven years. Oftentimes in education, it is all about the money. Then it became TAKS. Those were all attainable goals. STAAR is just enough where the kids are giving up. It is not an attainable goal for all kids. It puts so much pressure on the teachers and on the kids. They are teaching to the test and taking the joy out of learning because they are having to focus so much on their scores.”
The Powell’s youngest brought home workbooks in kindergarten that said “testing prep” on them.
“If you are talking about following the money when a kid fails the STAAR test, who provides all the workbooks? It is all the same company that is selling the test. That is where you get really angry about it,” said Powell.
She questioned if some elected officials, like Dan Patrick want to see the schools fail because they advocate for charter schools.
Schulte said, “I have my fifth grader, going into sixth grade and he struggles in school. I thought, ‘You know I don’t think he needs to take the STAAR test.’ When I started looking at stuff online it really brought it to my attention. My third grader, who is going into fourth grade, Caden probably would have gotten commended if he would have taken the STAAR. He scored very high compared to classmates on his benchmarks throughout the school year. He had kids in his class say, ‘You are going to fail if you don’t take it.’ I had to tell him, ‘No, you’re not going to fail and you just tell them that your mother knows what she is doing and it is going to work out.’”
Her child was a little nervous about it, but Schulte made it a choice for him and let him know what they were doing. Every school is a little different about how they handle it. She started e-mailing the JISD Principal in February and put everything in writing. She let them know that she was considering opting him out.
“I love Jourdanton. I love the teachers. I believe Jourdanton is the best school in Atascosa County. I have a lot of friends that are teachers,” said Schulte. “They have all been wonderful, but it is just the whole testing.”
Schulte asked what JISD’s protocol would be. She asked if she needed to keep them out all day on the testing days and make-up days, or could she make medical appointments. At the suggestion of JISD, Schulte used that time to go to the eye doctor, pediatrician, etc. She had a doctor’s note and took them back after 1 p.m. everyday on STAAR testing days and make-up days.
As she thought of more questions, she would e-mail the school questions like, “Are they going to be able to do this? Are they going to have to go to summer school if we opt them out, for 3rd grade and 5th grade, but by having it in writing.”
Schulte explained further, “They called me one day and said that he was going to have to attempt it, or he was going to have to go to summer school. I was driving and it was raining and I was in San Antonio. It caught me off guard so I looked it up.”
The organization Texas Ed Rights addresses the summer school threat. Schulte brought up that in the SSI manual is a simple flow chart.
“If they do not take the test, they are counted as absent. They do not have to go to summer school. They have to be provided accelerated instruction if they are not successful or if they are absent, but accelerated instruction doesn’t have to be summer school. Summer school is not the only option for accelerated instruction, but that’s what most schools offer. Other arrangements can count for accelerated instruction. It should be on an individual basis as to what is best for each student. This should be discussed at the GPC (Grade Placement Committee) Meeting.”
After she challenged it, the school backed down. Schulte had to go to a brief GPC meeting for her fifth grader (only fifth because fifth and eighth are SSI years), where customized accelerated instruction was discussed and agreed upon. He didn’t go to summer school. She went to the GPC meeting after the second administration and she waived the third administration.
The parent must agree to the terms of the GPC Meeting.
“A lot of parents are intimidated by these meetings and they don’t really know how to handle it. In a Grade Placement Committee meeting, the parents should be in support and have a leading role and opinion in what is best for their kids. Sometimes, from what I read, other schools don’t let the parents have a voice and they are intimidated. They feel like the school is going to make the decision for them, but the parent has say and input in everything,” Schulte said.
Powell also had to go before a Grade Placement Committee. They had to look at Emily’s grades and her attendance, her extracurricular activities and then they determined, she would be promoted to ninth grade.
She said it was quick and done just as a formality. They needed her signature on a few forms and that was it.
“Since Kristi didn’t send her kids at all during that time, they will just have a no score. However, I sent Emily during make-up days, so she will actually get a zero. It will show that she took the test and failed it, even though she never saw it,” said Powell. “She was in too many pre-AP classes and I didn’t want her to miss all those days of school.”
However, the two women said when it comes to opting out in high school, it is more complicated.
Said Powell, “There are ways that you can get around it, but I am not willing to challenge it. Emily already took the Algebra I in 8th grade, so she will only have four tests.”
“I have heard they are more attainable tests. They are more on target, the EOCs (End-of-Course) tests, as opposed to STAAR,” said Schulte. “There are higher stakes for the younger kids and multiple chances to attempt to pass the EOC. The EOC is more attainable.”
If your child did take the STAAR test this year, parents can request to view your child’s test and answer document. Txedrights.net provides parents with a step by step guide to requesting your child’s test answer sheet and test booklets. You must make a written request to the Texas Education Agency, submit a FERPA release and establish your right of access.
“Schulte spoke on how much time is wasted on benchmarks and testing, rather than something meaningful. Powell spoke on how STAAR narrows down the curriculum and how testing at one campus affects others on the same campus, even if they are in a non-testing year.
“My personality can seem a little bit of a rebel soul, as my daughter likes to call me,” said Powell. “I am grateful that Pleasanton is as accommodating as they are, because I hear about other schools that are not. For example, they will have a second grader on campus with other grades that they want to check out for a doctor’s appointment. The school will say, ‘Oh, no. The campus is locked. You cannot get your kid.’ I would call the police right then and there. Luckily, Pleasanton is not like that.”
When it comes to opting out, Powell said parents are still afraid of being stigmatized. They don’t want to be labeled the troublemaker on their campus and have it affect their child, which she understands.
Schulte pointed out how the test is especially unfair to special education children and English as a Second Language students. There used to be a modified version of the test given, but it was done away with this year.
Schulte read a quote, “If we differentiate lessons, why do we give standardized tests?”
Schulte messaged Scott Placek, an attorney in Austin and opting out proponent and wanted to know if opting out of STAAR affects campus and district scores/ratings.
“They were supposed to change it and shorten the length, but then the printing had already been started. So this year, they did not shorten it like they were supposed to. I wanted to know, does it affect the scores, does that affect the school? I always wondered because people say, ‘I am not going to opt out because it is going to have a negative effect,’” Schulte said.
Placek replied that in the second administration of the test, it is coded “S” for Score if they are present and test. It is coded “A” if they are absent and if they don’t take the third administration there is a waiver code. He said an “S” score on a second administration affects the passage rate, but absent codes do not impact the passage rate.
“Well, this has been my heartache and why I sat out a year. Emily not taking the test and getting a zero could potentially have a negative impact on the district, if I send her on the make-up days. If I opted her out and kept her out every day, then she would be recorded as absent,” said Powell.
While Powell would never want to do anything to have a negative impact on the district, she feels like this is a bigger issue that affects all children in Texas.
“The word I was looking for is civil obedience and that is what I have talked to my eighth grader about. I want to raise my kids to stand up for what they think is right. I want them to feel empowered to stand up to anyone. I want them to do it with respect,” Powell said.
Do they consider opting out a difficult process?
“No, at least not in Pleasanton. I don’t know any parents who have had a difficult time with it,” said Powell. “Now in my opinion, if you have a child that is barely passing, I don’t know what I would do… say they are not passing some of their classes, but they test well. Then, the STAAR could be what puts them over the edge to not have to deal with anything.”
“If they are passing their classes with flying colors and they don’t take STAAR or fail STAAR, that shouldn’t be a factor,” Schulte said. “You should be able to go on, but if you fail your classes, they could make you go to summer school or retain you.”
“Which they could do regardless of the STAAR,” Powell added. “Grades to me are more important than the STAAR. I would be scared as a parent if my child wasn’t passing classes, to then do one more thing. If nothing else I would be scared I would make the school upset and give them more ammunition to hold my child back.”
“I think if everything is communicated with the campus principal early on and in writing (email), opting out of STAAR is not that difficult, especially in non-SSI grades. In fifth and eighth it is a little bit harder,” said Schulte.
Some of the questions Schulte asked in the email to the principal were:
•I’m considering opting my children out of STAAR testing. Has Jourdanton ISD been approached by other parents wanting to opt out?
•What would JISD’s protocol be?
•Would we have to miss all day on testing and makeup days or what time could he return after lunch without being required to test if he has a medical appointment in the morning?
•If he does not take the STAAR, will it be held against them in any way, including Grade Placement Committee meeting in the summer?
As for events like STAAR rallies and selling STAAR T-shirts, Powell expressed, “I probably would not opt out, if no one said the word STAAR until the day of the test.”
She said starting with the first day of school, children are often reminded of the STAAR. Schulte said the test results in many stressed-out students and an increase in anxiety-medication.
“It is added pressure for the teachers and for the kids. What is the incentive for somebody to go to college and be a teacher anymore?” asked Schulte. “I mean, when as a teacher you have to sign an oath to administer the test. You are not supposed to look at the test. You are not supposed to read it, but you have to monitor it. You cannot sit in a chair, you have to keep walking around, but don’t look at it, make sure the kids aren’t falling asleep. It is exhausting.”
“That is the other part of it- it is so super-secret,” said Powell.
“Every year it is worse and more intense and that filters into the kids,” said Schulte. “And I agree if they didn’t say STAAR all year and they just taught and made things more fun and we didn’t have so many scripted lessons and we could be more creative, the kids would be happier. They wouldn’t be as burned out. The teachers wouldn’t be burned out.”
Schulte has read statistics saying that as many as half of new teachers will leave the profession within five years. There is also research that shows an increase in anxiety and attention/focus medication.
“Do you remember when you were in elementary?” said Powell. “We didn’t take anything until we took the California Achievement Test. I lived up in North Texas and it was nothing. They bussed us all to the community center on test day and everything was lined up. We took our test and they took us back. But you didn’t even know it was going to be a different day than the previous day. Once the STAAR tests are over, the kids know, I have got nothing else for the rest of the year. It is over.”
“There is more to life than the STAAR test,” said Schulte. “My children are so much more than a test score. STAAR forces teachers to teach to the test, oftentimes using monotonous worksheets to monitor successful mastery of TEKS (curriculum standards in Texas).”
She shared it is stressful to teachers because they want to have high scores and are pressured by administrators above them. In many US states, standardized test scores are tied to contracts and pay.
“Testing to the test makes students lose spark and interest in learning. College entrance exams are never going to ask what your STAAR scores were. Many parents are disgusted with the focus on standardized testing in public schools and are turning to homeschooling their children or pay for them to attend private schools where STAAR is not given.”
Advocates of opting out of STAAR believe that a one size fits all approach does not work for education, which is what standardized testing is trying to do.
As posted recently in a standardized testing opt out group, “What if doctors were mandated to give the exact same medicine and the exact same tests to all patients, and if they didn’t have 100 percent success… they were judged to be bad doctors? Ridiculous, right? Then why are we mandating that for teachers?”

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