Ltr to Ed: If there’s nothing to be learned from taking the test, then why take it?

April 25, 2014
by Maggie Christ

Here in New York State, we’re in the middle of testing season. If you’re a parent of a child in grades three through eight, you know that the beginning of April brought three days of the English Language Arts tests, 70 to 90 minutes each day (depending on grade level), or, when you factor in set-up time, roughly five hours out of the week devoted to testing. Testing continues next week, with three days of NYS math tests, for a similar amount of time. Also, not only do the children miss instructional time while they’re taking the tests, their teachers are pulled out of class to score the exams, and substitutes have to be hired (at an additional cost to the school system).

Do we need these tests? What is the value to our children? One might argue that life is full of standardized tests, so kids should learn how to take tests. But do we really want to be teaching our children how to take tests, rather than teaching them how to be good independent thinkers?

There’s a burgeoning movement to refuse the tests, which has been written about in the New York Times (Standing Up to Testing). Refusing is happening in Westchester. According to LoHud, “At least a couple of hundred students in the Lower Hudson Valley” didn’t take the ELA tests (Some lohud parents opting out of Common Core tests). The Chappaqua Daily Voice reported that “84 [children] in the Lakeland Central School District and 80 in the Ossining School District” opted out of the ELA (State Exam Opt-Out Numbers Vary In Westchester). In Chappaqua, according to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Eric Byrne, there was “one test refusal across all levels during the ELA”.

I know who that one child is. It was my daughter. She’s a fifth grader at Bell, and we together – she and her father and I – agreed that she would refuse to take the NYS tests as a small act of civil disobedience. We talked at length about the tests, and the pros and cons of taking them.

In my opinion, there are many things wrong with the tests. Principally, they offer no useful feedback to child or teacher.

Last year, when we attended back-to-school night at the beginning of fourth grade, a parent asked about standardized tests. The teacher, a wonderful, caring veteran of many years said something that day that has stuck with me. She made it clear that because of the way the ELA and math tests are administered, there’s no feedback loop for the teacher. While sometime after the children are no longer her students, she will know who got 1, 2, 3 or 4 on the exams, she doesn’t know what kid got which question wrong, or that everyone in the class missed question #37. Without that feedback, she has no way to improve on her teaching. Similarly, for the students (and their parents), the raw score labels the child a 1, 2, 3 or 4 and offers no information as to a child’s strengths or weaknesses. How does one improve, if you don’t know where the weakness lie?

When the state tests rolled around last year, my child and my husband and I talked about the issues surrounding the tests, and about whether it made sense to have her refuse to take them. Last year, we were sheep: she took the tests.

This year, she refused.

We considered many things in making the decision that she would refuse the test. But what I kept coming back to was that issue raised by the fourth grade teacher: the lack of any feedback loop. If there’s nothing to be learned from taking the test, then why take it?

We live in a high-performing district, and our child did well on the tests last year. If we were in a lousy district, or had a kid who tests poorly, we’d be seen as wanting to avoid putting our child in an unhappy situation and it could be perceived as “sour grapes.” But that’s not it at all. I think that the wealthy, well-performing districts should be leading the way in pushing for the kinds of education reforms that will help everyone.

To be sure, our small act of civil disobedience will not have much impact on our child, her teachers, or this district of ours. But for us, it was the right thing to do and the progressive action to take.

Post script:

Incidentally, Chappaqua is one of the 21 school districts in the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association which have passed a resolution on high stakes testing. That resolution was adopted by the CCSD board in January 2013, and says, in part:

RESOLVED that Chappaqua Central School District calls on Governor Cuomo, Commissioner King, the State legislature, and the Board of Regents to re-examine public school accountability systems in this state, including the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and to develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment which does not require extensive standardized testing, more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools; and

RESOLVED, that Chappaqua Central School District calls on the U.S. Congress and Administration to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the “No Child Left Behind Act”), reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.



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This is another version of dumbing down. Overall results are informative to the educators as to the weaknesses and strengths of the student population as a whole.

The best way to study for any test, is to take practice tests. A 1600 is a 1600 whether or not there are other indicators in a student’s profile. That little Janie or Johnny can play the violin, or otherwise did well in school, or was an extra-curricular star is nice,
but the proof is in the pudding….results and discipline so long as there is not crushing pressure sending the kid to a shrink.

If you want to tie one of your child’s educational hands behind her back, that’s fine for you. My child took all the tests, including the SAT in 7th grade (1040) 8th grade (1160) and was told by a Bell guidance counselor that she was unimpressed with those scores. Then, my child was excluded from the top math class (which I did not let happen). Well, her 1600 and 4.4 every year in every math class sure impressed me. (The child was well rounded, sports, clubs etc)

The results after college and grad school graduations are that many of my children’s friends, whose parents let them slide and were not “tiger”-cub parents, are doing so-so, that is, the ones with jobs. My children…..I am not going to say, because it is too personal and could identify me. Suffice it to say, they are Chappaqua successes in terms of colleges attended and careers. It was NOT an accident.

Their life success is squarely as a result of the education from our school district, in the old style…..but not from CSSD alone. The educational and life experiences outside of school were, as it turned out, almost as important. It was the testing and focus on writing that held their feet to the fire.

My more needy child, now an adult, confessed to me recently that he/she is grateful that he/she was “pushed” and cried a little while at Greeley and Bell. My child sees that, to some extent,her/his friends are “crying” now.


By Glad I am out of it on 04/26/2014 at 9:33 am

We do get some of the information back, but not until August or so when they have moved on. We used to sit down with the other English teachers and keep tallies on the questions the students missed, and them immediately go back to the classroom and address any skills that we believed the students may need remediation in. BUT, sometimes we found that it was the wording of a multiple choice question, or that one of the answers, if you thought about it too hard, looked right, or the “sucker answer”, the answer that was in almost EVERY answer, looked pretty good. Then, we could see if a student in the writing question just misunderstood a question, or did a word get them hung up and the writing, while very good, “did not address the prompt”. In the real world, we ask for clarification before going on and writing an entire essay wrong based on the lack of knowledge and application of a single word. To sum it up, these tests now are being used for data, but only to judge my teaching…that is what my principal should be doing…that’s why he/she makes the “Big Bucks”. If it was for MEANINGFUL data, parents & I would be able to see the tests to correct the skills BEFORE the child moves out of t=my classroom. Testing = $$$$$$$$ now…it didn’t used to be like that.

By Michelle M on 04/26/2014 at 10:08 am

Good for you for standing up and opting out. It is sad to see a generation of children that will understand how to take tests and get grades, but not how to become productive members of society. The education system is so entrenched in this country that the only way it will change is if a growing number of individuals are brave enough to force change by refusing to enable the status quo and not participating. My children are still little, but when they are old enough for school we will also be opting out if things have not changed.

By Jen on 04/26/2014 at 11:29 am

[D]o we really want to be teaching our children how to take tests, rather than teaching them how to be good independent thinkers?

Why are these mutually exclusive?  Why can’t we do both?

I don’t think there is anyone anywhere who will defend these tests on their merits.  Sure, a district needs to have a certain high percentage of its students take the tests or they risk losing some state funding of the budget, but from an academic standpoint they are simply a measure, of what I am not sure, at some point in time.

However, I think the state is correct in wanting to come up with some measure of how districts are doing.  The common core is a good example although it is federally driven.  The CC standards are good ones.  It is the implementation on the state wide level that is terrible.

The ELAs and the math tests, as the author points out, are graded pretty quickly, I think within weeks, of the tests.  It is the state that delays in sending the scores and in sending the data.  Why not tabulate our own data before we send the info to the state?  Why not have the graders keep track of what questions students (not names) got wrong?  Why not note patterns in the writing samples?

The author through her discussion with one teacher dismisses the usefulness of the tests because of the lack of a feedback loop.  Instead of dismissing the test, why not correct the problem?  The district could create its own feedback loop.  Maybe the loop is not about helping the students directly, but rather evaluating teacher effectiveness which will lead to professional growth.

Finally, I am not so sure I would characterize an opt out on the tests as an act of civil disobedience.  That seems a little dramatic.

By Edukate Me on 04/26/2014 at 11:32 am

There is no substituted for imprinted, learned knowledge in the minds of our children. I pads etc. detract from critical thinking and learning.

I teach in a State College. The children clearly have dumbed down since I began teaching. The focus is on entertaining them and not hurting feelings and making sure the cafeteria has good food….not
as much on teaching and learning as in yesteryear.  This is clean on evaluations. The more huggy kissy a teacher, the better the evaluations. The stricter and more focused on education, my colleagues are lambasted.

Dear all parents, have it your way.

By Tools are good on 04/26/2014 at 11:47 am

Editor’s Note:  You’re benched.  To learn why, you may contact me at:

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

By The truth on 04/26/2014 at 4:13 pm

Editor’s Note:  You’re benched.  To learn why, you may contact me at:

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

By Rationalization, not on 04/26/2014 at 5:11 pm

Ms. Christ and “Michelle M” share the view that reliance on testing where analysis of results cannot be fed back into classroom instruction is, a priori, fatally flawed. I don’t think reasonable parents or teachers would argue against testing outright. It has its place as a measurement of progress. But the high scores that “Glad I am out of it” pays obeisance to are hardly the sine qua non of the package that should comprise a well-founded teenager making the progression to college.

Last fall marked my ninth year as an alumnus admissions interviewer for Brown University. It’s true that SAT and ACT scores, plus AP classwork, are weighty pieces on the plus side of the admissions officer’s scale. But during the time I’ve been doing interviews, admissions policy makers at my college and at many other first-rate institutions have modified practices (to varying degrees) to discount these tests because social sciences have shown that the socioeconomic status of test-takers substantially, and wrongly, skews scores. Admissions folk are very cognizant of toxicities in the test-preparation ecosystem that’s grown up around the profit-making businesses that administer so-called achievement tests.

Every year before admissions interviews begin, we volunteers get the pep talk from the Dean of Admissions. He presents the goals, aims and many nuanced policies of the admissions program, and never fails to stress that our interview reports are an important part of a candidate’s dossier. The dean emphasizes that, “Talent is not a function of socioeconomics: talent is found all over this country and all over this world.” The goal of admissions, he says, is to peel back all the blue ribbons, extra-curricular triumphs, sports trophies and perfect test scores to see if there’s a curious, informed, engaged, motivated and creative kid at the core. As for me, I’m always digging to see if there’s a there, there. In my experience correlation between a kid who is ripe to flourish at the college level and perfect SAT scores is rare indeed. A rather shocking number of kids I’ve interviewed, despite immaculately burnished resumes, are at the core void of the talent, spark and independence of thought for which places like Brown and others are looking.

Unquestioning conformity to a misguided and misapplied state-mandated testing system is characteristic of exactly the opposite kind of thinking that matures into the talent and inquisitiveness that will serve a kid well in college and in life beyond.

In the interest of full disclosure the contributor, Maggie Christ, is my lovely wife.


By Will Wedge on 04/27/2014 at 10:13 am

Editor’s Note:  Benched.  Contact me.

By benched on 04/27/2014 at 8:31 pm

The author’s husband makes some good points. That is up until the last paragraph before his disclosure that he is Maggie’s husband. 

Unquestioning conformity to a state mandated test is no more indicative of future success (or lack thereof as he implies)than is an unwillingness to conform and take the tests. There are many ways to demonstrate independence of thought other than a parent convincing you not to take a standardized test.

One of my two children chose not to take the tests.  However, knowing him, it was more because he figured out that he didn’t have to take it and could spend the time day dreaming more than any political so called social disobedience.  Both of my children did know that we put no credence in the tests.  In fact, we would discard the letter that the scores came in without opening it. 

I am not opposed to measuring a students progress as well as a teacher’s effectiveness.  In fact, it is a good thing to do so.  I do not think that the standardized tests as given are the appropriate way to do it for all students.  For some, yes it is a good measure.  For many others, it is not an effective way to measure subject knowledge.  Many can demonstrate their proficiency verbally or in some manner that is not a multiple choice test.

While the state has the difficult task of finding a way to measure this across the entire 700 school districts in the state, maybe the answer is to put it back to the district and let them devise their own tests and self report back to the State.

By Deezil on 04/27/2014 at 9:38 pm

The numbers of refusals cannot be correct, as I too refused to have my Bell school child take the ELA – she was sick with actual, hospital-diagnosed influenza, missed the regular week of testing and then returned for the next week of make-ups – I didn’t want her to miss additional days, so I had to type out a refusal.
This testing is really out of control. I admire the parents of Scarsdale who stepped up a few years ago and refused to have their kids take the test. We, in CCSD, seem to complain about it over and over again, but don’t do anything.
After seeing how easy it was to refuse, and no consequences come of it, I am sorry I didn’t type out a refusal before.

By Cynthia Metcalf on 04/28/2014 at 12:50 am

I think the best way to measure “refusals” is to take the one who actually wrote a letter and add the difference between the actual number of absences and the daily average number of absences.  But so what?  The actual number of refusals is irrelevant.  The decision is about family values and what each family thinks is important in terms of education. 

There are things taught in school all the time that I think are a waste of time for my child, but I don’t opt them out based on that day’s lesson plan.  I am not sure why, if I don’t opt them out of other worthless lessons why I should opt them out of some standardized test.  I just ignore the results.

Refusing to take the test seems, excuse the pun, childish.  To me, the lesson to be learned here is that there are many things in life that you do even if it is not what you want to do.  School is not an a la carte menu picking and choosing what you want to engage in.

By Something something name on 04/29/2014 at 10:33 am

It is your prerogative what to publish .  As a journalist you have certain journalistic obligations .  While I have no personal animus towards you, I have notified everyone who will listen to me that you are refusing to publish relevant and pertinent items as matters of your personal opinion which is not in the public interest,  It is your ca to not publish and have greenstein and company call you out on it..  You will appear to be like Pravda, prior censorship and u must defend
Your prior restraint,  Operative wording, prior restraint,  I have stopped reading Ncn, I am done.  My focus will be on having others pressure you on your censorship policy

Editor’s Note:  Notify anyone you like.  I offered to discuss with you my reasons for benching you.  You have not contacted me

By Benched on 05/01/2014 at 2:45 pm

“A true attack on inequality would require that the country move the issue to the center of every political debate… how we finance schools and measure their results”

Rupert Murdoch, #81 on Forbes Wealthiest list, owns The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium which developed the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts/literacy (ELA/literacy) and mathematics for grades 3-8 and 11. Smarter Balanced developed the Common Core test your child takes.

By Rupert Murdoch owns Common Core on 05/04/2014 at 1:01 pm

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