Bill seeks escape hatch from state tests; using it wouldn’t ruin kids

Increasingly, parents in Georgia and elsewhere are considering pulling their children out of standardized state exams because of stress and doubts about appropriateness. A bill in the Legislature will make that choice a little easier.

Is this opt-out movement turning children into fragile snowflakes, as critics insist?

No, says Stephanie O’Leary, a New York clinical psychologist and author of the book, “Parenting in the Real World.” O’Leary trained in Georgia where she lived for seven years.

She dismisses the notion that opting young kids out of state standardized tests weakens their character, saying resilience comes from allowing children to master everyday challenges — getting up for school on their own, making their lunch and suffering the fallout when they forget their band uniform or field trip form. That’s where parents ought to slow down their rescue efforts and let children stumble, not on state tests that are developmentally inappropriate, said O’Leary in an interview Friday.

“It is great for our kids to go out and run around. But you wouldn’t sign a 7-year-old up for a full marathon because it is not developmentally appropriate,” she said. “Opting your kids out of a state test is not going to spoil them.”

House Bill 425 adds protections to opting out. Passed by the House and now under review in the Senate, the bill instructs the state school superintendent to identify policies for local school systems on the supervision of students who opted out and the alternatives provided to them during testing.

The guidelines would bar school systems from “taking punitive action against a student, including, but not limited to, the adoption of sit and stare policies, in response to a student’s refusal to participate in a federal, state, or locally mandated standardized assessment.” The bill defines “sit and stare” as forcing opt-out students “to remain with their class in the test room without any alternate instructional activity.”

In Georgia, opting out poses fewer consequences to report cards in K-8 than in high school where End of Course exams count for 20 percent of final grades.

O’Leary said opting out is not as relevant in high school as teens are more mature and can handle the focus and multitasking required by standardized tests, even poorly constructed ones. “They have the reasoning skills to cope with it,” she said.

HB 425 also encourages local school systems to give students the option of taking online assessments with paper and pencil. Georgia is moving all students to online assessments, which expedite scoring so schools can learn earlier which students require remediation. The transition has come with some technical glitches and parent complaints.

Some parents say their children perform better with pencil and paper than with a keyboard. Concerns about the testing mode — pencil and paper vs. online — are mounting as more states plop students in front of computers to take high-stakes assessments. Evidence suggests a learning curve, with students scoring lower in the transition years to online testing.

The counter argument is that computer fluency is as essential today as math or reading skills, and paper and pen will eventually go the way of slide rules and overhead projectors. But students tasked with churning out a timed essay pay a penalty if they lack computer competency. Some students are not as computer savvy as others.

Georgia imposed statewide tests because it wanted districts held to the same standards. It sought a basis of comparison that could ascertain algebra rigor was the same in Austell as in Albany. And the state uses Milestones and End of Course tests to gauge how well schools are performing.

If opting out is encouraged and protected, as HB 425 attempts, more parents may choose to pull their kids out of Georgia exams. That will make it harder to compare districts — if you think test-based comparisons are valid in the first place — and will render it near impossible to grade districts based on scores.

This legislative zeal to liberate students from standardized tests is puzzling in that elected officials are the ones who forced mandatory testing on schools. Lawmakers in Georgia chose to make the state exams — which are not created by the classroom teachers — count toward final grades in high schools.

They seem to be stepping back from their own handiwork.