Column: Parents deserve to let kids opt out of tests

Sharlonda Buckman

Experts in education clamor for more accountability and change in schools — especially those in high-poverty communities. For them the problem in high-poverty schools isn’t trauma or the lingering effects of poverty, but the fact that principals and teachers aren’t accountable for their students’ success.

I tend to think support and consistency are more important to improving these schools. But let’s assume for the moment that accountability and change will produce the results we all desire. If that were the case, shouldn’t test scores in Detroit be skyrocketing?

No Child Left Behind mandated accountability and change in 2001. Since then more than 100 schools in Detroit have been closed and at least half that many have been opened. Education experts also created a new school district to take over 15 Detroit schools, and most of the principals and teachers in those schools were fired. We have not been short on accountability and change.

To determine which schools should close, the state uses test results from the M-STEP — a mandatory test for all students in grades 3 through 8 (and 11) — that took students up to 16 hours to complete and schools eight full weeks to administer last year. Schools that score in the lowest 5 percent are automatically put on the State’s Priority Schools list — a 21st century scarlet letter that can only be taken away if a school gets to at least 6 percent, or if it makes an approved change, like firing the principal or becoming a charter. After that, the school has three years to get and stay out of the lowest 5 percent before it is at risk of being closed again.

In January, less than three weeks after state control of schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District ended, the state announced it would close up to 25 schools in Detroit for failing to get above the 5 percent threshold under the state’s watch. The state also sent a letter to parents in those schools encouraging them to put their children in better school districts outside of Detroit, including those an hour’s drive away.

Policy makers are getting change, but not the one they intended. This year hundreds of parents in Detroit joined the hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation who are opting out of state-mandated tests.

While many principals honored our parents’ decision to opt-out (and even expressed their support), some school leaders resorted to intimidation. They refused to accept the opt-out letters and told parents their children had to take the test or the school would be penalized and lose federal funding.

Perhaps these principals were following the orders of State Superintendent Brian Whiston, who recently wrote a letter to parents stating, “There is no allowable way in state or federal law to ‘opt out’ of state assessments. Students who are not assessed will count against their schools’ participation rate, leaving schools open to penalties.”

But the superintendent’s warning contradicts the Michigan School Code. And no school or district anywhere in the nation has ever lost federal funding for parents’ choosing to opt out.

Education experts who believe so strongly in the power of accountability refuse to be accountable to parents who exercise their right to direct the education of their child. More than 400 parents have said, “Enough is enough!” this year. If the state continues to act in the same way, it shouldn’t be surprised to see that number to grow significantly in the years to come.

Sharlonda Buckman is CEO of Detroit Parent Network.