Before accepting overtesting as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

Getting Active
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.


I created Pencilsdown.org around 2000, long before today’s opt-out movement. It has been inactive for a number of years, but you may find a copy of the opt-out form I distributed back in 2003 here.

The year following my initial opt-out activism,I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper urging parents to opt-out. Fearing a loss of federal money as a result of not making AYP due to testing resistance, the Torrance Unified School District lied to parents about the legitimacy of the testing process. I responded with a freedom of information request about funding, personnel, policy, costs and time dedicated to STAR testing. This tied the district office in knots for months. If I can find the request, I will share it.

Here is a list of recommended books for parents and educators interested in opposing standardized testing.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has decided to throw a few dollars around for parental involvement to distract the public from the anti-democratic school “reforms” he advocates. Of course this announcement is accompanied by the familiar “mea culpa” that the government hasn’t done enough to involve parents.

This is a total load o’ crap, especially given Duncan’s heavy-handed imposition of Race-to-the-Top and endorsement of anti-democratic measures, such as charter schools and mayoral control of school districts. (Let’s set aside the abysmal record of mayoral control in D.C., Duncan’s Chicago and New York where after 8 1/2 years of heroic mayoral control 28% of African American males now graduate).

Oh yeah, an awful lot of parents are school teachers and union members who don’t appreciate being vilified and having their family’s security jeopardized by the policies of Duncan and his billionaire buddies.

If you want parental involvement/engagement in education, then make them full partners in the operation of public schools. Encourage greater participation in elected school boards and advocate “universal charter school” legislation in which every single American public school is run by the parents and teachers in that school. The only parental involvement ever tolerated by many local schools is when they ask parents to be ATMs and Narcs. Schools want parents to write checks and enforce their rules beyond school hours.

Perhaps, Secretary Duncan can stop blaming kids and parents for the fact that you have created joyless & irrelevant test-prep sweatshops where teachers work in fear and learning is subservient to compliance.

Parental involvement does not require $270,000,000 of Federal investment. It requires a bag of Doritos, a cheap box of wine and an honest partnership between equally empowered stakeholders.

The following is an article I published in 2008 that should give you a sense of how terrible the Duncan “parental involvement” plan happens to be when put into practice.

Chief Family Engagement Officer (2008) by Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

  • Seize control of 1,400 public schools
  • Appoint a prosecutor to lead
  • Disband the democratically elected Board of Education
  • Hold one public hearing in five years
  • Centralize the bureaucracy
  • Maintain files used to discredit critics on the right and left
  • Favor managers over educators
  • Detain teachers in rubber rooms (read additional news accounts here and here)
  • Invent Orwellian job titles for propaganda officers…
  • Stalinist Russia?

    Fughetaboutit! It’s just the New York City Public Schools under Chancellor Joel Klein.

    The March 4, 2008 edition of the New York Times reports on the state of Mayoral control of the public schools in After 5 Years, City Council Holds First Hearing on Mayor’s Control of Public Schools. The article covers a New York City Council hearing where questions about the efficacy of suspending democracy battled the non-educator Chancellor’s argument that “mayoral oversight is critical to turning around the vast system…” and “The fundamental governance structure of mayoral accountability and control, I think, is right and needs to be maintained.” As the title of the Times article suggests, this was the first time the City Council has held a hearing about the Mayor’s school takeover in five years.

    Sure, the Chancellor’s claims of improved test scores, enhanced accountability and greater efficiency went unchallenged. I have come to expect very little from politicians and journalists who suspend their disbelief when matters of public education are discussed. At least once Councilman compared mayoral control to martial law.

    Lack of parental input into governance of their local schools, standardized curricula, no public oversight of the system and powerless administrators are the expected outcomes when political ideologues get to play corporate dress-up and the public schools become their toy.

    None of this surprises me. I was however delighted by the latest Orwellian confection served up by the Chancellor. Klein offered a faux mea culpa about how he had not followed up on the millions he spent to hire “parent coordinators” in each school. (I assume to neutralize desires for parental involvment)

    If the image of full-time paid “parent coordinators” does not paint a clear enough picture of this educational Potemkin Village, Chancellor Klein admitted that “he had waited too long to create the post of a ‘chief family engagement officer’ to oversee the coordinators.”

    Just when I thought the corporate psychosis polluting our public schools had reached its zenith, semantic gems like “chief family engagement officer” are invented. Thank you Chancellor Klein! That’s one for the ages!

    — Gary Stager
    The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

    2008-03-05

    Before accepting over-testing as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students

    Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

    Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

    Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

    Books to help educatoes and parents resist standardized testing

    Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

    Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

    The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

    In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

    Getting Activeistock_000001759016xsmall-1
    Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

    I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

    I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

    One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

    It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.

    Here is a collection of resources related to testing resistance


    By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
    Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

    © 2003 Professional Media Group LLC