Why my children opt out of standardized testing—and yours should too

I’m walking out.
I’m walking out.
Image: AP Photo/Russell Contreras
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As children around the US embark on spring break, they do so knowing they will soon be required to gear up once more for standardized-testing season. Or rather, I should say most of our nation’s children will be gearing up. This year, like the year before it, my three children will not be among this cohort of national test takers, nor will the growing thousands of other children from families who have chosen to opt out of standardized tests.

Why opt out?

I admit that my main reason for opting out of standardized testing is not data-driven, but instead based on emotional and philosophical beliefs. I am not opting out because I think tests unfairly force children to sit for long periods, nor because they might cause stress, are cruel to special-needs children, punish teachers for students’ low scores, steal valuable instructional time, divert loads of money to businesses that create the tests, or include poorly worded questions. No, while all those reasons hold merit for other like-minded parents, my main reasons can be traced all the way back to The Star-Spangled Banner.

The story of how Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics to the US national anthem in 1814 while watching the bombardment of Baltimore is riveting. When Key, a prisoner on board a British ship of war, saw that first hint of unfurled color waving in the early morning light, a thrill went through him. When I consider his lyrics, trying to imagine what Key was thinking in the midst of that battle, three words come to mind: independence, community, and—bear with me—booyah! Together, these words represent what is missing in our schools today.

Our students’ independence is slowly but surely being crushed by an endless scholastic bombardment of carrots and sticks, reminders to stay on the state-mandated track and learn the state-mandated information. No zig, no zag, no time to stop and enjoy the view. Students are to be compliant and obedient. They are not to question the authority of leaders in the system. Students are inculcated, from a very early age, with the sense that they do not own their education.

At the same time, their sense of community is being damaged by the very system designed to educate them. Grouped according to age, students are relentlessly rewarded (with treats, good grades, smiley faces, extra recess minutes) or punished (with bad grades, class rankings, less recess) based on slight differences in development and abilities. Everything possible is given a score. Those who score well learn a sense of superiority and condescension, while those who score poorly learn self-hatred. At the same time, this ranking system makes it very clear that one student’s climbing rank is tied to another’s falling one.

Together, these strategies and others are silencing the exhilarated yawps and hoorahs, woohoos and booyahs of our nation’s students. Meek and fearful, they have forgotten how to seek out challenging and exciting tasks. A generation of children are growing up with an “Is it going to be on the test?” mentality. All that is left is to try to make education palatable by adding silly rewards, candy, pep rallies, and in-classroom movies.

I’m opting my children out of standardized testing because sometimes when you’re a prisoner on a ship, you need to glimpse a flag on a hill—to see someone, somewhere, reaffirming your almost forgotten sense of independence and community.

I want my children to value independence. I want them to look at systems of state control with a wary eye, to demand and revere control over their own lives as their birthright. The joy and mystery of living, learning, growing, and loving is theirs for the taking.

I also want my children to feel a powerful sense of community. I want them to feel a sense of camaraderie with, and responsibility for, those around them. I want them to learn these skills naturally by practicing normal human interaction within a loving classroom environment, complementing the skills and values they learn in their family and neighborhood. I want them to know how to help others, how to ask for help, how to stand up for those less fortunate, and how to respect and celebrate the individuality of those around them.

I know my family’s actions will not independently stop the current standardized-testing, command-and-control regime. Rather, as an act of public civil disobedience, I hope they will serve as a flag on a hill to others. It is my hope that more and more people will question the current system and ask what else is out there? I hope they will discover the benefits of other more innovative teaching methods, such as those practiced in American Montessori schools, where my children thrived throughout elementary school. Montessori methods promote both independence and community, eliminate grades, class rankings, and standardized testing, leaving behind a child’s natural love of learning.

It is up to us as American citizens to stand up for our rights and just say no. Thank you, Francis Scott Key, for reminding me that sometimes when the values you hold are threatened, you must unfurl your flag.