More opt out of testing in S.C.

English students at West Ashley Middle School work on strategies for taking the new timed standardized tests that all public school students in the state will take later this month.

When Erin Schwamb began thinking about whether she wanted her 8-year-old son to take new timed standardized tests this spring, she started pondering all the philosophical reasons why she doesn’t like standardized testing.

The Summerville mother and former teacher doesn’t like how much pressure is placed on students and teachers to perform well on the tests. She doesn’t like how much class time is spent getting students ready for them. And she’s not convinced the tests really serve a purpose in her son’s education.

So Schwamb told school administrators at Beech Hill Elementary earlier this month that she didn’t want her son, Jacob, to take the ACT Aspire tests that begin on April 28.

“I don’t see how it’s going to help him whatsoever with school,” Schwamb said. “To me there has to be a better way.”

Schwamb is part of a small but growing number of parents across South Carolina who are opting their children out of standardized tests this spring. Nationally, the opt-out movement is garnering large numbers in states like New York, where last year more than 60,000 parents chose not to have students take standardized tests. And larger numbers are expected in New York this year.

Sarah Shad Johnson, who serves as the coordinator for Opt Out South Carolina, a branch of United Opt Out, a national nonprofit organization that opposes high-stakes testing in public schools, said she’s seen an uptick this year in the number of parents in the Palmetto state concerned about standardized testing with the implementation of the new ACT Aspire tests for math, reading, writing and English.

According to Opt Out South Carolina’s Facebook page, parents from a slew of counties have declined to have their children tested, including Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Horry, Aiken, Kershaw, Lexington, Richland, Spartanburg and Sumter counties.

Johnson, who has been opting her children out of standardized testing in Charleston County since 2011, thinks the biggest factor driving parents’ concerns this year is the amount of time teachers and students have spent preparing for the timed tests when students “could have been learning something new.”

Parents have reported mixed responses from school districts when they’ve asked to opt their children out of standardized testing. Johnson said a handful of parents in Charleston County have said they were met with only minimal resistance. Berkeley County parent Sarah Allen said she didn’t have a problem when she asked that her son not participate in eighth-grade testing at Westview Middle School in Goose Creek.

But Schwamb and Kristyna Gibson, both of whom have children attending schools in Dorchester District 2, said school officials have pushed back against their request.

Both mothers said they have been told their children must take the tests, which they insist violates their constitutional rights under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“My children aren’t taking the test,” said Gibson, whose children attend Oakbrook Middle and Pye Elementary.

However, state and local education officials say the law mandates that all eligible students be tested.

Sean Alford, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Dorchester District 2, said state and federal laws “make it very, very clear that there’s an expectation that every student participate in statewide assessments.”

John Emerson, the Charleston County School District’s attorney, said school districts do not have discretion to excuse eligible students from taking standardized tests. The only students who can be excused, Emerson said, are those who meet specific criteria defined by law.

A September 2014 memo from the South Carolina Department of Education was unambiguous, saying “there is no state provision for parents or eligible students (who are age 18 or older) to opt-out of state- or district-wide testing.” The memo cited state and federal laws that require standardized testing. A new memo issued by the department on Friday advised school districts that “it is not appropriate to suggest that parents ‘opt out’ by keeping their students at home on testing days.”

“We are required by state and federal laws to administer the tests to all students, and we will,” said Dino Teppara, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “Students are expected to attend and behave in accordance with school policies.”

Alford said he’s sympathetic to parents who don’t like the tests, but that districts must meet legal requirements.

“We never, ever want a parent to feel like they have no influence in their student’s education, but please don’t ask us not to do something we have a legal obligation to do,” he said.

The issue of the increasing number and type of educational assessments being given to South Carolina students is something educators are evaluating.

Alford said Dorchester District 2 did an internal review of the number of voluntary tests it was giving to students to assess their academic progress after some teachers raised concerns about how much time was being spent evaluating students rather than teaching them. As a result, Alford said the district reduced the number of non-mandated tests by more than 60 percent this school year.

“We believe you don’t have to test kids crazy, and in areas where we could make changes, we have,” Alford said.

And state educators are doing the same thing. State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said in a statement last week that she is evaluating the testing requirements for the state. The timing is key because the state will have to issue a new contract for standardized tests in English and math next school year due to an issue with the contract for the ACT Aspire tests.

“I agree that we need accountability tests,” Spearman said in the statement. “However, I also believe that it’s time to evaluate what kinds of tests we’re giving to students — and more importantly — how many, so we can develop a fair system that balances the need for testing with a passion for learning.”

For Allen, the Berkeley County mother who is opting her eighth-grader out of ACT Aspire and the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards test for science and social studies, too much testing is among her chief concerns.

“If they continue to force more testing, it’s going to force teachers to teach to the test and not what students really need to know,” she said.

Schwamb and Gibson each said their decision to opt their children out stems in part from a leeriness about corporate testing companies, which they feel are out to make money rather than serve an educational purpose. Gibson also worries that because ACT primarily provides college and career readiness exams, all the testing is geared toward forcing her children into specific career paths before they’re even out of high school.

“To me that is a parent and child decision,” the Ladson mother said.

And all three mothers said they don’t like that scores from the tests are used to rate schools and evaluate teacher performance.

“How is that one test an adequate representation of what that teacher has done all year with those children?” asked Schwamb.

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.