Weatherford Democrat

April 20, 2014

Is opting out an option?

Parents testing school districts, TEA by keeping children home on STAAR days


Weatherford Democrat

— By SALLY SEXTON

One local parent has taken it upon herself to make her voice heard.

Michelle Osterkamp, who has two children attending Mary Martin Elementary, began to research the opt-out method after talking with some of her teacher friends.

“One of [my friends] posted a link to an article online about the state of education, public funding and it mentioned opting out,” Osterkamp said. “I was curious so I did a little research and came across the Facebook page for Texas State Parents Opt-Out and contacted them.”

By “opting out,” Osterkamp kept her children home during Weatherford ISD’s first round of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) testing earlier this month. She made the announcement through a written letter addressed to the Martin principal and assistant principal as well as members of the Weatherford ISD school board.

The movement is growing across Texas with hundreds, even thousands, of parents opting to keep their children from taking the STAAR test.

“Section 26 of the Education Code is very clear — parents are not entitled to remove their child from a class or activity to avoid testing,” Texas Education Agency spokesperson Lauren Callahan said. “And by law, any time a child shows up for class on a testing day, the district is required to offer the test. It’s what we’re instructing districts to do.

“If a child refuses to take the test, we’re leaving it up to the districts as to what they do [with that student on testing day]. The Education Code is not clear on that because it also says they are not supposed to opt out of a test.”

Testing at the fifth and eighth grade levels is more structured, as those grades have promotional requirements attached to passing math and reading tests, said Callahan.

Osterkamp’s oldest child is in the fifth grade at Martin.

“I was led to believe that there will be no consequences, that they would not hold my kids back,” she said. “I was told that their performance skills were good enough that there shouldn’t be an issue with them advancing.”

In a typical case, if a child in the fifth or eighth grade takes the test and struggles with passing, a parent can request a grade placement committee after the second attempt. The committee is made up of an administrator, the child’s teacher and the parent or guardian.

“The committee can choose to either retain the student or allow them to move forward,” Weatherford ISD superintendent Jeffrey Hanks said. “If their grades are stellar and they’ve got good attendance, they’re more than likely in good shape [to advance.]”

One other factor that could impact a student who is absent on testing day is the overall attendance.

“State law says a student cannot miss 10 percent or more of classes,” Hanks said. “If they do, they cannot advance and won’t gain credit for the class.

“This year has not been a big issue. We’ve had one round of tests so far and only a few kids missed days.”

At the high school level, students must pass five EOC exams in order to graduate.

“Pulling your kids from testing may not catch up with them until high school, when the EOC’s come in to play,” Hanks said. “By law, you are required to meet graduation requirements, which are tied in to the End-Of-Course exams.

If [the student] does poorly on testing, they cannot graduate.

“As a parent, you could be doing a disservice to your child.”

In her letter, Osterkamp explained her reasoning for pulling her children from testing, noting that the STAAR has “transformed from a means of establishing educational equality and civic responsibility into a test-fixated marathon.”

“There are a lot of teachers that care about the welfare of the students, and we’re losing good staff because they’re tired of all the testing,” Osterkamp said. “I’m not against benchmark testing but the STAAR is not benchmark testing.”

Osterkamp said she was pleasantly surprised at the reception from administrators after sending the letter, and said she was anxious at first because of hearing stories of bullying and intimidation from administrators in other districts.

“I also had to remind myself that I didn’t need to come in with both barrels blazing,” she said. “I didn’t want [the district] to get defensive. It’s not the fault of the local teachers and administrators. They’re basically just doing what the state tells them.”

“This issue needs to be addressed with the Texas Legislature, the House, the Senate leaders... I can’t think that [Osterkamp’s] view is an isolated one and I think their voice needs to be heard — I just hope they focus it in the right direction,” Hanks said. “I understand the talk of there being an overreliance on testing but we’re fortunate that they cut back the number of EOC’s during the last session.”

Visit Facebook to find out more about the Weatherford Parents Opt-Out or Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests pages.