Revisiting our decision to opt out, and a copy of our update to the school.

Chris Thinnes

 

In “Opting Out of High-Stakes Testing: Our Family’s Decision,” I reflected on my son’s decision to opt out of high-stakes standardized testing, and our family’s decision to support him. In that post I made this claim:

In searching my own conscience in an effort to be supportive to my son — a 9th grade student who first expressed his desire to opt out of the California Standards Testing (CST) program, but was debating whether he should commit to it — I knew it was more important than anything else to honor his voice and his decision-making as authentically and respectfully as I could. I found myself, however, struggling at moments to guard against a real temptation: to hold him hostage to my own convictions about the repugnance of high-stakes tests and the uses to which their results are put. . .

One of my takeaways will be to be more careful offering facile advice to other friends, colleagues, and strangers about what they should do. This could just as well have gone either way, in other circumstances.

Well, then, wouldn’t you know it: this week begged the question of whether I could stick to my guns. After a series of my exchanges with a school official, a series of my son’s experiences at school, and a great deal of deep conversation at home, my son began to think that it was in his best interests to rescind the decision, and to show his support of the school by participating in the testing. Honestly, whatever this says about me, I found it incredibly difficult to prioritize my support of his independent decision-making over my adherence to my own beliefs. As a family, though, we are retracting our notice to excuse him from testing — simultaneously certain that this is the right decision for our son; deeply disappointed by that fact, but not at all by him; and immensely grateful for the scope and depth of careful and honest conversations we’ve had the opportunity to experience at home. I couldn’t be prouder of my son’s willingness to explore some complicated ethical questions, his ability to speak for his own beliefs despite his knowing that we might at some level disagree, or his faith in our family’s full support regardless of the outcome of his inquiry.

Honestly, though, while I’m crystal clear about my pride in my son, my brain is aching from my mixed thoughts and feelings about the issues themselves. So here’s a copy of another notice to the school, that fills in the blanks in a story that tells itself. I have obscured my son’s and the school officials’ names in order to protect their privacy. I offer this in the same spirit as the last post: in case this example is helpful to any other families who are considering these matters as well.

 


 

c h r i s   t h i n n e s

 

April 18, 2013

RE: UPDATE: CST ADMINSTRATION / XXXXXXX THINNES (9TH GRADE)

Dear XXXXXXX:

Less than one week ago, I submitted a letter (dated April 12) with a request, pursuant to Section 60615 of the California Education Code, to excuse our son, XXXXXXX Thinnes, from the school’s upcoming administration of the California Standards Test (CST). Since then, I have had a series of exchanges with a school official who has provided further information about the magnet program’s perspective on the relevance of CST testing to the magnet program, to its curricular autonomy, and to its budgetary sustainability. I have provided that information to my son, we have discussed it at great length, and he has changed his position. In supporting his decision-making about this matter, I am therefore writing to rescind our request to excuse him from testing, to ask that he be allowed to participate in testing, and to express my regret for any confusion or inconvenience this change of course will cause.

I asked XXXXXXX to explain some of his thoughts about the matter in his own words, as we are trying, as his parents, to follow his lead and to support his decision-making:

To Whom It May Concern:

A few weeks ago, I brought up with my parents my concerns about the upcoming CST testing and the issues that it raised for me: my disappointment that valuable time that could be spent learning in my magnet classes is spent instead by completing standardized tests that show nothing about my learning ability or potential, and the fact that these questions have practically nothing to do with what I am actually learning in three of my core classes.

After talking about it with my parents, I learned more information about the benefits of this testing through a flyer passed on to me by my father. After reading the claim that poor school-wide CST scores could result in the magnet’s loss of freedom to teach according to its unique interdisciplinary curriculum, I realized that no matter what my opinion on CST testing may be, I still support the magnet and value its curriculum. On principle, respecting the magnet and supporting it is more important to me than using the CST testing as an opportunity to express my discontent with the way the testing is organized and presented.

Therefore I’ve rethought my decision, and think the best option for me would be to take the CST tests. Perhaps researching on my own time the benefits and effects of CST testing might be a better way to express my concern that these standardized tests are not benefitting students and faculty to the fullest potential.

Sincerely,

XXXXXXX Thinnes

I stated in our letter dated April 12 that “it is not our intention to hold our child hostage to our beliefs… but to honor his voice in crucial decision-making about his learning as he becomes an adult.” And, thus, with a commitment to honoring that principle despite my grave reservations about the actual matter at hand, I ask that you honor this final decision of his in the light of the new information he has considered.

At the same time, I do feel it’s necessary — with my apology if this comes across as offensive or otherwise unnecessary, as my intent is simply to be honest with you as a professional educator, and a strong supporter and ally of the school and its exceptional programs — to share that I am deeply disappointed by the institutional pressure that has been exerted on the students. The school, through its rituals and communication, clearly conveys its expectation for students uncritically to accept and to service a more complex strategic goal than they are helped to understand, in the context of a program that in every other context fosters careful critical thought about matters that affect the students’ lives. I absolutely understand that the school is beholden to key provisions of state and federal policy, whatever our opinions of those policies might be — and that the high CST scores of magnet students in particular (and their impact on program-wide and school-wide API scores) are leveraged to protect the autonomy and sustainability of the XXXXXXX program. I do not, however, get the sense that the students are invited to explore the issues at hand, or supported in their efforts to deconstruct these issues on their own initiative, with the same nuance you entrust to responsible adults, or the same authenticity you regularly entrust to your students. Over time, our family has been most impressed by how the XXXXXXX program teaches students how to think; in this case, it seems the program is limiting itself to teaching students what to think.

To wit, I find it unsettling, at best, that at least one teacher offers extra credit points for attending CST prep sessions; that the school promotes a ‘CST Spirit Week’ with games and prizes; and that claims are made in school communication that imply the children should subscribe to the belief that high API scores offer the school a competitive advantage to other public schools. Surely a school that values deeper learning, intrinsic motivation, and internal and external collaboration should guard more carefully against such mixed messages. And I find it misleading, at best, to suggest to students that they somehow ‘owe’ the program tribute, or demonstrate their loyalty to it, by conforming with the school’s explanation and administration of the tests. Very respectfully, I think the fittest tribute to the exceptional education my son has received in XXXXXXX has been the critical questions he has asked in recent weeks about this testing, and about the school’s mixed messages. What makes me sad — and this, for all my longwindedness and soapboxing, is really the bottom line — is that my son feels that exercising this critical thought may have lessened your estimation of him and his support for the school. I don’t for a second think that this was anybody’s intent, which is precisely why I think it’s so important to share this with you.

I do hope that this concern he has a student, and this concern I share as his parent, is misguided. We owe the school our full support for all it has brought to our family, and we hope to continue to demonstrate that support in any way we can. Although we continue to believe that uncritical acceptance of high-stakes standardized testing, and the misguided pedagogical and political purposes to which their results are put, continue to undermine the school’s highest principles, for now we will find some other vehicle to demonstrate our beliefs than through our disobedience of your requests.

With warm regards and deep respect,

Chris Thinnes

cc: XXXXXXX, Magnet Coordinator
XXXXXXX, Counselor
 


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

 
  • http://twitter.com/ZoeWeil Zoe Weil

    I am incredibly impressed by your son. What a thoughtful young man he is.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks for that, Zoe. He is amazing. I find it remarkable that he has maintained his objection to the tests but his support for the school as best he can. He’s done a better job of reconciling the tensions between seemingly incompatible commitments than I, at least at this point, have managed between my own ears ;)

  • Lisa López

    The tower will crumble and transform us in unexpected ways! The key, our youth, your son. The seed is beginning to blossom, but has within it the wisdom of survival, and does not hang on to the urge of “control” (spirit v.s. reason). Do not be discouraged, I believe your family has won this battle; more importantly, no one has to be wounded or scarred for the “ammo” (date seeds) you fired, to begin growing in other people’s hearts and minds. Your son has not retracted, he has spiralled upward, which always means growth, transformation. :)

    • ChrisThinnes

      Wow — thank you LIsa. Right on. At least as grand a lesson for me as for him. Ever higher, every wider. I’m sure his process has helped others in his circle — friends, parents, teachers — to search as well.