Opting Out of High-Stakes Testing: Our Family's Decision

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Reflections on our decision to opt out, and a copy of our notice to the school.

Chris Thinnes


With the onset of the high-stakes testing season in many public school districts, comes the onslaught of conflicting emotions and ideas, at home and at school, about the meaning and the consequence of a decision to opt out. A difficult decision faces many of us at home, as parents or guardians, which I only now feel eligible to address because we’ve lived it in my house this past week. I have thought a lot about this in the past, and voiced many strong opinions about it — but, like anything else, experiencing this is another matter entirely.

I may tell the whole story of our family’s conversations in a future post. For now, though, I want to emphasize what I found to be the hardest part for me. 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. Somewhere amidst my sense of obligations to protect my son, to honor his teachers, and to abide by a set of principles, I somehow found myself less certain still than him whether this was the right thing to do. I mention this to say that 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.

Any family’s decision depends on many factors, including but not limited to the specific provisions of their state’s policies, the position and practices of their children’s school, and the possible consequences (for the child, and for the school) of the decision to opt out. For example, our son is enrolled in an extraordinary humanities magnet program in LAUSD, whose teachers and programs we support wholeheartedly. One of our anxieties was that a decision to opt out of testing would be misunderstood as unsupportive or subversive of their efforts, or have a negative consequence for the school’s funding or our son’s opportunities at school — when we actually see the decision to opt out as defending the school’s commitments, and its teachers’ interests, in the long run.

In any case, I am providing a copy of our letter to our son’s school leaders as a sample, for anybody who is considering this decision and might find it helpful, one way or the other, to their decision-making process. Through it, you’ll get a sense of the spirit of our decision to opt out, and the process that led to that decision. I have obscured the names of my son and school officials, in order to protect their privacy in this semi-public space.



c h r i s   t h i n n e s


April 12, 2013



Please accept this request to excuse our son, XXXXXXX, from the school’s upcoming administration of the California Standards Test (CST). Pursuant to Section 60615 of the California Education Code, we understand that last sentence to be necessary and sufficient notice — but we wish, in the interests of full transparency and respectful engagement, to comment on our family’s reasoning which we hope will not be misunderstood as implying anything less than our full and enthusiastic support of the school, its employees, and its educational program.

As educators, my wife and I bring strong opinions about the merits of high-stakes standardized testing to this matter, many of which I believe you share. I mention this not to justify this request, but to admit our personal biases about the design of the tests, our repudiation of the uses to which their results are put, and our assertion of the tests’ incompatibility with authentic learning. We are convinced that the tests offer invalid measures of the proficiencies they purport to assess, provide no assessment of the proficiencies effective teaching and learning is meant to support, take no account of the impact of socioeconomic privilege or poverty on results, are not used meaningfully to inform teaching or learning, and should not be used to inform the ranking of schools or, above all, the evaluation of teachers.

It is not our intention to hold our child hostage to our beliefs, however, but to honor his voice in crucial decision-making about his learning as he becomes an adult. To that end, we wish to emphasize that this decision emerged from conversations initiated by our son, in which he indicated that he did not believe the tests were related to his learning, that he would prefer to spend the time learning with his classmates and teachers, and that he believed the tests to be irrelevant to his growth or his progress in school. Our dilemma, as parents, is that we do not believe there is any available evidence to suggest he is wrong about any of those claims. To disagree with our son — in this case, we believe — would be to lie to him.

That said, we made it clear to XXXXXXX that our expectation was that he would use this time at school, otherwise assigned to the administration of this testing, to pursue an inquiry of his own design: in other words, if his argument was that the tests were incompatible with learning, then he should propose a substitute activity that would be compatible. To that end, XXXXXXX has indicated that he would like to do further research on the CST and standardized testing, and to report back on his findings in a format to be determined. We would deeply appreciate your willingness to accommodate his quiet, concentrated, and non-disruptive work in the library or other appropriate facility, provided this request doesn’t impose on your staff members or their obligations.

We have discussed as a family, and agree, that we have no intention to be subversive or otherwise unsupportive of the school or its constituents; however, we also have no available evidence that this request will have any harmful impact. More to the point, we are united in our deep support of XXXXXXX High School, grateful for the astonishingly effective support XXXXXXX has received from teachers and staff, and inspired by the active engagement and critical thought XXXXXXX’s program has catalyzed in our son’s mind and heart.

We do not hold the school, the program, or any personnel responsible for this testing program about which we have such strong feelings and opinions. We understand the problems derive from the district, state, and federal policy that currently requires such testing to be administered, without regard — in our opinion, at least — to its dissonance with the goals of the school and its constituents.

With warm regards and deep respect,

Chris Thinnes

cc: XXXXXXX, Counselor

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  • I am deeply moved by the care, thoughtfulness, support, and conviction that went into your son (and your) decision and this letter. I would love to know how the school responded.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks so much, Zoe, for your support!

      How much more complex a process, and how much more rewarding an opportunity, than I could have imagined. And (yet?) things have become more complicated still. Hoping to post again soon on the emerging issues…