DETROIT, MICH. - Hundreds of Detroit parents are taking a powerful stance against the state testing they say is too often being used to punish their children's schools — a decision that could have ramifications for schools that have too few kids tested.
About 450 parents have turned in letters to their children's schools saying they want to opt their kids out of taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Performance, according to the Detroit Parent Network, which is spearheading the opt-out effort in the city.
Testing for the annual exam begins Monday and continues through late May, with the first group to be tested in grades 5, 8 and 11. Schools must have 95% of their students tested or they could face sanctions from the state.
What has parents upset? Results of the exam — which assesses the standards in the state that spell out what students need to know to be on track for college and careers — are used to identify schools for improvement. In January, the state School Reform Office identified 38 such schools for potential closure because they've ranked in the bottom 5% in each of the past three years, based largely on M-STEP results.
A majority of those schools — 25 of them — are in Detroit.
The opt-out effort, "is really about parents actualizing the power that they have," said Sharlonda Buckman, executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, which has provided parents with opt-out form letters to send to their schools. "We don't control a whole lot, but we do get to direct the educational experiences of our children."
And the state exam, she said, only serves to show the disparities that exist between low-income and higher-income communities. Students who grow up in poverty tend to perform worse on standardized exams than more well-off students.
"It’s about pushing back on punishing poverty," Buckman said.
The Detroit district is taking a neutral stance on the opt-out effort, said Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district.
"Whenever a student doesn't take one of our standardized assessments, it does negatively impact on our school's accountability," said Nekeya Irby, senior executive director in the district's office of curriculum, instruction, and accountability.
It's a new issue for the district, and Irby said she couldn't recall the district ever having to deal with large numbers of opt-outs.
"We're continuing with our test preparation," Irby said Friday. "Those efforts have not slowed at all. We're just continuing to stay the course."
LaTonya Peterson, a parent of two children attending Marcus Garvey Academy, last month turned in her opt-out letter to her children's school.
"There's no real benefit," to taking the state exams, Peterson said. "My kids are so much more than data. They're using our kids as a tool to close these schools."
The parent organization, where Peterson volunteers, contends a provision in the state's law governing schools backs up parents and their ability to opt their children out of state exams.
It reads, in part, that, "It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching and education of their children."
Legislation introduced earlier this year would give parents the right to opt their children out of any tests — whether it's the state exam or a spelling test given by a teacher.
But state officials have insisted for several years now — since a wave of opt-out efforts took hold nationwide — that parents can't opt their children out of state exams.
"There's no official way for anyone to do that," State Superintendent Brian Whiston said during a meeting in Detroit March 30 that was held to help the Detroit district come up with a turnaround plan to avoid the shuttering of schools on the potential closure list.
It's something he noted in a letter to parents that was distributed to school districts earlier in the month.
"State tests allow us to measure student progress in learning Michigan's high academic standards and assess how well schools are teaching these standards in classrooms across the state," Whiston said in the letter. "Students who are not assessed will count against their schools' participation rate, leaving schools open to penalties."
The type of penalties is unclear now, given officials at the state level are considering changes to the way schools are identified for improvement and how they are held accountable.
The threat of penalties isn't enough to convince parents like Shoniqua Kemp, whose daughter attends Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. Her daughter, a sophomore, won't sit for the high school portion of the state exam until she's a junior. That test includes the SAT and Michigan-developed tests in science and social studies.
She's already sent in her opt-out letter. And while she doesn't have a problem with her daughter taking the SAT — an exam that will help her get into college — Kemp is opposed to her taking the other parts of the exam because she believes they won't benefit her.
Kemp said she doesn't want her daughter — who she says gets mostly straight A's in school — to take an exam "that is going to partially be used to help to close her school and that will call her a failure. She's never been a failure."
Buckman said parents trying to opt their kids out of the M-STEP exam have gotten mixed responses from principals.
"We have some parents who are being threatened or discouraged from opting their children out," Buckman said.
As for what opt-out students will do during the exam, that likely will differ from school to school.
"The schools still have a responsibility to provide a constructive, academic experience for their kids on that day. That's one of the things the letter lays out. We're very clear and specific," Buckman said.
The district as of Friday afternoon was still working to determine how it would address the opt-outs, particularly what students will be doing when their peers are taking the test.
"We're working through these details," Wilson said Friday.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins
© 2017 Detroit Free Press