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Parents protest against standardized testing by opting kids out

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DENVER -- Spring is state testing time for schools and students in Colorado and across the country, but there are some parents who are refusing to let their kids participate. They're part of a movement that began in Colorado and has grown nationwide.

This weekend, United Opt Out National, which started in Colorado four years ago, is holding a national conference in Denver. The goal is to help educate parents on how to protest high-stakes testing tied to school accountability and student progress.

For some families, opting-out is nothing new. Grace and Sophie Engel admit they don’t know much about taking state tests.

"The other kids are always making comments, 'How come you don't have to take TCAP?'" said Grace Engel, a junior at Arapahoe High School.

The girls’ mother, Angela Engel, has the answer.

"I've opted them out of testing from the beginning," Angela Engel said.

In 1997, Angela Engel helped administer the state test known as the Colorado Student Assessment Program, CSAP, while she was an elementary teacher in Douglas County.

"I was really on board,” Angela Engel said. “And then I got the test."

After growing frustrated with the format of the CSAP, Angela decided to opt her daughters out a few years later when the legislature tied test performance to school accountability.

"The emphasis is not around nurturing the relationships between teachers and students and teachers and parents,” Engel said. “It's around getting the score."

For schools in Colorado, there is no opting out. The score is the law.

"The schools and districts have the obligation to try and test their kids if the student is in attendance on a testing day,” said Joyce Zurkowski, Executive Director of Assessment for the Colorado Department of Education.

Despite the state law, Zurkowski admits that schools sometimes need to find better ways to accommodate parents who refuse testing.

"I think, perhaps there have been some missteps,” Zurkowski said.

A recent incident at DPS Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences is just the latest example of one of the missteps.

Susan Johnson, who kept her daughter home during testing, captured cell phone video of a confrontation with school administrators after discovering that they had refused to allow her daughter to rejoin her class even after testing was complete.

The Non-profit education website Chalkbeat Colorado first reported the details of the confrontation.

DPS later issued an apology and guidance to all schools that said, in part, “Students refusing to participate in testing should still be allowed access to all other non-assessment activities.”

"You do not close your doors on kids, that's not an option,” Zurkowski said. “Schools and districts cannot exclude kids from coming into their buildings to receive their education."

According to CDE, opt-outs are still rare -- representing roughly one percent of all students. However, Zurkowski admits that the numbers may increase this year as the state ushers in new trials for a test that aligns more closely with the Common Core next year.

"There is definitely a bit of a surge in parents expressing concern," Zurkowski said.

Many of those parents in Colorado and across the country have turned to United Opt Out National.  Though the website started locally, it now offers guides for opting out in each state.

Engel said supporters include both progressives and conservatives who share a dislike for the increased emphasis on high-stakes testing and national standards like the common core.

"This is really the moment for parents to say, not with my child, not with my tax dollars you don't," Engel said.

According to the CDE the opt-out movement could lead to penalties for school if participation falls below 95 percent. Zurkowski says parents also need to consider what the tests offer families.

"It's what allows you to get outside of your one individual school, and be able to answer the question, 'How is my son or daughter doing compared to other kids across the entire state,'" Zurkowski said.

This year 16-year-old Grace Engel did have a chance to compare herself with her peers for the first time. She took the PSAT in preparation for college.

"I was kind of nervous," Grace Engel said.

It turns out she had nothing to worry about. She scored in the 92nd percentile and she now has a stack of letters from colleges across the country.

"I think it just shows that a non-traditional approach is also very effective in terms of getting into colleges and being successful," Engel said.

For more on this weekend's opt-out conference, follow continuing coverage at



  • Nina Seifert Bishop

    Booyah!!! Way to go Angela, Grace and Sophie! Other Colorado parents should follow suit and OPT OUT OF THE STATE TEST! We refuse them too. It’s a massive waste of a child’s learning time, waste of mind and money! It’s become a money maker for profiteers disguised as an evaluation. What a joke. Parents need to get involved and put a stop to this massive waste.

  • Aimie Randall (@JennyLedge)

    Fast45 – Are you suggesting that these children have been failed by public schools and can’t compete? Are you suggesting that Colorado parents, many of whom are educated professionals, cannot manage their children’s education so they choose instead to disrupt their entire lives to avoid poor performance scores? Do you oversimplify every argument to meet your ends? The educational merit of these standardized tests is completely unproven. The ultimate goal is unclear. There are tremendous costs to school districts in time, money, and resources. The long-term implications are dire as all students test differently but teacher performance is attached to them. This is yet another bad idea and it encroaches on families. It is time SOMEONE has the courage to stand up and demand real solutions in place of corporate band-aids and government antiseptic.

    • Fast45

      Ummm … Yes, yes, and maybe. The kids can’t compete … or maybe these “educated” parents aren’t so bright. It’s not a utopian world. Either compete, or be left by the side of the road.

      Is THAT simple enough for you?

      • Jesus David Saldana

        I’d rather be left on the side of the road and find my own success, cause these tests really don’t help you do anything except memorize dates and write what they tell you to write about. I suppose that is simple, but even when I passed our standardized tests, they were just stupid questions. So far, I’ve never applied that information anywhere other than those tests.

  • Ann Pirie

    My experiences with standardized testing are gross. I end up in the lower percentile and yet ace my classes. I did so poorly on my chemistry standardized test going into college that I had to apply to take Chemistry 101. I got eight semester credit hours of A. What did they tell my parents. Nothing. What did they do to me, scared the hey out of me.

  • Star Yeo

    Standardized testing does not measure the true educational growth of people. I never tested well but I learned and have grown and have an MBA! All standardized testing does is make our educators teach everyone to think the same way. As a parent I have always disagreed with measuring the students with the teachers/school teaching habits. In life there is more to knowledge and use than what is on the test.

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