GOOD ENOUGH PARENT
Should I Let My Anxious Kid Opt Out Of Standardized Tests?
All parents find themselves faced with some flavor of your dilemma at some point in time. Essentially it boils down to, “Do I make my kid do the thing?”
The Good Enough Parent is an advice column for parents who are sick of parenting advice. Romper writer and educational psychologist Sarah Wheeler answers your questions about parenting with humor and humility — and without the guilt trips.
My kid has standardized tests this month at school and just like last year, she's spiraling with anxiety about not doing well. We’re not worried about how she will do (like, at all) but I don't know how many different ways I can tell her this! A friend suggested having her opt out, but that feels extreme. Plus like, isn’t getting through this one of those life lesson things people are always talking about? Or am I being ridiculous? Help!
This is a tricky one! All parents find themselves faced with some flavor of your dilemma at some point in time. Essentially it boils down to, “Do I make my kid do the thing?”
On the one hand, we have haunting visions of our child complaining to their adult therapist that they’re screwed up because their parents forced them to do things that made them anxious. On the other hand, we imagine our child, coddled by our overprotectiveness, complaining to their adult therapist that their parents never made them do hard things, and that’s why they’re so screwed up.
We come by these fears honestly. Some of us have “been there, done that” with our own families of origin, where there was little room for anxiety as an excuse not to do something, and where we perhaps learned some tough lessons we wished we hadn’t. Others might remember our own parents’ sternness with a bit of pain, but also believe that it ultimately made us stronger.
I think you can see what I’m getting at here. Parenting is hard. And as my daughter recently pointed out, being a kid is hard too. Personally, I think everyone needs therapy to process their childhoods, no exceptions. You’re not going to avoid that by acing this testing conundrum.
As parents, we make choices that attempt to honor the child we see now, not to placate every possible version of who our child could turn out to be.
But let’s walk through your decision-making for a moment. Can you opt out? You bet your ass you can! Why don’t schools advertise this? Oh, so many reasons — appearing to encourage opting out (especially for certain groups of students, like disabled ones) is not a great look, for one. Plus good testers opting out could lower a school's scores. And schools get dinged if they don’t meet certain percentages of students taking the tests.
And yet, in my son’s school this week, I have seen many-an-exempt kiddo chilling in the library while their classmates grinded away. Why? For religious reasons or political ones, or because, as one third-grader told me, “last year it was too hard for me.” Maybe for some, it's the very reason you’re considering: it’s just too stressful.
Next, I’d think about who my specific child is and what their history of test-taking and anxiety looks like. If a child had never done this before, and didn’t already have crippling panic, I might take this as an opportunity to practice some coping skills. If they puked every day of last year’s testing, I might say, “You know what, we’re gonna sit this one out.” As parents, we make choices that attempt to honor the child we see now, not to placate every possible version of who our child could turn out to be (which, let's be honest, has a lot more to do with our own projections than not). Even out here in woo-woo California, we don’t have a crystal ball.
Hannah Galvin, a fourth-grade teacher in Oakland, recently told me that if all her kids opted out, she’d be delighted. For teachers like Hannah, who spend all year building their students up (particularly in schools like hers that primarily serve students from low-income backgrounds), testing is a real bummer. But Hannah does something I would hope your child’s teacher is also doing: she tries to minimize anxiety, maximize confidence, and put it all in context for her students.
She tells her class they can bring in anything to help them feel brave that can fit in their backpacks (one kid managed to smuggle in a 4-foot-long stuffed snake, which he wrapped around his neck before testing each morning). She reminds them that they do know how to do a lot, and that when they come to something they don’t know, she doesn’t want them to “waste any worries” on it.
One other thing that I find helpful is to try and unhook my choices from my kid’s anxiety. Melinda Wenner Moyer, author of How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, put it this way in her newsletter recently: “Look, I want my kids to be happy. But when we frame our kids’ happiness as (a) parenting goal, we may rob them of opportunities to experience things they greatly benefit from.” Hannah also pointed out to me that, for better or worse, kids need to know how to take standardized tests.
So, Reader, what about you? Do you have the stamina to get up every morning with an anxious child right now? The curiosity to see what happens if you try and rally her? Is there another parent sharing this load, or will it all fall on you? These things matter!
Perhaps you and your daughter are picking up on something else, though — that this whole testing thing is, well, a bunch of baloney. You can assure your daughter that her individual scores will have about as much of an impact on her future as the outcome of a schoolyard game of M.A.S.H., but testing does have consequences for schools and their communities (see this fascinating piece on how GreatSchools ratings, based primarily on testing data, have increased neighborhood segregation).
I think some of the best parenting advice I have ever received encouraged me to look beyond my household and into the larger world, which also needs me.
I asked Jack Schneider, a professor, educator, author, and podcast host who is basically the Beyoncé of educational accountability, to elaborate.
“It’s important to remember that opting out won’t address the underlying issues,” Schneider explains. “The narrowing of the curriculum, the time spent on test-prep, the unfair ratings of schools that indicate more about out-of-school opportunity gaps than about in-school experiences — all of those things will continue.”
“There are ways to assess student learning without all of the negative consequences of high-stakes testing. We could remove the stakes, for instance. We could create higher-quality assessments that are the product of high-quality curriculum, rather than machine-scored multiple-choice tests developed by external third parties. We could advocate for a system in which lower-performing schools are the target of capacity-building efforts rather than stigmas and sanctions. But all of that requires collective action and engagement, and none of it will happen simply as a result of opting out.” In other words, opting your child out won’t help other children, but working to change the larger system could.
You might be frustrated with such a suggestion. You just came here to solve one eensy-weensy problem, and here I am throwing the whole damn book at you! And yet, I think some of the best parenting advice I have ever received encouraged me to look beyond my household and into the larger world, which also needs me. This puts the minutiae of parenting my own children, which can be so consuming, into relief.
So, whatever individual choice you make for your kiddo, do keep the greater good in mind. But also, don’t kill yourself. And remember that in parenting, as in testing, if you don’t know the right answer, just take your best guess.
Let Sarah answer your questions about the messy realities of parenting! Send her your questions via this anonymous form or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.