A Maine lawmaker is proposing a bill that would require school districts to notify parents that they have the right to opt out of the state’s standardized tests, mirroring a broader movement in other states against mandated tests in schools.

“I’ve had this growing feeling as a parent and as a lawmaker that we are spending more and more time preparing our students for standardized testing, that there is less time for actual learning,” said Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.

Parents are already allowed to opt their children out of standardized tests, but Gideon’s bill, which does not have language yet, would require schools to notify parents of that right.

The anti-testing movement gained steam after the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal legislation, which mandated annual math and reading tests for students in third through eighth grades. Under the so-called high-stakes testing, schools with poor test results were penalized. Opposition increased, from small neighborhood parents groups using online petitions to big national organizations, including teacher unions.

“We now spend almost a third of our time in schools preparing students to take standardized tests, giving those tests, and reviewing the results of those tests,” the National Education Association wrote last year in an open letter. “We did not become educators to drill students in standardized test-taking.

“It is time to end this toxic testing,” the NEA wrote. “As educators who have dedicated our careers and lives to our students and their success, we will not stand silent while commercial standardized testing is used to reduce our public education system to wreckage.”

The anti-testing movement has intensified in recent years since most states adopted the Common Core standards. Those standards spell out exactly what students in each grade level are expected to know, such as the coordinate system in fifth-grade math, or studying U.S. historical texts like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in ninth-grade English.

Next month, Maine students will be taking a new state assessment test called the Smarter Balanced test, which is specifically written to align with the new Common Core state standards.

Stephanie Phillips, a parent in Old Town, said she has already opted out her two elementary school-age children because she didn’t want them taking the Smarter Balanced test, which she says hasn’t been empirically tested. She also noted that test scores are expected to drop across the board because of the more rigorous standards.

“I don’t want my children’s records tied to a test that hasn’t been proven,” said Phillips, who also sits on the board of RSU 34. “When (parents) realize how long and confusing (the tests) are, as they get more educated, I think opinions will change.”

Gideon said she created the bill after talking to teachers and parents about testing.

“Parents aren’t even aware they have the option, and teachers, when parents ask, aren’t sure whether (opting out) is an option,” Gideon said. “Parents have the right to opt their children out of a standardized test.”

The tests, and the materials used to teach Common Core, emphasize critical thinking skills as opposed to rote memorization. For example, instead of reciting multiplication tables, students must explain the process of how they arrived at a correct answer to a math question. Instead of a vocabulary test, they must explain what motivated an author to write a book a certain way.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, is a national nonprofit working to limit the use of standardized tests. Its website encourages people to call for a moratorium on Common Core tests, suggesting schools be evaluated using limited tests, school reviews and samples of student work.

“It’s time to step back and reconsider what kinds of assessments will help our students and teachers succeed in school and life,” the site reads.

Advocates for opting out say that instead of a standardized test, students’ progress could be measured in other ways, such as a review of their work over the year.

Although officials acknowledge that parents have the right to opt out, the No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students each year, so if too many opt out, the school could be considered a failing school even if test scores are high.

Many anti-testing advocates say “teaching to the test” takes time away from traditional lessons and learning, and some say they don’t want their children taking an online test that could be used for data collection and later given to third parties. State education officials have long emphasized that the online test data are disassociated with a particular student’s identifying information before being sent to federal education officials.

Julie McDonald-Smith of North Yarmouth said she didn’t have any trouble opting her three children out of the test, and she wishes Gideon’s bill went further.

“If it were up to me, parents would have to opt their kids in to these assessments,” said McDonald-Smith, who writes a conservative column for The Forecaster and is married to a member of the Maine Charter School Commission.

“It’s all so new, people don’t know what to do. Part of the problem is that no one really knows how to tell parents to opt out,” she said.

Opposition to the Common Core standards has come largely from small-government advocates and tea party groups who say the standards are an example of federal government overreach. The Republican National Committee has opposed the standards, and last year nine Republican U.S. senators signed a letter seeking to defund all Common Core-related initiatives at the federal Department of Education.

“I think this is an issue that has been in the making for years and people have been feeling a little helpless,” Gideon said of the larger anti-testing movement.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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