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Opting Out 

Some parents decided to fight against standardized testing this AIMS season (and maybe bring the revolution to the Old Pueblo)

South Tucson's Ochoa Elementary community has faced the threat of school closure twice in the span of six years, as well as a cut in funding and 50 percent of its staff this year compared to last, which is why Cesar Aguirre's daughters opt out from all standardized tests, not just the state-required AIMS.

The activist and Ochoa father says they do this because it's a moral issue, not just about education.

"To me the tests are morally wrong, not just the undue stress and anxiety it causes our children, but schools effected most by testing in Arizona are often schools in impoverished neighborhoods and the test scores are often a tool used to close those schools or get rid of their principals," he says. Those schools, like Ochoa, also happen to be "the hearts of a community."

In previous years, Aguirre never had difficultly working with his daughters' school to opt out. Last year, he wrote a letter several months prior to the principal and the Tucson Unified School District administration that his oldest daughter would opt out of AIMS. No problem. The principal had the student remain in her classroom doing learning activities, while other students took the multi-day test.

However, this year parents wanting their students to opt out were told there was no option, that the district's hands are tied by the state Department of Education requiring that all districts in Arizona force students to take the test—95 percent at each school. The only choice given was for parents to pull their students out during the testing period—which covers three-weeks. If a student is out of school for 10 days, the student is automatically withdrawn, forcing the family to reenroll.

"Last year they accommodated us, which is why I was surprised I had to pick up my daughter on Monday morning and take her home and the only option given to me was to keep her home during testing," Aguirre says.

But after talking to other Tucson parents interested in opting out, Aguirre realized there was a way to keep his daughter in school and opt out, but it required his daughter to become an active participant. He returned his daughter to school the end of the week. She was taken to the testing room and given the test packet. She refused to take the test, but only after she wrote "I am not a test score," for her name, and "Square Peg," for her grade on the packet envelope. She was taken back to her classroom.

Why did TUSD change how it worked with families who chose to opt out? While the Weekly is waiting to hear back from a district rep, as well as get figures on how many students opted out this year, we did receive a letter sent to all TUSD families from Superintendent HT Sanchez dated April 11 that states the district is legally obligated to administer the test, based on a 1997 state Attorney General opinion.

In 1997, then-AG Grant Woods did issue a formal opinion at the request of a state legislator, with the opinion concluding that allowing parents to withdraw would manipulate the testing system, invalidating the scores and "thereby defeating the purpose of the legislative assessment and reporting mandates."

Problem is, since 1997, a few grumbling parents in those early years has grown into a burgeoning movement of not just parents, but educators too—schools in Chicago and New York in particular have led this "opt out" movement and those who talked to the Weekly seem hopeful that something is just starting to take root in Tucson.

Besides using the AG opinion as an excuse to not allow students to opt out of AIMS, the state has point out state law ARS 15-741: "The state board of education shall adopt and implement an Arizona instrument to measure standards test to measure pupil achievement of the state board-adopted academic standards in reading, writing and mathematics in at least four grades designated by the board. The board shall determine the manner of implementation."

But here's something that's part of the state's laws that those who support opt out think supports their rights—ARS 15-102: "Procedures by which parents who object to any learning materials or activity on the basis that it is harmful may withdraw their children from the activity or from the class or program in which the materials is used. Objection to a learning materials or activity on the basis that it is harmful includes objection to a material or activity because it questions beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religions."

On Voices of Education founder and executive director Robin Hiller's KVOI radio show State of Education on Saturday, April 12, Aguirre and other parents talked with Hiller about opting out and how the state is doing everything it can to "discourage parents from even thinking they can opt out."

"But we have a right to protect our children," Aguirre said on the show, pointing out to one caller that his daughter is bright and that the district has asked him to allow her to take the standardized tests to help the school's score go up. But no—in the shadow of closures, cuts and how the scores have manipulated schools with large populations of minority students, impoverished students and neighborhoods, "no," he said.

Borton Magnet School parent Selena Zimmerman, like Aguirre had opted her son out of other standardized testing and with other Borton parents and friends in TUSD, wanted to opt out of AIMS. She and other parents met with Teri Melendez, a TUSD interim assistant superintendent, who made it clear AIMS was not an option and was too important. "She told us they needed to have 95 percent of students (from each school) take the test or the district would be penalized by the state," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman ended up not opting out because her son is at Borton under open enrollment, and she was worried that if he was dropped she may not be able to reenroll him. It was too great a risk, but she remains unhappy with how the district communicated with her and other parents, who began talks with them in January, yet the district didn't get back to them until the week before AIMS. She's still waiting for them to get back to her with a written policy.

"I've been told, 'Our policy is the same as the state's policy,' but I feel like if this is a policy, shouldn't it have been reviewed by the board and agreed upon ... I'm kind of hung up on wanting to see a policy from TUSD," Zimmerman says.

"But look I want to make sure it's understood: We love Borton. The interim principal is a great lady and she's doing a great job. ... We support our public schools, but why does everyone have to live in this climate of fear where everyone has to do what they are told, even TUSD."

Kelli Gray, has three children at Mary Belle McCorkle PreK-8 School and the two eligible for AIMS are both English Language Learners with one receiving special education services and anxious about testing. First, the state of Arizona hasn't done right by ELL students, but in the realm of AIMS, for ELL students AIMS becomes a language test and not a test about what they actually know. "I have my issues around the test in general. I was opting out (one of) my sons because of the pressure it was putting on him," she says, but still the school, after weeks of talking to the administration, had him take the test.

Gray is no ordinary parent, but a doctoral candidate at the UA with a master's in education and bilingual literacy who moved to Arizona from Maryland where students like her children were read passages of standardized tests and even given scribes, but that's not provided in Arizona.

"There has to come a point where we begin with what's right for children and stand together for our children. They talk about their hands being tied," she says, so she plans to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in Denver.

"I think there needs to be a lot more publicity and talking to parents. I think the excuses I've heard are a copout," Gray says. "There are ways to subversively do things and I think they could do that. They may not be able to speak out, so now we have to rally the parents."

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