As severe thunderstorms passed through Houston Wednesday, about a dozen kids were huddled in the sanctuary of Kindred Church in Montrose, learning the major food groups. Some squealed as the lights flickered. Others told their moms to get away from the windows. Most were busy coming up with acrostic poems or drawings that showed how dairy comes from cows or eggs from chickens.
It was day two of the "Opt Out Academy," an alternative day of learning for all the kids whose parents decided to opt them out of the standardized STAAR test week. For the past couple of years, pulling their kids from the testing has been parents' way of boycotting the controversial tests, which they say have stifled critical thinking and creativity in the classrooms and have pressured teachers into restricting their curriculum to focus on passing the tests. So instead, the parents take their kids here.
"[The STAAR test] kills creativity, and it kills innovation from the teachers in the classrooms," said Marnna Marsh, whose son is a fourth grader at Houston ISD's Wharton Dual Language Academy. "It undermines teaching, and I don't think it's a successful pedagogy. It's not something that is going to accomplish the things that we want to see in our children day to day. We want them to have independent thought, and we want them to think outside of the box. We don't want them to think, is it A, B or C?"
The tests have largely been criticized for their high-stakes nature, preventing kids from moving on to middle or high school, or even from graduating altogether, if they fail the reading and math tests in fifth and eighth grade, or don't pass at least five in high school. This is problematic given that, according to preliminary data from the Texas Education Agency released April 29, nearly half of all fifth and eighth graders did not pass their reading and math tests, respectively. In January, even a poet whose work appeared on the reading portion of the STAAR test wrote a widely circulated column admitting she couldn't even answer the test questions about her own writing, as the test makers often assumed intentions that weren't there.
"These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions," she wrote.
In Texas, both teachers and schools are "graded" on an A-F scale according to how well the kids do on the exams. Houston ISD, for example, gets a C for student achievement and a B for student progress, both categories primarily based on STAAR scores. That kind of pressure, said Karina Quesada-Leon, a former teacher who brought her son to the Opt Out Academy, leads to what she called "drill-and-kill"-style learning.
Quesada-Leon taught third grade at Pasadena ISD up until 2010, a couple of years before the STAAR tests came to be — but said the style of teaching has not strayed from its focus on the standardized tests. "It's only gotten worse," she said.
To prepare the kids for standardized testing, Quesada-Leon said, teachers were supposed to place the most emphasis on the subjects that would be on the test that year, causing subjects like social studies and science to fall to the wayside. When springtime rolled around, every week, Quesada-Leon would separate the desks and hand out old standardized tests so the kids could practice over and over. The pressure on teachers wasn't as bad as it is now, she said — but administrators expected a certain percentage of Quesada-Leon's students to attain "high academic achievement" on the tests, increasing that percentage every year.
"It was this huge pressure from the district, and that pressure trickles down to the students," she said. "By the time I left in 2010, I had 22 students. Twenty were commended on the test. But they didn't get a well-rounded education."
Deyadira Arellano said she has seen too much emphasis placed on online tutorials, increasing the amount of time her son is spending on the computer instead of with teachers or classmates. And Alicia Verdier, organizer of the Opt Out Academy, said the essay writing she has seen from many high school students looks more like the work of fifth graders, leading her to fear that critical thinking skills are dwindling.
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Quesada-Leon saw it firsthand in the classroom. When she tried to introduce more activities applicable to real-world experiences, she said she often had to teach perplexed students how to think through the exercises.
"When I did away from the drill-and-kill and brought in real-world-applicable lessons," she said, "the students struggled so much. And they knew how to multiply. They knew how to do the arithmetic. They knew how to do it all — but they were very unsure of themselves. They couldn't translate because they were just always doing multiple choice. It's a different type of thinking. The critical thinking skills weren't there."
Houston ISD was unable to provide the number of students who opted out of STAAR testing in the district late in the afternoon Wednesday (we will update the story if the district does). If the rigid style of classroom learning and testing continues, Quesada-Leon said, then there's no telling how many more kids will be sitting inside the Kindred Church sanctuary and many other alternative learning locations across the region and state next year.
"[My son] didn't want to come at first, to be honest. But he came home so happy," Quesada-Leon said. "He's like, they did science, they baked, they did math lessons and went to the park and played. He says he's gonna tell all his classmates about the opt-out academy."