PORTLAND, Maine — At the time, Julie Fitzgerald didn’t know much about standardized testing or the laws in place that promote it. She just saw her young child crying.

“He was trying to do his math homework, which is a subject he usually enjoyed,” she recalled. “He was really struggling, and he put his head down on the counter and started to cry. He said, ‘I’m stupid.’”

Fitzgerald learned that her son, then in the second grade, had taken an assessment test that day in school and had become overwhelmed by it. A year later, she has informed Portland school officials in writing that she’s opting both of her kids, students at Hall Elementary School, out of standardized testing.

She’s one of few parents in Portland to take that step, but represents a local tie to a growing nationwide movement of parents dissatisfied with assessment tests mandated by state and federal education laws.

“[The testing] caused him to not trust the way his mind was working. It caused him to think he was dumb,” Fitzgerald said. “That was all we needed to know, that it was not something we wanted our son to be doing in the second grade. It didn’t seem to forward his education or the educational goals of the school as we understood them.”

She said that her move to opt her kids out of the tests — the New England Common Assessment Program tests are being administered this month at Hall Elementary School — has caught the attention of other parents who simply didn’t know that was an option.

“For parents, usually their response is, ‘Really? How did you do that?’” Fitzgerald told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “People are surprised to learn they could make that choice. I can’t say there’s an actual movement going on in the Hall School, but there are discussions. This is a subject parents are talking about at pickup time when we’re waiting for our kids.”

Kelly Hasson, principal of the Hall School, said just two families at the school have opted their children out of the NECAP tests — which are given to students in the third, fourth and fifth grades — and Portland Public Schools Superintendent James Morse said it’s not a trend he’s seeing districtwide.

“We haven’t really seen this before,” Hasson said. “Some other parents, I think, were considering [opting out] and then ultimately decided to go forward with [the testing]. But I think there’s a philosophical concern out there that the testing takes too large a chunk out of instructional time. For parents who are philosophically opposed to that, we respect their right to be able to make those decisions for their children. It seems to be nationwide that there’s a big, big emphasis on standardized testing, and the stakes are pretty high.”

According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, all public schools are required to administer standardized tests and reach certain annual scoring benchmarks on those tests — called adequate yearly progress — under the threat of government discipline in the form of eventual subsidy restrictions or mandated staffing changes.

One of those benchmarks is for student participation in the testing, and Hasson acknowledged that too many parental opt-outs could threaten a school’s ability to reach the federal standards.

“We have to reach 95 percent participation rate [to be considered to be making adequate yearly progress], so if we had 6 percent of our students who did not take the test, we wouldn’t meet that rate,” Hasson said.

Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin also noted the danger too many opt-outs present for schools in terms of complying with federal laws, but said school officials cannot compel parents to put their kids in the testing rooms.

“Every year we get a small number of folks who decide to [opt out], and we move on,” he said. “We can’t force students to take standardized tests. There’s no real ‘opt out’ provision in the law, but there’s also nothing that forces students to take the tests. Just like if there’s a parent that doesn’t want their child dissecting a frog in science class, we can’t force them to, or if there’s a parent that doesn’t want their child going on a particular field trip, we can’t force them to.”

Connerty-Marin also said the absence of students from the testing pool can skew the data collected from those tests, which can be valuable for school districts developing curricula.

“It means that [accurate] information isn’t available for the parents or teachers,” he said. “All of the testing that’s done is useful for teachers in assessing the needs of the individual students and valuable in working with them. It’s also valuable for the schools to assess teaching methods and for them to work to improve.”

President Barack Obama last month announced plans to relax the federal law’s requirements, but Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said the president’s plans do not include relief from standardized tests.

The president’s proposed waivers “do nothing to reduce the overkill of testing in this country that was brought on by No Child Left Behind,” Schaeffer said Wednesday.

“I think what lots of parents are looking for is to be able to give their kids the type of education that Barack and Michelle Obama bought for their kids, which is a private school education not subject to the testing required by No Child Left Behind,” he said. “We’ve heard parents talk about the damage to their [child’s] self esteem and the damage to their academic progress, both by receiving a test score and being in a classroom where testing is the curriculum.”

Schaeffer said that opt-out cases such as Fitzgerald’s are becoming more and more common as parents learn their rights and go public with their complaints.

“There has been, just this year, a resurgence in interest in opting out of tests,” he said. “Earlier this decade, we saw small movements [in certain places], but this year, as frustration has grown with the damage that NCLB and state testing requirements have done, more and more parents have looked into opting out, and more have taken advantage of it.”

Fitzgerald said she’s “not against assessments or standards, but I’m not a fan of the assessment process that we’ve personally experienced so far, and I think the teachers know best about their progress.”

“Why are we spending so much money on tests, when we don’t actually have enough money to help kids learn to read?” she said. “A lot of learning time is lost getting tests. I would like my children to be spending more time learning from their teachers and less time being tested.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.