Editor’s note: This story mentions self-harm.
“We just put this kid in the Super Bowl, and she’s never heard of football.”
That’s how Amanda Thorpe’s fifth-grade homeroom teacher described her behavior to her mother, Diane Thorpe.
Amanda, now 18 and a graduate of Azle High School, said her mental health severely declined when she transferred into a public school and had to start taking the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness — the STAAR test. Finally, her mother opted to take her out of testing.
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series exploring the STAAR test and its impact on Texas education.
Parents who do not want their children to take the test may opt to keep them home. According to the Texas Education Agency, no law specifically allows parents to keep children from testing. At least 95% of students in a school district have to take the test, or the state could penalize the district. But students and parents face no consequences for opting out of the test.
Both federal and state laws require eligible students to take the STAAR test, according to TEA. What the law does allow is for families to temporarily remove their children from a class or school activity if they have an objection to participation.
Because there isn’t a parental opt-out for the assessment, the state does not keep data on how often parents opt their students out of testing. TEA figures show all Fort Worth and Tarrant school districts report at least 98% participation in STAAR.
‘What’s the point?’
Once Amanda joined Azle ISD in fifth grade, Diane noticed something wasn’t right with her daughter — Amanda was coming home crying days in a row. She was nervous, anxious and stressed in a way that concerned her mother. Amanda previously attended private school and did not have to take the STAAR test.
Out of concern for her daughter, her mother emailed Amanda’s homeroom teacher. She described her daughter’s behavior and asked what was going on at school to make her come home so upset.
Her teacher’s comment that Amanda’s in the Super Bowl but had never heard of football concerned Diane. In other words, Amanda’s classmates had been training for the STAAR test since kindergarten, and Amanda was just starting preparing for the high-stakes test.
“I thought, ‘What absolute ridiculousness?’ I mean, what's the point of that?” her mother said.
Amanda said in a written statement to the Report that the testing pressure caused a lot of stress. In class, she wasn’t learning about what was on the test, but going through old assessments instead, she said.
In conversations with educators, her mother learned about groups working toward educating parents on opting out of the test. She started sending Amanda to school with a note that said the family did not believe in testing and Amanda would not be taking the test, emphasizing that the family was not trying to do anything to harm the school.
The Texans Take Action Against STAAR Facebook group provides parents with information on opting out of the STAAR test.
The district responded with letters that said there was no parental opt-out provision for the STAAR test, but Amanda’s mother made it clear her family had a moral and religious objection to the activity.
State Board of Education member Pat Hardy said parents have the ultimate choice of what is best for their children.
However, if she were a parent, she wouldn’t opt her child out, she said.
Hardy supports the STAAR test and says parents need to see data on how well their children learn during the school year. Still, parents shouldn’t face any repercussions if they choose to not make their children take the test, Hardy said.
The Texas Association of School Boards’ guidance to school districts on opting out makes it clear there is no federal or state legal provision that gives parents a legal right to opt out of testing.
Because of this, school districts in Texas do not have to provide parents with an opt out policy, according to the association. Azle ISD spokesperson Amanda Moore said the district follows procedures and protocols set by the TEA for STAAR testing and that TEA does not have any opt out options for STAAR testing.
“We understand that parents have a choice, and if a parent expresses they wish for their child not to take the STAAR test, we always strive to explain and educate them with the guidance we are given by TEA,” Moore said. “The district has procedures in place to address concerns and/or complaints at the campus level as well as the administrative level when parents or staff members reach out.”
But Diane Thorpe insisted on getting her daughter out of testing.
“If you hold your ground — which is very hard to do with the superintendent, the principal, the counselor, whomever, telling you you're not allowed to do this — and you have to be very firm,” she said. “And you have to be very polite, because I don't think a rumor spreads faster than it does in a school. But then sure enough, you find out no, you don't have to take this assessment.”
Amanda sat quietly to herself during testing, her mother said. But she said some comments from teachers, administrators or counselors caused so much anxiety in Amanda that she eventually started to harm herself.
“It was hard to hear the teachers, counselors, administrators and other students say I’d be held back if I didn’t pass the assessment,” Amanda said. “But I figured my parents would handle that, so the impact was a little smaller because I knew they had my back.”
Recent legislation eliminated the need to pass the STAAR test to move on to the next grade after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The worst part of that was the comments from the other kids — all they're doing is repeating what they've heard since kindergarten — how important this is and why it's so important,” Diane Thorpe said. “And I'm sitting here going, ‘Why? What if I don't want teachers treated that way? How does that work? How do we stop this?’”
A child’s education should not come down to a single day or a single test, her mother said.
Amanda continued to opt out through high school and graduated in the spring. Students who fail end-of-course exams by the state can still graduate if an individual graduation committee allows. Scores from tests like the SAT or ACT also can be considered in place of STAAR scores.
“The school did not do anything to support me. They didn’t care,” Amanda said. “They just kept trying to talk me into taking the assessments. It just proved that I’m not worth anything more to any of these people than my score.”
For Amanda, reducing anyone to a small set of measurements is intentionally harmful and she sees it as abuse.
“I have been told for years that I am ‘so much more than a test score.’ Everyone in the public school system who said that lied to me,” she said. “The system never saw me as anything other than my most recent test score.”
Amanda earned a college credit in U.S. history while still in high school, yet she had to do a separate project to prove she was college-ready.
Seven minutes to graduate
The school required Amanda to meet with an individual graduation committee to decide if she could graduate without taking the STAAR test.
Amanda said the process was “disorganized and last minute.” In the fall of 2022, her senior year, Amanda and her counselor met to discuss her credits and the committee process.
The counselor told Amanda she would have to complete some kind of “big project,” in U.S. history to graduate, Amanda said. At that meeting, she did not receive any instructions for the project.
In April 2023, the family received a letter that had instructions for a U.S. history project that spanned 145 years of history and an English portfolio to graduate.
A month later, Amanda met with the committee. One by one, each committee member voted on whether she should be allowed to graduate.
“My counselor noticed that no one in the room was looking at my history project and asked if she could see it,” Amanda said. “That’s when I found out that the entire packet of materials that I’d submitted to my counselor on May 19 for the Individual Graduation Committee had been lost. They asked me for more copies in the meeting.”
The entire meeting took seven minutes, Amanda said, and she felt as if it was a waste of time.
Can learning be measured without testing?
Diane Thorpe said she does not care whether her daughter receives a “masters” on the STAAR test. She said she doesn’t want her children measured that way, and she doesn’t want her children’s teachers measured that way either.
“That's what grades are supposed to be,” she said. “I would rather have that measurement of grades coming at me over time, because I think that's a more accurate measurement than a single test on a single day.”
Though federal law requires standardized testing, states do not have to opt for their own like Texas does.
Diane Thorpe said she hopes opting out of testing would become more accepted. Her daughter had good grades, graduated and was accepted into college, all without the STAAR test measuring her learning.
Amanda wants to see the Legislature get more creative to find better options that don't include the STAAR test.
“Everyone has a beautiful uniqueness to contribute to the world that may not show up on a standardized test,” she said. “Let folks know about the alternate assessments that can be used in place of the high school (end of course exams) and individual graduation committees. And, the Legislature could allow even more options.”
The test has become too big of an impact on students and educators, she said.
“I don’t mind taking a standardized test each year, but I don’t think the results should be used to incentivize anything or anyone in the system — that is what creates problems,” Amanda said. “Is there another industry where a minor child has or can have such a big impact on an adult’s livelihood? I don’t think so.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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