Lisa Blunt-Rochester: “To Be Able To Have The Luxury To Opt Out Is A Luxury”

At the Delaware Congressional education debate last evening, a question concerning state testing led to some very offensive comments from candidate Lisa Blunt-Rochester.  Senator Bryan Townsend was asked a question by a member of the audience concerning his fights with state testing at Legislative Hall and his endorsement by DSEA (the Delaware teachers union).  The question was confusing but it alleged that since civil rights groups stand by testing as an accurate way to measure the progress of African-American students, and he fought against the state testing, how would he respond to that? The question was read by one of the moderators, Nichole Dobo.  Townsend defended his stance on testing because the testing was being used for purposes it was not meant for.

By the time candidate Lisa Blunt-Rochester answered, the subject of opt out had already come up by candidate Scott Walker.  He indicated he does not support opt out, especially for students with disabilities and feels it is illegal.  I’m assuming Walker didn’t see the very atrocious scores students with disabilities had on the Smarter Balanced Assessment this year.  But I digress.  By the time the question came back to Rochester, this was her response, as I understood it, while I typed it as I was live blogging:

The original question was about civil rights.  She understands why some folks would opt out, but as a person coming from the Civil Rights movement, to not measure anything is a problem.  Opting out isn’t the issue.  We need to measure to know where we are discriminating.  We need to put our money where our mouth is.

This is what she actually said, thanks to videos shown on the DelaCore Leaders Facebook page:

So the original question was about civil rights organizations and their positions on state testing and the concern that you can’t have it, kind of, both ways.  I understand why some folks would want to opt out, but for myself, as a parent, also as a person who comes from a Civil Rights background, you have to measure growth.  Maybe that’s part of what the challenges folks were concerned about, what we were measuring.  To not measure anything is a problem, to be able to have the luxury to opt out is a luxury.  If we need to fix the test, let’s fix the testing.  But we do have to hold ourselves accountable.  In all the conversation about discrimination, we need to be able to measure, so that we know we are being discriminated against.  So, I think, you put your money where your mouth is.

This statement could be taken a lot of ways.  I see it as the same argument as other folks defending the civil rights groups statements as “it doesn’t matter how bad the test is, we still need that measurement.”  I’m sorry, but I can’t, won’t, and never will buy that logic.  First off, there is a cultural bias with the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  It wasn’t written for African-Americans, English Language learners, or students with disabilities.  It was written for white kids.  We see this with every single score release of standardized tests.  This isn’t new.  It has been going on for decades.

If Blunt-Rochester feels opting out is a “luxury”, an option that is truly open and is not illegal under any circumstances in Delaware, then by her logic we can all enjoy that luxury.  Parents don’t opt out because it is a luxury.  They opt their kids out of the state assessment, which in Delaware’s case is the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  They don’t opt out of MAPS, or SRI, or SMI, or final exams.  They opted out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  The test is long.  Parents and teachers don’t get the scores back on time.  Students aren’t even given the exact same test.  It is a test for accountability for schools.  This was said by Jon Cohen, who runs the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which just so happens to be the testing vendor for the Smarter Balanced Assessment:

When you use a test for accountability, you’re not really using it to measure the kid.  You’re using it to measure the school, or the teacher, or the district.  And you want that school or teacher or district to have an incentive to teach the full range of curriculum.

This statement was taken from a video that used to appear in an article about AIR on this very blog, but AIR changed the settings on it so it could not be embedded outside of their reach.  It is my contention they don’t want people seeing this video.  When talking about the computer adaptability of the assessment, Cohen very frighteningly tells viewers students are not receiving the same test.  The questions aren’t the same for every student.  I wrote in greater detail about this a few weeks ago.  For all the talk about resources and funding we need for schools in Delaware, the one question many candidates aren’t asking is where is the existing funding going?  In Delaware, we have given AIR well over $40 million dollars over a five year period.  That is $8 million a year.  For results that really haven’t changed much when looking at this measurement.  I don’t know about you, but I’m sure our schools would be more than happy to be able to use that money towards lower class-room sizes or more support for students who are at-risk.

While I respect your right to choose whether or not your child takes the Smarter Balanced Assessment, what I don’t respect is you’re telling me that my choice is a luxury.  I actually found this extremely offensive.  I have a child with disabilities.  For these students, who score much lower than African-Americans, it frequently takes them two to three times longer to take this test with accommodations than their peers.  And yes, non-disabled African-Americans are their peers.  They are easily frustrated being forced to take a test for this long.  Because at the same time, their neurological disabilities are manifesting.  Whether it is high-functioning Autism, or Tourette Syndrome, or ADHD, or OCD, or in some cases (as it is with my child) a combination of co-morbidities.

I would like anyone reading this to try something.  Grab a piece of paper and start writing the Pledge of Allegiance.  While you are writing with your hand of choice, take your other hand and start swinging it out.  Keep writing.  At the same time you are doing both of these, start making humming noises.  Do all three at once.  How far did you get on the Pledge of Allegiance?  Now put that in a scenario where you are taking the state assessment on a computer.

Now, imagine you are a low-income African-American student with disabilities taking this test.

I’m sorry Lisa Blunt-Rochester, but you don’t get the luxury of telling me it is a luxury for me to opt my son out.  I respect your choice, but if you want to talk about discrimination, we can do that.  I can talk about how my son was denied an IEP at a charter school in Delaware because of a poorly-trained special education staff who were not even aware of the classification for disabilities of “other-health impaired” until my wife told them.  I can talk about how they treated his disability as behavior issues and wanted to punish him when they wouldn’t give him the accommodations he deserved under federal law.  And when things got so bad there, over a dropped cookie in the lunchroom, he ran to a confined space because he was so scared of their behavior interventionist who told him he would be suspended if he didn’t pick it up.  When they found him, he wanted to get out of that confined space.  And as my son sat there screaming to be let out of that confined space for half an hour, while I was in the school substituting that day and they never bothered to come get me knowing I was there, I found my son in a state I had never seen him in before.  I also found the behavior interventionist sitting in the hallway eating a sandwich and the head of school sitting there as well.  His face was the only face my son could see as they ignored his cries for help.  As I managed to coax my son out, who was crying, embarrassed, and afraid, the head of school and I took him to a conference room.  He explained I should take him home and talk about this the following Monday.  My son, who was in a very distraught state, said to the Head of School, “I’m going to get revenge on you.”  He didn’t specify what kind of revenge or anything he would do.  He just blurted it out.  The Head of School yelled, “That is duly noted”.

As I drove home with my son, my wife called the school.  She was unaware of what had just gone down.  She spoke with the Head of School.  When my wife asked him what he knew about Tourette Syndrome, he started making a tapping noise and said “I know there is a meeting on Concord Pike next week about it.”  He wound up yelling at my wife and hanging up on her.  When we brought my son back into school the next Monday, we were told my son was suspended for three days and when he came back he had to meet with a police officer to discuss “terroristic threats”.  That was the last time my son was in that school.  He was nine years old.

We pulled him out and took him to the local school district.  He got an IEP… after five long months.  It was the end of the school year.  The way my district is set up, he went to 5th grade in a middle school.  We were told by the new IEP team that his IEP was too complicated and we should rework it.  Over the next four months, my son was physically assaulted nine times.  The last of which gave him a severe concussion two days before Christmas.  That was the last time my son was in that school.  He was on homebound instruction for the rest of the year, along with months of physical therapy, headaches, and a very real fear that if he stepped out of the house he would get beat up.  He was ten years old.

We tried a local private school who would only take him on a probationary status because of his disabilities.  He received hours upon hours of homework each day which he had not received in the other two schools.  It was too much for him, so we pulled him out.  He was eleven years old.

We found a good school for him now, far away from Common Core and the Smarter Balanced Assessment.  He is receiving the best instruction he ever has.  He is twelve years old.

So we can sit here and talk about equity and discrimination.  But I can tell you I have lived it through my son.  So I’m sorry you see it as a luxury that I opted him out at the school where he got his concussion.  The ironic truth is that even though I opted him out, he didn’t have to take the test because he was released from the obligation by the school due to his medical issues, received at the school.  While all this was going on that year, I spent a considerable amount of time at Legislative Hall fighting for the rights of other parents to opt their child out.  In all the conversations about opt out, I never heard it referred to as a luxury.  Until last night.

The odds of your child having greater success at life are greater than mine.  This is a fact for persons with disabilities.  So if I make a choice to opt my son out of a test, that has nothing to do with your child, or someone else’s child.  It has nothing to do with civil rights.  I chose not to have my son be used as a guinea pig for results that have stated the same measurements you so vigorously defended last night.  A person can defend civil rights and be against state assessments.  They can have it both ways.  Many civil rights groups do this already, without financial backing from the Gates Foundation.  I am a staunch supporter of civil rights.  But I refuse to let my child be a part of your measuring stick for a test that is horrible to begin with so we can endlessly compare where your child is against mine.  You are a pawn to a money-making scheme that has been going on far longer than you realize.  All our children are being used.  It has nothing to do with proficiency.  The tests are rigged so there will always be winners and losers.  I don’t need my son to take a test to know he has been a victim of disability discrimination.  He didn’t even have to log onto a computer for me to realize that.

I have a very strong suspicion why Senator Townsend was asked such a specific question about state testing, civil rights, and DSEA.  It was meant to trip him up.  It was very carefully worded.  There was only one person in that audience who would have asked him a question like that.  You may or may not know who it is.  I doubt he would ever own up to it.  But he now knows I know.  I’ve seen his manipulation at play before.  But it backfired and most likely forced you to address something that may end up hurting your campaign.

As a candidate for Congress, you need to be aware of how you can be used and how other people’s agendas can backfire on you.  There were hundreds of people in that audience last night.  How is that was the only question asked by a member of the audience at an education debate?  I invite you to think about that.  But in the meantime, let’s stop talking about measurements.  When I cast my vote in the primary, I will be choosing a candidate who looks at all sides of the issues, for all Delawareans, and what is best for us as a state.  I support civil rights and equity.  But I don’t think constantly measuring students so we can hold schools, teachers, and districts accountable is moving forward.  As long as some support this mistaken belief about measuring students against each other while ignoring the individual student and their individual needs, we will continue to have this conversation while testing companies and hedge fund managers make tons of money that isn’t going into our schools.  I am unable to support you as a candidate based on what I heard tonight.  And yes, one word left a very big impression on me.  I respect your choice to put your money where your mouth is.  Please respect my choice to put my voting finger where my beliefs are.  Because the only gap I saw tonight was how far away you and a couple of other candidates are to the reality of what is truly happening with Delaware education.

Federal representatives voted for the No Child Left Behind Act.  Federal representatives stood back while Race To The Top bribed and coerced our states into accepting dubious state standards, tied to a state assessment, and put our highest needs schools into a deplorable cycle of test, label, punish and shame.  Federal representatives (from Delaware) voted no for a clause that would have honored a parent’s right to opt their children out of the state assessment.  Federal representatives (from Delaware) voted yes for the Every Student Succeeds Act which reversed the other two but essentially kept the very worst from what came before but promises vast amounts of money for other things.  We have once again, been duped.  Many of you won’t know it until it is too late.  So yes, opt out is just as much a federal issue as it is a state issue.  But one thing will not change: my unwavering belief that all parents have the constitutional, God-given, and fundamental right to decide what is best for their child.  Education is only one part of what an elected U.S. representative faces.  But education, which is the foundation for our children, is also the foundation for our democracy.  It is our way of instilling hope for the future.  It isn’t a measurement, or accountability.  It is about what is best for each child based on their own unique and beautiful mind.  When we constantly compare, there are always going to be winners and losers.  This creates an environment of discrimination.  I don’t care what any candidate looks like, the color of their skin, or their gender.  I don’t care where they come from.  I care about what they are going to do.

I’ve been hearing a lot of people say, even before it came out, that we need to fix the test.  And yet, Smarter Balanced is still here.  With no indication of it disappearing anytime soon.  Our United States Secretary of Education just okayed illegal flexibility waivers for Delaware under the condition we use the Smarter Balanced Assessment until June 30th, 2019.  We can talk about the importance of “growth”, but for students with disabilities, their “growth” requires two to three times more “growth” than their peers according to the Delaware Department of Education.  But yeah, let’s keep using a flawed test to measure students.  But you don’t have to be an elected federal Congresswoman to speak up against the Smarter Balanced Assessment and “fix the testing”.  Please put your money where your mouth is.

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Kevin Ohlandt

I am a proud parent of a son with Tourette's Syndrome and several other co-morbidities. I write on this blog to educate other parents so they know a bit more about not only special education, but all the really bad things that are happening with public schools in Delaware and the USA. We are all in this together, and if our children aren't able to advocate for themselves it's up to us parents! We need to stop letting companies run our schools, and demand our children get a proper education. Our Departments of Education in our states have become weak with fear from the bullying US DOE, and we need to take back our schools!

11 thoughts on “Lisa Blunt-Rochester: “To Be Able To Have The Luxury To Opt Out Is A Luxury””

  1. Well said, my friend.

    As Senator Townsend said last night and I have gone on record several times over the past few years as saying, if we are not changing anything as a result of the testing, we cannot claim to be using the testing to identify and address issues of inequity in schools.

    To be clear, opt out is about this one assessment, the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It is not a growth measure test. Results are not received in time for teachers to make changes in instruction to meet the needs of children in their classroom.

    By the time results of this test are received, the kids who took it will have already been left farther behind.

    What is it that people do not understand about this?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TO be clear, Opt Out is about a parent’s right and transcends SBAC, IMO. People contained the right in order to not further scare the ill driven policy wonks at the DOE and the Gov’s office.


    1. And I will exercise that right for any similar test to SBAC. But let’s be frank, parents were not opting out in mass droves until these types of tests came out. It existed, but not at these levels. And the laws surrounding “test participation” came about because schools were having certain kids not take tests in order to drive up scores. That should not be allowed in my opinion. I completely agree with the civil rights groups on that score. But let’s not also be blinded by who we want or don’t want as a candidate on this issue. Last night was my chance to see the candidates views on education. I agreed with Ms. Blunt-Rochester on several of the points she made up. I think every candidate (with one possible exception) had good points throughout the night. But I ruled out voting for three of them last night, and Lisa was one of them. I’m okay with tests that compare. It’s what they are. Every teacher designed classroom test is meant to compare the students in a teachers classroom to see where the students are at with retention of the material. It will guide the teacher on what they may have to do with some students and which ones are doing well. I have no issue with that. It is the “high-stakes” attached with THESE tests that I take issue with. And no child should be subjected to that. You have known me long enough, John, to know exactly where I’m coming from with this. This isn’t a “proxy”. Like I said, and I’ve said it a billion times since I started this blog: the Smarter Balanced Assessment is a BAD test. Period. PARCC is a bad test. Period. The Questar led state test in New York is bad. Period. There is a great deal of shadiness behind all this. You know this. I know you do.


  3. …on the other hand, saying we don’t needs tests to see the gaps if used as a proxy for not directly supporting a parent’s right is well, disappointing.


    1. To be fair, you need an active and involved parent to opt out. Not every child has that luxury. This makes opt out a luxury that is only afforded to certain families who have the knowledge of the system, the ability to live in a school district with processes to serve kids who have opted out that day, the ability to take off from work on test day if needed. These are luxuries that not every child enjoys. Disability or not, your child is privileged because he comes from a great family background where he even has a parent in the same school with him who is an educator.


      1. I wouldn’t call myself an educator. I haven’t subbed since that day at the charter school. I don’t buy that opt out is a luxury. I’ve been hearing some type of excuse that only certain parents have the ability to opt out and others don’t. All parents have the right to opt out. It is mentioned enough in Delaware that most people should have a general idea of what it is by now. Schools who don’t have the “processes” or refuse to provide instruction are usually the same ones who resisted opt out parents. That was what House Bill 50 was all about: preventing THAT kind of discrimination. No offense, but hearing the words “luxury” around opt out really offends me. It is not a luxury to make a choice to not have my kid take a pointless test that does nothing for him but does plenty for testing companies. I am NOT against testing. I am against testing done solely for the point of intrusive data collection, comparing students way past the point of normal research, and being used to set policy for absolutely everything. Testing should not be the fulcrum everything else swings around. But that is what Delaware public education has become. And unfortunately, some civil rights groups have become blinded to this because when they get that donations from Bill & Melinda Gates along with others, those dollar signs replace common sense.


  4. Standardized tests are given on the useless annual timeframe. The only defensible use for testing is to identify where intervention or extra support is needed for the student immediately, within the week or month. By the next year or marking period, it’s too late – the loss of learning opportunity is too great.

    All schools are already assessing students weekly or daily, with grades, projects, observation, and other assigned work. That data is recorded in various systems, for example eSchoolPlus. If you are really interested in supporting success, that is the daily data that should be driving intervention and support for individual students. Everything else is too late.

    But in my experience, schools think of eSchoolPlus as an annoyance, used only to generate quarterly grades. Many districts don’t even require that daily work be recorded electronically; they just enter quarterly grades from their notebooks into eSchoolPlus so report cards can be generated.

    Schools should be required to record and act on daily data for the benefit of students. Instead, we are discarding that data without ever using it for student success.

    For example, if a student fails to turn in homework three times in a row, that should trigger an intervention within 48 hours. Maybe the student doesn’t understand the material, or has some problem at home that prevents him from doing the work – whatever. And once he stops doing the homework, he’s probably going to do poorly on the next test on that material. Currently, we don’t register that the student until months later when he fails the whole marking period or whole year.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One way parents exercise the luxury of opting out is by choosing and paying for private schools. Freedom from the increasingly onerous standardized testing burden that federal & state governments now place on public schools is one of the strongest selling points private schools use to recruit families these days. In marketing focus groups that my children’s former, private school conducted, the freedom from standardized testing mandates was by far the most appealing element of what they offered, to many parents who might be likely to choose a private school. But the private school opt-out is not available to most families, for financial reasons or because their child(ren) have educational needs that most private schools don’t meet (IEPs, ELL instruction). Minority children are woefully under-represented in the private school population. If the argument for public school choice has been, in part, to empower families that can’t exercise the range of choices available to more affluent members of the community, then this empowerment should extend to controversial state-mandated testing as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eve I completely agree with you. I have several friends who have abandoned the traditional public school system because of the overuse and misuse of testing. I do not have that option, but even if I did I would not exercise it because I strongly believe in neighborhood schools.

      I have white middle class privilege, and I’m well aware of that. However, it is not easy to opt a kid out of testing, even when the district makes it as simple as Red Clay does for us. That said, I’m not opting my kids out of all testing, solely the SBA. And that is specifically because it is a useless test for informing education of my children.

      Bryan Townsend was 100% correct in his remarks at the forum. It is one thing to use the testing to identify potential achievement gaps, although to be completely clear, testing does not do that adequately. There should be a more robust system of assessing student achievement. However, when we know what gaps exist, and we as a society don’t act on that knowledge by providing real, data-backed strategies for assisting the students who need it…. Well, that’s just insane. And that’s what has happened in Delaware for far too long.

      Finally, I understand the viewpoint that this is a state/local issue, not one in which a federal congress person would be expected to weight in. However, I’m still gonna call bull on that, because first and foremost the Delaware congress person is representing Delaware and advocating for what is best for us at the national level. Opt out is a symptom of a deeper-rooted issue around the testing mandates, which are absolutely a federal issue. To ignore the symptoms of an illness is to misdiagnose said illness. And that is unacceptable. In fact, I’d argue that it’s almost willful negligence and ignorance of a very vital part of education.

      It is almost criminal how education has been allowed to be subverted by people who have no training and no knowledge of pedagogy, brain development, social and cultural norms around education, and the impact of poverty on the developing brain.

      But let’s just stick to throwing stones at those terrible teachers and ignore the FACT that EVERY OTHER METRIC clearly shows that teachers are, in fact, doing a bang-up job in ALL schools. Instead of fighting each other we should be banding together to make the system what we want it to be.

      Flip the narrative, people. Is it really better for the kids to be tested and labeled and punished because the adults have not made them a priority in funding and resources and mental health and dealing with income inequality and systemic minority incarceration and repression and flat out racism?

      Get. It. Right. For. Them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The true bottom line is all of the Dems running will not utter the phrase: It is a parent’s right to opt their child out of statewide tests. Without reservation.


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