Ohio Children Harassed Over Common Core Test Opt-Out

Published March 27, 2014

An Ohio mother worries her children are being targeted in school as political retaliation for her disagreement with her local superintendent over Common Core test and curriculum mandates.

Sarah Lewis sent Celina City Schools Superintendent Jesse Steiner a letter in March asking to opt her children out of Common Core tests.

A few days later, Steiner emailed Lewis a letter refusing to excuse her children from anything at school, then visited her kids’ school, demanding to have the children weighed and measured because their principal had allowed them to opt out from an earlier body-mass index screening.

“[O]n the recommendation of legal counsel, I am rejecting your request for your child to ‘Opt Out’ of any and all testing,” he wrote. “Your child will be expected to follow the same educational procedures as the rest of the student body.”

This meant pulling the Lewis kids out in front of the class the same day he sent the letter and measuring their weight and height, days after all the other kids had done so and after Principal Dan Pohlman had told Lewis they could be excused. No one notified Lewis of the reversal until the kids came home from school, upset.

“They were singled out and weighed and measured,” Lewis said. “They were humiliated.”

Opt-Outs Are Legal
Ohio law allows children to opt out of tests, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). The state also recently repealed an earlier law requiring school districts to calculate kids’ BMIs.

Even when BMI screening was mandatory, parents and schools could opt out of it by sending a letter to the state, he said. Now a school district can choose to screen BMIs, but the state doesn’t require it.

“The superintendent was being personal and vindictive because he was angry. He decided to take it out on my kids,” Lewis said the day after the incident, her voice shaking. She said her children went to school the next morning as usual, but they were afraid of further confrontations.

Several other parents have recently asked Steiner to opt their children out of tests, Lewis said. She had consulted ODE before issuing her opt-out request, and the department also told her hat kids did not have to take state tests. If families do opt out, however, there may be consequences in some grades. Third graders who don’t pass a certain reading test get held back a year, for example, and high school students must pass several exams to receive a diploma. Otherwise, Charlton said, parents are free to excuse their kids from tests, with no consequences.

A Parent’s Rights
Lewis wanted her kids released from the BMI screening for two reasons. First, “We feel that health information is private, and especially when it comes to our kids,” she said.  “We would rather have that information kept between our family and our physician.” Last fall, the school had excused her third grader from seeing a dentist who came to the school. “That’s our job to do. We take him to the dentist,” Lewis said.

Second, Lewis’s daughter came home one day last year with a report saying her BMI meant she was overweight.

“This is a nine-year-old girl that is already uncomfortable with her body as it starts to change, and you hand her a paper that says ‘you need to exercise more’ while you serve hot dogs in the school cafeteria. Are you kidding me?” Lewis said.

Local Concern Grows
The Common Core debate has heated up this school year in Celina City, a small town in western Ohio. Lewis and her husband began discussing the national standards and tests when their third grader started coming home with new kinds of math problems. He was also “constantly coming home talking about how they were taking practice tests. It seemed like that was all he was doing,” Lewis said. One night, he even cried because he was so stressed about the tests.

When she asked her kids’ teachers about the new math, they told her, “‘We have to do that this way because it’s going to be on the test,'” she said. “Test, test, test—that’s all we heard.”

Lewis and some other mothers started to talk to each other about Common Core and look it up online. They began giving public presentations, writing to local newspapers, and inviting speakers. In February, they invited Heidi Huber, a grassroots leader who runs Ohioans Against Common Core. In March, they hosted Hillsdale College Professor Terrence Moore. The event was standing-room only inside Celina High School’s lecture hall, according to Celina newspaper The Daily Standard. The next day, Steiner issued his letter and visited Lewis’ kids in school.

“Some people don’t think it’s a big deal. Who cares if they weigh and mess with your kids?” Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter why; what matters is that we asked them not to do it.”

Steiner and Pohlman did not return phone messages requesting comment. After the BMI incident, Lewis says she’s concerned the disagreement about education policy among adults may hurt her kids again.

“I love our teachers. I support my teachers, but I am very fearful that they are going to start treating [my children] differently because of all of this,” Lewis said.