In April, students at Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista might have been relieved to know they didn’t have to take the annual tests required by the state if they did not want to.

In fact, their own teacher, Kevin Beiser, encouraged them not to.

Beiser, who also serves on the San Diego Unified School Board, sent a note to students and parents days before the class was set to test. In a comment he posted to an online system that allows teachers to communicate with parents and students, Beiser wrote:

“Parents have the right to Opt their children out of the Federally Mandated State Testing. Teachers and parents strongly recommend that parents exercise this right.

As a teacher, I encourage parents to Opt their children out of state testing which begins on Monday, April 11. There are several reasons why tests are bad for children, in my opinion.”

Beiser cannot legally say this. State Education code says it’s OK for teachers to inform parents of their right to opt their children out of tests, but that the school district and its employees “shall not solicit and encourage” them to make that choice.

Even the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the union to which Beiser belongs, urges educators to tread carefully on this point.

In a know-your-rights guide, CTA writes that teachers are free to express their views about education in public forums and newspaper columns, or when they’re speaking as a citizen. But, “when a public employee makes a statement because their official duties require them to do so, they are speaking as an employee, not as a citizen. Public school employers are permitted to discipline employees for such employment-related speech.”

Days after Beiser wrote the note to parents, the school’s principal, Gina Galvez-Mallari, sent a letter home to parents walking back Beiser’s comments:

“You may have received an email from a staff member or your student may have been influenced by a staff member’s recommendation regarding your decision to test. Please know that it is not our intent to influence your student testing participation decision one way or the other and any emails you feel do that, should be disregarded.”

Sweetwater Union High School District spokesman Manny Rubio confirmed the notes.

Rubio said the letter Galvez-Mallari sent parents summarizes the district’s policy on the issue: Teachers can inform parents of their rights, but should not try to influence families one way or another.

Rubio couldn’t say whether Beiser faces any sanctions. Discipline in matters like these is handled case by case, he said.

Beiser did not respond to requests for comment. He wrote the note in his role as a teacher, not as a San Diego Unified school board member.

But San Diego Unified leaders, too, have taken an increasingly skeptical view of standardized tests.

Superintendent Cindy Marten recently announced that district would be cutting back on tests so teachers could waste less time testing and spend more on instruction.

The San Diego Union-Tribune had two other examples of the district’s aversion to testing under Marten: “At the start of the last spring testing window, Marten sent a letter parents that all but apologized for the tests. In February of last year, the San Diego school board adopted a resolution calling on Congress and the Obama administration to eliminate federally mandated testing requirements for third- through ninth-graders.”

It’s a local window into a larger debate that’s being hashed out in school districts nationally.

Originally, the opt-out movement was associated with white, middle-class families. But over the past year, the base of groups opposed to testing has grown more diverse, according to the New York Times.

Parents and educators oppose testing for a number of reasons, ranging from resistance to the possibility of sanctions imposed on teachers and schools to skepticism of profiteering by testing companies.

Yet, groups that want to preserve testing – including the NAACP, National Council of La Raza and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund – argue that standardized testing reveals disparities that exist between students.

Last year, civil rights groups wrote in a joint statement: “There are some legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed … But we cannot fix what we cannot measure. And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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