Standardized Tests – Your Rights, Opting Out, and the Impact on Your Child

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After I read What Happened to Recess and Why Are our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian, I knew I wanted her to share with you exactly what you as a parent need to know about the national obsession with standardized tests. Here’s my (devil’s advocate) interview with Susan Ohanian, an experienced teacher, education advocate against NCLB and high stakes testing, and a prolific writer of books and articles.

Standardized Tests - Your Rights, How to Opt-Out, and the Impact on Your Child

Melissa: Say I’m just an ordinary parent (or my child isn’t even school-aged,) why should I care about the standardized tests he/she will take at school?

Susan O on Standardized TestingOhanian: The standardized tests are taking over more and more of every child’s day. Some districts have pre-K screening–so parents can know if their children are “on track” for the rigors of the kindergarten curriculum. Kindergarten, which means “children’s garden,” was intended as a place for children to engage in creative play, learning important social  and developmental skills, a place where they learn to care about one another and help one another. Now it is a place of worksheets, homework, and curriculum rigor. Look that word up in the dictionary and ask yourself if you want that for your child at any age.

Research shows that test scores are a much better measure of family income than of student ability. Family matters. A family’s ability to provide many cultural experiences, including books in the home, matters enormously.

Melissa: In Colorado, the school gets a grade based on the tests in my state – that’s good, right? Aren’t tests the best way for us to see if the school is teaching what they’re supposed to teach?

Ohanian: We don’t need grades based on standardized tests to determine how schools are doing on those standardized tests.  We can look at the zip codes of the students and predict  the rating by the poverty index of the community. Research has shown again and again that children of affluence score higher on standardized test than children of poverty. It’s not hard to see why. When families suffer from economic woes, that suffering is reflected in students’ school performance. Several years ago, a 12-year-old  homeless boy in Prince George’s County died of complications from an abscessed tooth. It is hard to imagine the agony he suffered in school. Research shows that about 1/3 of the nation’s school children suffer dental caries at any given moment. Can the school be held responsible for the resulting inattention?

In an effort to boost test scores, teachers often feel pressured to devote more time to test prep, thus narrowing the curriculum.  When curriculum is reduced to subjects that are tested,  children are deprived of the varied experiences that allow them to find new interests and talents. The most important thing a parent can ask about her child’s school is not its test score ratings but “Is this a place filled with joy?

Yes, ask for evidence of joy.

Melissa: Why did / do policy makers believe that testing ensures that all children got/get a quality, equal-opportunity education? Or was that not the goal?

Ohanian: Education policy is no longer made at the local level.  Starting in the late 1980ies, members of the Business Roundtable met with governors, pushing their agenda for changing education.  Standardized testing and  a national curriculum were high on their list. The result today is the Common Core Curriculum, which was financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the accompanying standardized tests that promise continual testing of our children. Of interest:  The PTA received a grant of one million dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote this Common Core Curriculum.

Melissa: Does more testing mean schools improve every year?

Ohanian: More testing means more testing. It means that a child’s opportunity to experience a rich and varied school experience is reduced to the narrow range of items that can be tested. Even worse, when a child is coached for a test, he is being coached in a bizarre way of reading. This is a critical consideration for parents. Every day a child spends in test prep reinforces a wrongheaded notion of what reading is all about.

Research shows that the way to improve student test scores is to increase the amount of  time spent on free reading of their own choosing. Libraries staffed by professional librarians are critical in making a wide variety of books available to children.

Melissa: Should parents advocate against their children taking the tests? Won’t this penalize the school and teacher instead of getting the lawmakers attention?

Ohanian: When no child shows up to take the test, then lawmakers will pay close attention, very close attention. Parents should consider this: The federal government, which has forced all this testing on the schools, pays only about 8% of the total school bill. It is long past time for parents to take back their schools, the schools  that they are paying for.

Melissa: I think everyone should read What Happened to Recess, but in case they haven’t yet, can you talk about the money and secrecy just a bit?

Ohanian: One thing parents need to realize is that the attack on public schools is part of the larger squashing of the middle class. The Business Roundtable, assorted state governors, member of Congress, and newspaper editorialists across America seem to think that their repeated denunciation of teachers will distract the public from noticing where the real culprits of our economic troubles sit. Hiding behind a smokescreen of “preparing workers for tomorrow’s global economy,” these so-called education reformers treat children as commodities and teachers as mere functionaries in an accounting system.   Rather than serve up our children to corporate interests that have bankrupted the middle class, we need  to remember that a child is only eight (or nine or ten. . . ) years old once.  Youth passes all too quickly. We  need to protect our children,  and this means asking for schools that nurture curiosity, imagination, independence, laughter, joy.

Instead of looking at what corporate leaders and newspaper editorialists say about the schools, parents should ask their children, “Did you enjoy school today?” Longtime New York teacher and Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt said that only once in his 18 years of teaching at a renown city school did a parent ever ask him, “Is my child enjoying school?” McCourt answered in the affirmative. The parent said,  “Thank you,” and left. That’s all she wanted to know.

It’s definitely a question we need to ask more often.

Melissa: Thank you so much, Susan. You’re opening up eyes with your advocacy work.

Readers, to opt out of testing, go to the Opt-Out website to get information on your state.

* top photo is of a Colorado billboard.

standardized tests

49 Responses

  1. My sons both attend a private school and are required to take a modified version of the Common Core testing. Last year my oldest was in second grade and I didn’t make a huge deal of him taking these tests. He did incredibly well but did mention how the teacher had to read the test to him in order for him to understand what was written. He has struggled with reading the fluency portion but always got the comprehension correct. This placed an added stress on the testing. Now that we figured out . my husband and I, it was because he struggled to see the words. He now has glasses, his reading has taken off and now he can read for pleasure. I question the appropriateness for testing those so young. That is my concern and then the test taking anxiety sets in. My sons are in second and third grades and are expected to take these tests next week. I have heard the folks I know in New York State have written letters to have their kids opt out of the tests. Would this be appropriate? And what, if any, difficulties may I expect to encounter. I don’t recall taking standardized tests until entering 5th grade. The school I went to has been rated among the tops in the country for years. I am hoping this all goes away with next president. Testing and challenging an individual who does well or struggles to take a test should be done on an individual school basis.There should be disciplinary actions for a teacher who does not teach well. There were a few terrible teachers in my high school but they managed to stay because of the ridiculous tenure.
    I feel for the young children who are especially in the second grade who are being subjected to an unnatural nature for assessing their abilities.
    My concerns are shared by many but I am responsible for looking out for my own, Other than working full time as an Occupational Therapist, caring for a 90 year old mother-in-law, and making sure my children receive a well rounded education, experience sports, art, culture, travel how to be a good person and Christian, I want what is best for my children and I do not think testing like this at a very young age is the answer.
    If a classroom does poorly, does that teacher get fired or re-assessed? Do we then look for another school? What happens to the test scores and how is it beneficial to the local school program? How is all of this good?
    Here’s to hoping this form of testing is dismissed next year.
    How do I go about opting out of this testing for my children this year?

  2. Thanks! My son recently switched to private school. He is a totally different child. In public, he would cry each day, refuse to get out of bed, had headaches and stomach pains each day… He is now in a small private school where he is learning by participating, experimenting, exploring and not being taught to take useless tests. It is so amazing to see him excited about school and learning again. Sadly I live in what is considered a top district for public school – taxes are insanely high and I have to send my kids to private school.

    1. that is sad! I’m glad you’re able to make private school work, and that it is such a good fit for your son. Good news!

  3. Unless my daughter takes the state MSP (Measurement of Student Progress) test (math, reading & science, the Algebra or Geometry EOC, and the CBA,, she cannot enter the Talent show, go on the 8th grade field trip, go to the 8th grade parent/student breakfast, the 8th grade dance or the 8th grade graduation ceremony.

  4. I teach in Florida, where students are required to pass the FCAT in 3rd grade in order to pass the 3rd grade. 3rd grade is also the first year they are required to take the test. They then take the FCAT every year for reading and math and specific years for Science and writing. If in 10th grade they don’t pass the FCAT, they can’t graduate with a regular high school diploma until they either pass FCAT or give up and get an alternative degree.

    I teach Kindergarten but with the trickle down effect of Race to the Top and Common Core, I spend much of my time testing students. The world of small groups has gone by the wayside because I have to spend so much time testing one on one or small group to asses my student’s learning each quarter. The district I work in requires two different math reading assessments each quarter. This is in addition to all the testing we do to assess the learning of each skill and sight words. They have 102 to learn in Kindergarten! The sad thing is, each year gets more and more frustrating with behavior problems because five year olds are not learning much needed social skills, nor are they mentally and emotionally ready for the rigor placed upon them.

    1. this is so sad, it must be sadder for you because you have to watch your sweet students struggling with inappropriate expectations and work. 🙁

  5. After a conversation with the teacher who oversees our schooling through our virtual charter school, I was wondering when and how schools became so centralized. I appreciate the history lesson 🙂 What if school districts evaluated their teachers according to their own standards? Then all the money spent on testing could be used to encourage and educate parents to vote for their school board. Power to the People!

  6. Had my 8 year old son in private school where he was making all A’s. Unfortunately, had to put him in public school due to financial reasons. He is now barely passing. He used to love school & now hates it. He’s not learning anything. Don’t know what to do. We live in Texas & the more people I talk to says, they aren’t really teaching what they need to know. They are just always trying to prepare them for all these tests. Does anyone know if there are any groups in Texas working toward correcting this massive problem?

  7. An inspirational blog post, you got here.

  8. Sorry, but I can’t second-guess the local tests administered by an individual school. As a teacher, I know that some tests are useful, and I want to caution about setting up an adversarial relationship with the school. I know this isn’t what you have in mind, but these are such hot issues. School people get defensive but please don’t consider them enemies. That said, of course you want to look out for the best interests of your child.

    Maybe ask for examples of the benefits this test provides.

  9. So here is my issue. Maybe you have advice before I go in flipping out on people. I sent an opt out letter to my child’s school. They sent back a letter saying that they still want her to take their test , not the state one, which to me is still a standardized test and possibly a way for them to profit of f my child’s scores. They also claim that they have no other way to gauge her work. I am thinking of getting a lawyer though that seems like a ridiculous expense to preserve my child’s sanity and my rights as a parent. We are in California. The info I have is as follows. ”
    The reference is Title 5 of the CA
    Code of Regulations, Division 1, Chapter 2, Subchapter 3.75
    “Standardized Testing and Reporting Program”, Section 852, (a).
    Its under “more about STAR” on the SED website.

    “A parent or guardian may submit to the school a written request to
    excuse his or her child from any or all parts of any test provided
    pursuant to Ed Code Section 60640 [a STAR is born}. The parent or
    guardian must initiate the request and the school district and its
    employees shall not solicit or encourage any written request on
    behalf of any child.”

    California Education Code Section 60615. “Notwithstanding any
    provision of law, a parent’s or guardian’s written request to school
    officials to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the
    assessments administered pursuant to this chapter shall be granted.””

  10. I am noticing that my elementary 4th grader is being taught for the MCAS test in a very rote way, particularly with regard to reading response writing. It’s very formulaic writing which is not to say that it’s a bad method, but it was a turn off to my older child who is more creative and decided that she hated writing in 4th grade.

    What is strange is that my oldest, now in 6th grade, is still being relentlessly tested as do all public school kids in Massachusetts, but her English teacher (or most of her teachers) are not teaching to a test. This was very apparent in the writing curriculum. I’m not sure why 6th grade writing is not requiring a rote method but I am glad about it. Now my oldest loves writing and is considered a great writer, but she struggled with:

    Topic Sentence with 2 -3 supports (paragraph 1)
    Ditto for paragraph 2

    etc. type of “open response” writing required for MCAS for both English comprehension AND math.

    Teaching to the test is messed up on so many levels just as No Child Left Behind is a complete fiasco. I’m not sure if things are changing enough though.

    I think all we can do as parents is to instill a love for learning in our kids. If they are lifelong learners, then this testing stuff is just like taking medicine. It’s helpful because life is full of standardized tests and learning how to perform well on them is both an acquired skill and a useful one, but it should not be the focus or it stifles a passion to learn and natural curiosity.

    My fourth grader now seems perfectly fine doing these rote exercises but she’s much more of the personality to write in this very structured style. Each child is different, I guess, as to how much teaching to the test bores them.

    1. HA – that last line cracked me up, Mia! Well, yes – the topic sentence + 3 sentences with specific transition words essay is a very good example of how we can dumb down teaching and learning to the least common denominator. It’s a fine way to start thinking about organizing writing but really is such awful, boring writing that it drives me crazy when I see my peers teaching this one way to write. I mean who reads? Have you ever read anything in print so blah and boring? No. So, why are we teaching and testing this kind of writing. Leave it in first grade. Formulas maybe have a place for a starting point but for the love of Shakespeare, ditch the formulas for some real writing!

      It happens.


  11. Great post, but so sad. I was forced to pull my kids from public school when my anxious OCD son could not stop stressing over the standardized testing and weekly rote quizzes. They are now in a school where joy is promoted, but I believe in public education and hated to have to turn to private school.

    In an effort to foster unstructured play and socialization for children, my oldest friend and I recently launched, a website where busy parents can quickly and easily schedule playdates online. It doesn’t solve the problem of cut-backs on recess and removal of play based learning from the classroom, but at least the site makes parents able to offer play to their children after school or daycare and on weekends with less hassle and stress.

  12. I hear a possible “rumor” that testing will be incorporated in grades. And that if you don’t pass the standardized testing by graduation you wont receive the same.diploma as others. Crazy!

  13. I fully agree with these ideas! My children attend private school and they are still given standardized as a means of recording “data”. I have met with the principals to explain that the standardized testing does not align with what our children are taught. However, standardized testing is only one piece of the puzzle. Children are given multiple choice vocabulary tests weekly that are tricky and do not show a true understanding of the words nor do they show “real data” as to what the children know. they are an indicator of who is a good test taker and who is not. That is not a skill that will help our children succeed in life.

  14. Thank you so much for this post, it is really interesting. I am going to look into that book that you suggested, I love books like that. As a homeschooling mommy, I make sure that my boys have the kind of education that I want them to and I feel so blessed to be able to do that. I have read a lot about education in other countries and it seems that the US might have something to learn.

  15. This is exactly the reason why we pulled our 9 year old son out of a topnotch public magnet school last year. Just because a child can regurgitate facts and do well on a standardized test, does NOT mean they are being well educated or prepared for the future…at least that is my opinion. We live in Texas, and like many of you, the public educational system has incorporated several different “mandatory” tests. In March of last year during a parent – teacher conference, my son’s teacher openly admitted that they stop teaching anything new from Feb-May and during a conference with the principal while I was un enrolling him, she pleaded with me to let him stay long enough to take the TAKS (state required test) as I would “need it when we decided to put him back in public school.” I’m not quite sure who’s heart was broken more: my son’s because he loved his school, or mine because the principal wanted his test scores more than she apparently wanted my son because he was a positive influence in his classroom and in the school.

  16. I’m neither a parent, nor a teacher (though I am on the fence about becoming an English teacher versus a registered dietitian), but I 100% agree with all the points made in this interview. I just recently graduated college, and I can tell you that college, while tedious, was the most “fun” I had in school. I am currently a non-degree student working towards the grad school nutrition pre-reqs, and while I do not enjoy memorization and the stress from tests, I am having fun learning about the human body… who would have thought? There were/are not standardized tests I had to stress over passing (except the GRE, ugh), no restrictions when it came/comes to writing papers or forming arguments. I got/get to be creative.

    I don’t remember much of elementary school, and I know that middle school had a couple of standardized tests, but I still got to enjoy my childhood. My mom always asked how my day at school was. High school? I felt suffocated, which in turn, made me feel depressed as a number of issues distracted me from my schoolwork, such as friends, family, adjusting to the public school system, and just navigating through my teenage years. I remember that my first three years taking high school English were the worst; I HATED English because we had to practice writing papers for the English Regents in NY. History was the same way… DBQs, writing essays… there was no room to form a creative argument. I had to write my papers as x, y, and z, and if I did not, I did not get a good grade.

    During my first semester in college, however, I was forced to take an English gen ed. My professor was this hippie kind of nature guy, and while he was the type of person who would leave you feeling more confused after discussing an idea with him (he was just THAT intelligent, very humbling), I fell in love with writing papers and English Lit because he let me think.

    I also did horribly on my SATs. I have no doubt that I will score “average” on my GREs; I’m just not a good standardized test taker, and yet, I graduated college with a 3.8 GPA, so it’s not like I’m bad at tests, or anything. Anywho, this comment is getting way too long. I agree that the standardized tests, and molding the curriculum around these tests, is detrimental to children everywhere. There’s no more room for creativity and thinking independently now.

    1. I wasn’t aware of opting out either. We are in TN and have homeschooled since Aug of 2010. I have 4 children that don’t test well and had their test scores weigh heavily on whether they were advanced to higher classes. Our son did 2 years in 1 year and was testing in the 10th grade as a 6th grader. And our daughter made the comment last year at the end of her 5th trade spring break that she was dreading to go back to school. I asked why and she said because all they will do is get drilled over the upcoming tcap tests.

  17. What an eye-opener, thank you. I’m armed with many questions for our next parent-teacher conference. I’ve often felt the standardized tests take up far too much time in prep and execution for our teachers and students, and for what? Funding for our schools? The notion of opting out has never occurred to me. But I always ask how was your day at school, tell me the highlights. Now I’ll be sure to ask if their imagination was stretched, if they laughed, asked questions and had fun!

  18. I didn’t realize that parents could opt of the standardized testing. Our school has make up testing days. My son in only in third grade, but is terrible at these tests. We’re in Ohio and in second grade you take the Terra Nova and he did terrible. However, he was doing really good in class and had good grades. His teacher had no reason to keep him back a year even though his test scores reflected he wasn’t were he should be. He has some attention issues, so for him to sit still for hours and take a test is really, really challenging. His mind wonders and he needs someone to tap him on the shoulder and make sure he’s focusing and on track. He doesn’t always read the questions correctly so he needs someone to say, “not did you read that question correctly. Try and reread the question to find your answer.” He doesn’t need someone to give him the answer, he needs help focuing so he can find the answer. In thrid grade they take the OAA’s. He took his in the fall and once again did terrible. they take them again in the Spring and I have no idea how he will bring up his below average score. His just got his second report card for this year and has 5 A’s and 2 B’s, yet according to the OAA test he’s below average for his grade level. During testing the teacher legally is not able to answer any of his questions or even tap him on the shoulder to make sure he’s focusing. I’m not sure how he’s going to make it through all the grades with all this standardized testing they have to do. Just like everything in life, I think it works well for some kids, but not for all. Kids all learn in different ways. We are all different and there should be different ways to tests kids. I need to keep researching and see what else I can find out. Thanks for this article Melissa!

    1. Jill, my heart just broke reading about your son’s experience with the testing – poor baby, I want to give him a big hug!

      I’m so glad to hear this information was helpful. Please email me if I can help you following up with anything about this.


      1. Can we opt them out in Ohio? My daughter is in the gifted program, but I have a moral objection to her tests being used to grade schools and teachers. Her teacher, who teaches gifted students, will appear super because we parents have been able to provide enriching activities for our kids. The teacher who is working his heart out with the “at risk” students will be viewed as less. What are the rules for opting out here? I’ve tried to find out, but I don’t seem to be able to find that out.

        1. Hi Colleen,
          Go to and then click on ‘Ohio’ in left-hand column.

          My experience is that local school won’t want to tell you. Certainly, they don’t want to lose your daughter’s high scores. And on that issue I can sympathize with their position. they are under tremendous pressure from the state and the federal government. But someone has to say “No!” So my advice is that if you want more info than provided on the Out Out website, call the Ohio Department of Education. I looked on their website and found this:


          She’s the contact for info about the test grades 3-8.

          As a longtime teacher of those ‘at risk’ students, I thank you for worrying about those teachers. Parents are such important factors in children’s achievement–for good and for bad.

          I wish you well. . . and would like to hear about how you fare. I called here in VT and the fellow was reluctant to admit that a parent could opt a child out of the state test. He was very genial but gave me quite a ‘sell’ on why children should take the tests. . . before finally admitting that yes, opting out is permissible.

          1. More information about opting out from tests is available at Parents teachers and taxpayers should consider participating in Occupy the DOE in DC March 30-April 2. Information is available at
            In New York State, a petition is seeking the right for parents to have their children opt out of testing as they can in some other states. The petition is at
            Parents should also be aware that the American Psychological Association’s policy is to oppose ever making a decision affecting a person’s life based on a single test. In addition, major educational researchers have issued a joint statement opposing the use of high stakes tests for evaluating teachers or schools, because the tests are not valid for that purpose.

    2. You raise a very important point Jill. Experts (who may or may not be opposed to standardized testing) agree that third grade tests are not valid because the children are too young. I know plenty of adults who couldn’t “focus” for that length of times. It is extremely iffy for a 3rd grader and the results in no way reflect what he can do. Your son is lucky that you understand this.

      And Rajean, I’m grinning broadly that this is what you took from the interview. Yes, indeed: ASK YOUR KIDS IF THEY LAUGHED AT SCHOOL TODAY. That sums it up nicely. I’m going to put that up on Twitter!

    3. Jill, I know there are no easy answers and I have a son who is younger than yours, but his profile sounds really similar. I wonder if getting a 504 or IEP would help your son? Meaning, there may be things a teacher is allowed to do when testing if it is written into their 504 plan.

      I am glad Melissa brought up opting-out options, but if you feel that is not possible, at least right now, it might be worth seeing about ways to get him the support he needs to bring his smarts to his work (as we say in our family). Each of my kids has such a unique learning profile that we have had to figure what that looks like for each one, and then go advocate for it with the schools. Not easy (at all!), but still worth it. I’d be happy to talk with you more about our journey sometime if you like:

  19. To Gretchen and JoAnn,

    I don’t know about your states, but in ours, the same standardized test is given three times each school year. Add to these two or three other standardized tests for math and language skills. I have needed scores for my kids for various purposes, but I only need one score, not three (or six) each year.

    When you homeschool in my state (which I do now), you only have to turn in one passing standardized test score every other year; that satisfies the district and gives me scores I need to get my kids into score-dependent programs. Perhaps public school parents could opt out on this schedule – not opting out of them all, but I’d say opting out of five tests out of six could serve as a nice compromise.

  20. Great post! Gretchen (from lifenut) makes a valid point that I hadn’t even thought about, though. If we want our daughter to be eligible for those programs, we have to jump through those hoops. It’s an interesting conundrum.

  21. As a teacher and a parent of a child in the public school system (different district), I can tell you that there are still children who come home talking about planting pumpkin seeds in the courtyard garden. Those same children tell their parents about Pablo Picasso and ask if there are any performances of the Nutcracker in our area. I guess reading this post makes me very thankful that joy can still be found in school. I think I’ll go email a teacher to thank them right now.

    On a different note, this idea of opting out of a state test is absolutely a new one for me. The schools that I know of have make-up dates so that would be a lot of school missed.

  22. Unfortunately, programs like admission to IB programs and honors in high school are partially tied to these scores. My daughter is in IB and we had to submit her CSAP scores with her application. Opting out could hurt those chances. I can see opting out with younger kids, who don’t need that pressure.

    1. My schools IB program considers alternative indicators. We don’t take the CSAP because of the high-stakes and inherent inequities. Socio-economic status is the number one correlating factor to test scores. My daughters do take the COGAT, MAP, and a dozen other classroom standardized tests. Insist that programs consider alternative indicators. Important placement decisions like these should never be based on a single measurement tool; particularly one as flawed as CSAP.

  23. I really appreciate this post. THIS is a large part of the reason why my children are now educated at home, and I only test them when it is absolutely required by the state (once every three years). Also, as a former public school teacher, I could see in the springtime the negative impact these tests had on our students. Thank you for your perspective, and I am sharing this!

  24. This is exactly why I am so unhappy as a public school teacher. There is NO WAY I will send my young son off to experience school like I have to teach it. Joy in a school day? Are you kidding? It’s all about rigor. My students have missed out on 13 days of instruction so far this year because of quarterly standardized tests, and I still have to give it 2 more times!!! I didn’t know parents could opt out. I am going to make them aware of this.

  25. Sitting here in Wisconsin where over 1,000,000 signatures were collected to recall our governor, this sentiment seems just right: “The business roundtable ….. seem to think that their repeated denunciation of teachers will distract the public from noticing where the real culprits of our economic troubles sit.” I can’t tell you how many people I have encountered rant about the lazy teachers and how it’s about time they were made to pay their fair share and made accountable for their work.

    My kids are too young for school and we are almost certainly going to home school, but the idea of opting out of the tests is a good one

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