Opt Out to Save Standardized Testing?

Just a few weeks ago at Parent-Teacher Conferences, one question kept arising. “Should I opt my child out of the test?” As a teacher whose evaluation will be based partly on my students’ test scores, this was an interesting question. I did my best to provide a fair answer.
One parent asked me another question at Parent-Teacher Conferences that forced me to pause. "If you were a parent, would you have your kid take the test?" While making it clear that I supported any decision a parent might make, this is what I said. 

If I were just thinking about my child, I probably wouldn't have them take the test, I explained. I don't think the tests provide the most accurate or meaningful information about a student's learning. As someone interested in how all kids are doing however, I would probably have my child take the test, because it would help us to understand this picture better.
Alone, my child's test score wouldn't mean much to me, but pooled with the millions of other test scores it would provide information about the disparities in performance between our city and state’s racial and socioeconomic groups. Now whether you believe these differences are wholly the result of societal inequality or a function of a dysfunctional school system (I tend to think that one follows the other), it’s vital that they are brought to light.

And yet this answer is (understandably) not very compelling to parents. Not when they see the arts, science and history crowded out by test prep. Not when their 8-year-old is experiencing test anxiety, stomach pains and sleeplessness.
Of course these have been complaints since standardized testing and the accountability movement became national practice via the No Child Left Behind in 2001. So, why is the opt-out movement finding so much momentum now? The most likely culprit is New York’s botched roll out of the Common Core standards.

Generally I feel that families and teachers in my school agree that the new, more rigorous standards are a positive change. But our experience with the transition this year has also been marred by frustrations with incomplete curricula and developmentally inappropriate materials. Meanwhile, our students will be expected to show proficiency on standards that don’t match their previous three to five years of schooling. Oh, and their performance on these tests will count for 40% of our evaluations.

All this is to say there are a lot reasons to opt kids out of testing. When the state exams start in New York this week, there will be six kids in my class opting out. About two-thirds of all the testing-age students in my school are opting out. It's no longer just Arne Duncan's "white suburban moms" unhappy with the Common Core and standardized tests. Their decision and the decision of many other families across New York City is making headlines and it seems the "Opt-Out" movement is reaching a critical mass.
This is an exciting moment. The more families that opt out, the stronger the message to policymakers that the current testing system is broken. The question is what will they do in response? 

I'm hoping they find a way to ensure all students do take the tests. There are many, many problems with the current testing system that need to be fixed. But if we can fix them, and use tests more responsibly (a subject for another post), tests can shine a light on disparities and help us better pursue educational equity.

Whether you understand the problem as an achievement gap or an educational debt, there's clearly an equity problem in our current American school system. Without data, especially in our "colorblind" society, we run the risk of pretending that problem doesn't exist.


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