Education Opinion

Assessing the Opt-Out Movement

By Walt Gardner — May 22, 2015 1 min read
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What began as a small campaign to protest the outsize role of standardized testing has grown into a force to be reckoned with. Nowhere is the opt-out movement more apparent than in New York State, where one of every six eligible students sat out at least one of two standardized tests this year (“ ‘Opt Out’ Becomes Anti-Test Rallying Cry in New York State,” The New York Times, May 20).

Whether the 165,000 students who refused to take the tests - a figure four times the number of the previous year - will be joined by an equal number of students in other states is hard to know. That’s because it’s still unclear what factors prompted parents in New York State to be pioneers in the first place. For example, California, which has the nation’s largest public-school enrollment, has not seen the same pushback despite strident opposition to standardized testing.

I understand why parents are frustrated and angry. They’ve tried without success to reduce or eliminate the weight given to standardized tests. But I wonder if they would feel the same way if these tests were used strictly for diagnostic purposes? Unlike other commentators, I believe that standardized tests have their place in schools. It’s their misuse that is the real issue. Finland, for example, selects at random about 100 public schools each year to take standardized tests. But the results are never made public, nor are they used to evaluate teachers. Instead, they are used solely to help teachers improve their instruction.

If I were still teaching English, I would welcome this kind of feedback. I graduated from a public high school in New York State in the 1950s. Regents exams were required in certain subjects. I don’t recall teachers spending any time teaching to the Regents exams, nor do I recall feeling any apprehension taking them. They seemed merely to confirm what I had been taught and learned. Were the Regents high-stakes exams? In some ways they were because students who wanted to apply to college had to earn a Regents diploma in those days.

I realize that public schools in New York State today have changed since I was a student, but I think the Regents exams, which are standardized tests, have been a positive force in maintaining the value of a high-school diploma. Why are other standardized tests administered there so demonized?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.