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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Opting Out: Will It Lead to the Real Discussion About Assessment?

By Peter DeWitt — April 20, 2015 5 min read
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The danger, perhaps, is to hear the analyst too much and the artist too little.” Robert Greenleaf.

As I sit down to write this post Twitter and Facebook are abuzz with parents and teachers who support the Opt Out Movement and those who do not. The decision to opt out or opt in was a very personal and difficult decision for some, and an easy decision for others.

And then there are the Tweets from “Professionals.” A few days ago I saw a Tweet from an self-proclaimed assessment “expert.” The person touted that opting out in suburban schools was merely about Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), especially in New York where the governor, who is no friend to education, wants to tie 50% of a teacher’s evaluation to high stakes testing.

I have no doubt that there are people opting out because of the APPR angle, but opting out in suburban, urban and rural schools goes far deeper than that...or at least it should. In my opinion the State Education Department (SED) made a grave error when they said that parents cannot opt their children out of testing. You simply cannot demand parents make their children take a test, especially when many have been speaking out about the test for years. Opting out should not be viewed as the fault of the teacher, principal or superintendent’s fault. SED should be looking in the mirror to see who is to blame for yet another debacle in NY State education.

Unfortunately, SED says they will still use the tests as a part of evaluation, regardless of all of the opt outs. Mass hysteria ensued on Facebook. My question is...are we really surprised by that announcement? This was a fairly typical announcement from SED.

What is the Real Issue?

As the dust settles in the next few weeks, I only hope we can have a real discussion about this situation. First we should be asking why so many parents decided to opt out? It’s not solely based on teachers or principals persuading them to do so. This happened for a variety of reasons. They are:

  1. SED and the governor told parents they can’t, and parents are a little tired of being told what they can and cannot do with their own children.
  2. People are really tired of the over focus on high stakes testing. We should be having real discussions about all the ways to assess learning (i.e. formative & summative).
  3. Many people believe the tests are flawed. Constant mistakes in test questions have appeared on social media. When testing companies provide harsh testing rules on what teachers can and cannot do, as well as security measures administrators need to take during test time, the mistakes on the actual test are bound to be scrutinized.
  4. High stakes testing should not be tied to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

The truth is that we all need to learn something from all of this Opt-Out Movement happening across the country. High stakes testing and the movement against it have hit the mainstream. It has been in the local and national news. The Today Show even covered it on Wednesday morning, albeit briefly.

Over all, opting out is a form of civil disobedience. For years parents, students and teachers have spoken up about high stakes testing and the effects of it. We need not look too far to see schools that are cutting recess in order to increase class time or hours of the school day to prepare for high stakes tests. As I float back and forth from wondering whether it’s the test or what adults do to it that is truly harmful, one thing is for sure, which is that we need to learn something from all of this, both adults and children.

From the adult perspective, we need to approach summative and formative assessment differently. What do we really want out of assessment? Shouldn’t it be about learning and not solely focus on accountability? Shouldn’t assessment provide us with more information than we had before, or at least help us solidify what we already know, about a particular student’s success or issue in learning?

Although as adults some may believe that high stakes testing is the root of all evil, there are students who may believe the same thing about the teacher made assessments that have been used for decades and decades. Although those teacher made tests were not be used at the state level, they are used at the classroom level which can be equally as harmful to students because they are used to grade, track and label students. Unfortunately, no one else is around to help those students opt out.

Students are learning some valuable lessons as well, regardless of whether they took the test or not. Some are walking out learning what non-compliance looks and feels like. Hopefully their parents have had discussions with them about how to approach opting out. Hopefully, those students have been given the opportunity to learn what it looks like to stand up when everyone else is sitting down. Maybe this will help students want more out of their education?

Children who are not opting out are learning a valuable lesson as well. They are learning that sometimes you do something even when others may be pressuring you to side with them. They are learning how to work through a stressful situation. I am a fan of opting out, but not at the sake of making those who opt in feel badly about themselves. However, these students taking the test are still learning what non-compliance looks like as they watch their peers walk out of the classroom during test time. They are having conversations with peers when adults are not around.

What must they think of all of us?

What are their thoughts on those parents who opt in and those parents who opt out?

Merely calling this movement, this situation taking over the state right now, a backlash against APPR is a disservice. What is happening, if state leaders are actually watching and listening, is that parents are tired of being told what to do with their children, teachers are tired of giving tests that never provide them new information, and kids are learning that sometimes making the best decision is hard.

We should be learning and discussing why we assess student learning and the best ways to do it. Unfortunately, all state leaders seem to be learning is to look for yet another way to hold schools accountable, regardless of whether they have all the right information or not.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.