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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

To Opt Out or Not to Opt Out: That’s Not the Question

By Guest Blogger — May 20, 2015 4 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA), president of the National Education Association.

I’ve got a friend in New York who wants me to call for every parent in America to opt out of state-mandated standardized tests, which are, of course, the mother’s milk of the No Child Left Untested federal testing feeding frenzy.

The links in the chain of grievances against testing abuse are ponderously long. On the federal level and in many states, there are inappropriate tests required of children with special needs, disabilities, and language issues. There are perfectly appropriate tests that are used for absolutely inappropriate measures, like judging whether a school can be determined to have made “adequate yearly progress.” Progress toward what is usually left unsaid, but it is, by law, adequate yearly progress toward having 100% of the students in the school hit an arbitrary cut score that someone in some level of bureaucratic authority determined is “proficient” in reading and in math. If one student misses that cut score by one point on either test in any grade level, the school has officially failed, which is, of course, absurd.

The pressure placed on students can be enormous. Most of them understand all too well that their test results may be used to call their favorite teacher ineffective or to label their school a failure. In Oklahoma, without any help from the federal government, the state legislature and governor doubled down on the testing obsession to declare that no third grader could go to fourth grade if he or she missed the mandated cut score on the reading test by even one point. They took the professional judgment away from third grade teachers who knew the names of their students and whether they could read or were prepared to succeed in fourth grade. The arrogance of politicians who decided that a parent’s voice in such decisions was unnecessary and the teacher’s voice was not to be trusted, and that state politicians would be the best ones to decide a small child’s future, is not to be forgiven. Even after the outrage of parents and teachers caused them to rethink and reverse themselves, the harm was done to over 8,000 eight-year-olds who were told they were failures.

So, back to my friend. She believes that the answer is to have parents opt out of state-mandated standardized testing and that this will send a powerful message to those reckless politicians playing games with the lives of students, teachers, and entire communities. And my friend is absolutely right that every parent should have the right to have a powerful say in their child’s education, especially where political decisions by people who will never see that child have the power to use tests to apply high-stakes labels to that child. Parents should have the right to know what a test is designed for, how the results of that test will be used, whether or not private companies will have access to private student information, and for what reason those companies need that information. They have a right to demand that any testing companies hired by the district sign the Student Privacy Principles developed and endorsed by major student advocates from the PTA to the NEA to the School Boards Association to the American Library Association to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

And they should have a right, if they are not satisfied with the answers to their questions, to opt their children out of any mandated standardized testing that they believe is inappropriate or harmful to their child or that serves no educational purpose.

But making it easier for parents to opt out is not the solution. Getting rid of the source of test abuse is the solution. We must focus like a laser on organizing parents, teachers, support professionals, administrators, advocates, scientists, taxpayers... everyone has a stake in this, whether or not you’re a parent or an educator. The billions now thrown at the Testing Industrial Complex is possible because of the fear factor. Frightened administrators will buy any product guaranteed to avoid the label “failure.” Frightened teachers and para-professionals will spend inordinate numbers of hours training to teach children to be more advanced test-guessers. We are all seeing a reduction in classes like theater and band and athletics. We’re seeing budgets slashed in support services like school psychologists and librarians and health professionals while budgets for test-aligned textbooks, software, training, and practice materials are left untouched. Entire computer labs are installed—not for children to learn to use in research, but solely for testing.

For some students, allowing easier opt out may be appropriate in circumstances where testing serves no legitimate educational purpose. But those students only opt out of testing day. The billions stolen from their programs and services continue. The hours taken from time to learn critical, creative, collaborative skills continue. The labels continue. The fear continues.

The testing monster will not be tamed by tinkering with opting out of testing day. The abuse will continue until appropriate assessments are used in appropriate ways. That’s a heavy lift. No matter. There’s a lot of muscle out there ready to do this right.

--Lily Eskelsen García

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.