Assessment Opinion

‘Bridging Differences’ About the Opt-Out Debate

By John T. McCrann — March 31, 2016 6 min read
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Well, that time of year is fast approaching: the dreaded “testing season.” In the coming weeks, Education Week and many other education-focused journalism outlets will be filled with stories about the horrors and opportunities of testing.

I’ll continue to share about the performance assessment process that we use at my school, but I wanted to take a chance to enter into this public conversation in a more explicit way. I hope to do this in a way that can move beyond the partisan bomb-throwing that often characterizes this conversation.

“How to Opt” will be a three part conversation between myself and my colleague Robert Jeffers, who is also a Fellow with America Achieves.

Robert and I come at the “opting” conversation from similar and divergent places and are genuinely interested in learning from one another. (I would remiss here if I didn’t hat tip to Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier’s masterful Bridging Differences blog as an inspiration for this project).

JM: So, Robert, introduce yourself to the fine folks:

RJ: Thanks John! I feel really lucky to have taught English, film, and environmental stewardship since 2002 here in Los Angeles. First at Washington Prep High School and then at Dorsey High where I remain to this day.

JM: I recently re-read your piece “What Opting In Reveals About Opting Out.” I really appreciate your argument for the use of data to inform educational decisions: “I doubt even the staunchest anti-testing proponent really wants education policy informed sans data, and instead based on emotion, opinion, or who has the more powerful lobbying contingency.” You seem to be advancing a pro-assessment, test-agnostic position. You argue for data, but don’t seem to care how we get that data. Is that how would you summarize your position?

RJ: I like the idea of “test agnostic” — that it may not be possible to know if there’s a test out there that can give students, families, teachers, and administrators accurate information about learning. And, I would say correct, at least in part, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for better assessments and that they have no place in education or that we should avoid tests all together either. This seems too reductive for me.

Still, it got me thinking about what I wrote and in particular the following: “Without test-takers, an accountability system can’t work.” I would amend my previous statement to be “without test-takers a testing-based accountability system can’t work.” I don’t advocate a test-only accountability system — multiple measures are important and I’ve always been a big advocate of portfolios.

Tests can be helpful, we just need to be careful about how we use data and the tests themselves. They are not perfect and never will be. If the College Board thinks the SAT imperfect enough to revise it every 10 or so years maybe we should consider how much weight we place on it and other tests?

I can say that I’m glad the spotlight has shifted to testing both on quantity and quality. A friend who lives in Tennessee recently shared with me that 3rd graders spend 674 minutes on their yearly accountability tests when the MCAT and the LSAT are 450 and 175 minutes, respectively. If we accept this as true, then what we really need isn’t accountability but perspective and reason.

JM: I agree that we need multiple measures. We need to present information in multiple ways and give students the opportunity to tell us what they know in multiple ways. In other words, we need good teaching (I like the way Loryn Windwehen talked about this).

It seems your position is that we need good teaching and good testing, but I see testing as a barrier to good teaching.

We’ve both worked in schools that have fallen victim to the pitfalls of the test and punish regime. There are financial and political incentives for policy makers to place emphasis on test scores instead of learning and has an err of “objectivity.” What they don’t seem to realize is that the act of tying test scores to incentive structures for teachers and students (like grade promotion or pay) will inevitably lead to an attempt to game the system — John Ewing explains this idea, known as Campbell’s Law, here.

Good teaching will be crowded out if there is a system that emphasizes a score on a test. Every day in every school in this country we have teachers assessing students’ learning and evaluating students’ work — teacher grades remain the best assessment predictor of student success in college.

RJ: A little testing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when children will find themselves getting tested in various ways throughout their life.

If we shield them from the inevitability of testing we set bad precedents about opting out of driving tests, blood tests, and any host of other inevitable assessments adults face throughout life just because their families don’t feel like it or say they know better, we set our students up for mix of entitlement and failure.

Naturally, passing a driving test doesn’t prove that you won’t be involved in an accident; however, having some baselines help set standards that allow us to peer into the simultaneous academic lives of students from Pensacola, FL to Bellingham, WA. And sure, a couple times a student has genuinely impressed me with their scores and showed me something I didn’t know: that they understood the material despite their course performance.

Where I think we can agree is using standardized test information in an excessively punitive, high-stakes way for getting quick answers about teachers and schools. How do you suggest we compare data between students? Shouldn’t we know something more about what our students know? I get scared that opting out is similar to not voting in an election because you don’t like the candidates available.

JM: For me, the big idea is that we ought to undermine the current incentive structure in order replace it with something better, what I call “healthy assessment habits.” This could look like grade-span testing or NAEP-style representative sampling methods (check out this post for more). Meaningful assessment reform won’t become a policy priority unless students and families “vote with their feet” by opting out of the current destructive system.

RJ: For me, tests are not the problem, but our obsession with data is and our enthusiastic willingness to gather insights into our students at almost any cost. We need to redouble our efforts to strengthen the learning community among students, teachers, schools, families, and communities, and if testing divides us we really need to find reasonable common ground that builds and improves.

JM: Well, I think that’s a good start. I’m excited to continue this conversation.

However, to do so we need your help! Parents and guardians: we want to write a post or two that gives advice to some of you in a specific dilemmas related to “how to opt.” If you find yourself in such a dilemma and would like us to weigh in, please contact me directly through twitter or email: jraytroutmac@gmail.com.

Photo by antoniusales //pixabay.com/en/child-studying-proof-test-counting-517839/

Robert Jeffers is a High School English and Film Teacher in LAUSD, and an alum of both America Achieves and Teach Plus.

Follow John McCrann on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy 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.