Assessment Opinion

The Opt-Out Debate: Parental Perspective

By John T. McCrann — June 15, 2016 8 min read
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This is Part 2 of our series “How to Opt,” where LAUSD teacher Robert Jeffers and I are discussing issues that arise for us as a part of the conversation around testing and whether or not families should opt their students out of state standardized exams.

As I said in our last piece, I have a hope that the conversation here can move some folks out of entrenched positions in order to empathize with (if not agree with) those on the other side of the debate.

To that end, Robert and I thought it might be helpful to hear from a parent who is grappling with the “how to opt” question. This will allow us to base this part of our conversation on a specific set of circumstances and get a bit of a window into how policy decisions made in state education departments impact the conversations that take place at family dinner tables.

I’m the parent of a fourth-grader who attends a private school in Brooklyn, New York. Parents at my son’s school generally support standardized tests for two reasons. First, their children tend to do well on them. Second, they view them as gateways to prestigious high schools and colleges.

I believe, as do all the parents I’ve spoken to, that our children’s education should be challenging. The New York State tests don’t come close to addressing the complexities of the school’s curriculum. Classes do not devote much prep time to them. They are taken and quickly forgotten so students can return to learning.

Students undergo this exercise in large part because competitive high schools rely on standardized test scores to make admissions decisions.

The US testing obsession has left me questioning. I’ve become accustomed to the high-quality education my son receives in school, but I’m not so convinced that Pearson (or its successor Questar Assessment, Inc.) can offer my child high quality, reliable exams. In fact, my son and I recently took some sample items published in the New York Times together. The first five questions, based on a reading of the tale “Secrets Are Hard to Keep” by Saviour Pirotta, tested vocabulary, comprehension, information, and inference. All of them, however, rank as Level 1 or 2 on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.

So, where is the “rigor” that had been promised by the test developers to reflect the shifts announced by the Common Core standards?

As a parent, I find no value in such an inferior product, nor should my son be obligated to take it. Our hearts go out to the 900,000 schoolchildren who sat for this test.

Richard Capozzi

JM: So Robert, our mission is to try to give Mr. Capozzi some advice on what to do on behalf of his son and community.

Before we get to Mr. Capozzi’s specific issues, I do want to address a common thread in the debate. Opponents of the opt-out movement (including some folks who I respect like our America Achieves colleague Sharif El-Mekki) are playing up the identity politics in this debate, characterizing the opt-out movement exclusively for and by white middle class folks.

Here’s what I want to say about that: 1) It’s not true (check out the organizing work going on at #educolor to see examples of Black and Latino educators and families that are saying “enough is enough” to overtesting). 2) Pretending like this debate is exclusively about identity obscures the valid points made by people of all races/colors/creeds/income levels on both sides and feels like a step away from the kind of conversation we want to have.

RJ: That works for me.

There is no one perfect assessment and the idea that a single assessment serves as a looking glass into an alternate world with perfect clarity and accuracy about a student’s strengths and areas for improvement seems wishful at best. My assessments aren’t perfect; neither are those written by any one person, school, or organization.This — in and of itself — is not adequate reason to recuse oneself or one’s child from the large value of reasonable testing. The sample of questions provides justifiable grounds for doubt and disappointment — we should expect more from our tests and the companies that author them, especially if teachers and school and families are being held to higher and higher expectations. And yes, if tests need to be high stakes for teachers, principals, schools, and most importantly children, an equally high expectation should be placed on the tests themselves.

JM: So let’s talk about those expectations, particularly this question of “rigor.” If we assume Mr. Capozzi is correct that the test content isn’t as rigorous as his the content of his son’s normal school curriculum it seems like opting out is the logical move. He gets information on his son’s progress related to MORE rigorous learning standards on a regular basis from his son’s teachers so the test is at best a redundant waste of time and at worst a non-sequitur that distracts from the coherent learning he’s doing on the other 178 days of the school year. Seems like either way his son’s interests are best served by doing something else that day.

RJ: Perhaps we should define this term “rigor.” Is it the same as difficulty? Does rigor mean duration? Does rigor equate to trickiness? If a test is really hard and the questions are not flawed, does that mean the test is doing its job?

JM: Right, because one person’s rigor can be another’s unreasonable expectation. It sounds like Mr. Capozzi’s definition relates to higher order thinking, which seems reasonable to me. Of course assessing students’ ability to synthesize and critique is not as straight-forward as assessing their ability to recall or recognize. Therein lies the problem for assessment makers.

RJ: At this point, we should enter into the discussion how we use tests and test results. This teacher from Georgia did everything they needed to do and somehow still came up short. We need to return to reason for the sake of the profession, the teachers, and the students. Abandoning the system may create consequences we haven’t foreseen. It’s important to question for sure and push when necessary, but is refusing to play the most effective way to create the change we want to see for the system and our students?

JM: Right. We agree that students SHOULD be assessed and we agree that the performance of students on that assessment is an imperfect measure of how well their school/teachers are doing. So how do we fight for assessment sanity? Or perhaps more to the point, what do we think parents like Mr. Capozzi should do in our test-obsessed educational world?

I don’t really see any point in his son sitting for an exam that won’t give him or his family useful information about his learning. This could limit his high school options slightly, but there are many great schools that do not require tests and are set up to teach and assess deep learning (shameless plug: like my school Harvest Collegiate and other schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium).

This choice has the added ancillary benefit of contributing to the destabilization of the test-and-punish philosophy. I’m less worried than many about the unforeseen consequences of undermining an ineffective assessment system without a viable alternative ready to go. I trust New York’s families and educators (including our Chancellor Betty Rosa) to lead us in a new direction that collects valid and reliable data on how students from all backgrounds are achieving without the huge footprint and destructiveness of the current one.

Mr. Capozzi, next year on testing day, send your son to school with a note to opt out and a good book from the library or some art supplies. Or better yet, take a day to be with him and go to the park or the American Museum of Natural History!

RJ: Glad we have agreement about the need for assessment sanity. I feel like we’re not alone in this sentiment, but I do feel we need to have an alternative plan in place.

The notion that “I don’t want to” or “it’s not perfect” are reasons to undermine a school board decision sets a dangerous precedent. How are we to approach future assessments, expectations, rules, requirements in a world where some folks can opt out whenever they please?

Should the day arrive that our students, schools and families have a perfect assessment — or even just a better assessment — will you encourage all your students to take it? Will we encourage Mr. Capozzi to insist that his son take that assessment? And, then will we encourage those students that have a field trip to the American Natural History Museum to miss the museum in favor of this superior assessment that provides deep insight and significant rigor? I hope not, because I hope the system will see that field trips are not a luxury but a necessity and that a reasonable assessment strategy can fit into that scheme.

Better, fewer tests with snappy turnaround time on the results that don’t harm students or teachers because of attached high stakes might get us closer to what we want for all: a balanced educational system that prioritizes real-world, experiential learning, and not the assessment-forward menu we have today.

As for what Mr. Capozzi could do: allow his son to take the assessment and see how he fairs and see how it correlates with what his school is telling him. Afterwards, I would go with the entire family to the museum — I hear that the National Park Adventure exhibition is pretty great. Sure, it’s not the same as actually going to Yosemite, but it’s the best alternative you have in the city.

Photo 1 https://pixabay.com/en/test-testing-bubble-form-test-form-986935/ by croitg

Photo 2 Yosemite National Park, definitely better than a bubble test. https://unsplash.com/photos/CLXGiGV5ICc by John Salzarulo

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.