Guest Post by Robert Jeffers
With Congress working on a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known, in its current form, as the No Child Left Behind Act), debate over provisions like the Lee Amendment #2162 on mandated testing has spotlighted the opt-out movement. Regardless of how Congress and our politicians vote, until we reimagine testing more parents will continue to “vote” their displeasure by putting their pencils down for standardized tests.
However, opt-out isn’t the only growing movement in the testing game. Each year, millions of students “opt in” to voluntary advanced testing programs like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, thereby sending a different message: Testing can provide valuable opportunities to the students who participate.
Still, over the last two years the opt-out movement has gained considerable traction and attention in states across the country. Why? It depends on whom you ask.
On the one hand, conspiracy theorists seem to see CEOs of the testing industry in some nefarious cabal, sitting around the roaring fireplace of a secluded mountain retreat, brandy snifters in hand, hatching schemes about how to steal information on students and plotting a corporate takeover of the public education system to fund private country club memberships and vintage Rolex collections and ultimately throwing kids to the wolves.
Meanwhile, pro-test types seem to see unions and the teachers that run them as well-below average SAT-scoring opportunists that are also anti-academic, anti-accountability, and anti-student narcissists obsessed with cushy contracts and inappropriate raises to fund dreams of the opulent Hondas they can now lease on their 4-month beach-gilded summer holidays as they serve as Guardians of the Mediocrity Galaxy where they’re only concerned about protecting the worst teachers in the business and ultimately throwing kids to the wolves.
Setting these caricatures aside, the reality is neither.
As a teacher, I see the opt-out movement as a reaction to the widespread testing saturation our students have endured for far too long, and now parents and students are speaking with their actions. A recent New York Times article tracked the significant growth in the opt-out movement in New York state, especially among middle class families, citing new common core-aligned assessments as a contributing factor. And, it’s not just New York. Similar opt-out trends have been reported in other locations like Washington, Oregon and New Jersey. In Los Angeles, where I teach, some teachers have told me their students have spent almost 40 instructional days on a battery of tests, from multiple mandated state tests to district-required periodic assessments to tests for second-language learners. Once students complete one test they barely receive adequate instructional time before teachers start talking about the next one.
In this educational landscape, the opt out movement comes as no surprise. Compound the quantity with the complexity of the new unproven common-core assessments, and it isn’t surprising that parents finally have said, “Enough.”
But to say that parents, teachers, and students alike are entirely anti-test isn’t accurate.
Many students, families, and teachers believe in tests, seek them out, and understand their value in supporting student academic growth. What many don’t know is that there’s actually an “opt-in” testing movement as well, and it’s known as the College Board’s AP testing program, which may provide the model of how tests can support learning while simultaneously earning near universal support from almost all stakeholders.
The AP testing program is more than half a century old. First given in 1956, it offered 2,199 exams to students in just 104 schools. In 2014 more than 12,000 schools offered more than 4 million exams to more than 2.3 million students. AP Tests aren’t required of students; these students voluntarily opted in. Why? The easiest explanation: because it benefits them. Regardless of whether they earn a passing grade or not, AP students learn hard work, perseverance, and academic expectations at a collegiate level, and many universities offer course credit for top marks in addition to near-universal association of rigor with just the act of taking the course. Legendary Garfield High teacher Jaime Escalante knew this, and so do many parents and students, as the program has grown virtually every year since its launch.
Coincidentally, the AP tests offer much of the “bad” of current testing culture: high stakes, acute anxiety, tricky questions, and on-demand performance. Parents and students alike opt-in to take the test in more than 30 subjects every year knowing very well the “bad” and good associated with such a dynamic exercise. They do this because the AP program has built in incentives and a reputation for being a rewarding educational experience. Students should earn something for their work and evidence of their proficiency—a passing grade, credit toward college, and credit recovery. Doing this gives students and their families an opportunity and a motive to participate—a reason to opt in.
Students take AP tests every year because they see the value in the process and they have the opportunity to gain something by passing the test. Conversely, new common-core-aligned tests have been promoted as mainly valuable to schools and systems seeking improvement, rather than being beneficial for individual students themselves. Standardized tests (new and old) are too readily used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools alike—purposes most tests weren’t designed to fulfill. And herein resides another problem.
Tests are imperfect measures, and they can tell a different story based on the year. A colleague of mine teaches AP U.S. History at an inner-city high school with both a high poverty rate and a high second language learner rate. For years he helped his students earn an almost 98 percent passage rate on the test, well beyond the national average. This year, the first year of a newly redesigned AP U.S. History test, the teacher saw his students’ passage rates drop significantly, but still remain above the national average. Did he suddenly become a bad teacher? Should he be placed on probation until his students’ scores improve? No reasonable person would advocate for this, but wrapped in his example is the lesson that we should be careful about jumping to conclusions when standards and assessments are changing—teachers as well as students are learning to navigate these new instructional challenges.
As the opt-out movement grows, so too will the number of districts and states that find themselves out of compliance with federal expectations and subject to punitive measures. This concern is real—without test takers, an accountability system can’t work. The more opt outs, the less statistically reliable data sets become, reducing their usefulness for education policy. Many might see this as growth, but 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.
What the opt out movement is doing is forcing into focus a long-overdue question: What is a reasonable way to evaluate our students, teachers, and schools? We’re soon going to have to reconcile the distance that divides the national conversation with the local reality. Painting either side as caricatures might buy short-term votes, but it won’t resolve systemic problems that require collaboration among education professionals, parents, students, and policy-makers.
Robert Jeffers is a High School English and Film Teacher in LAUSD, and an alum of both America Achieves and Teach Plus.
The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching 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.