Testing Opt-Outs Threaten School Equity, Measurement Group Says

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 06, 2017 2 min read
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Students’ refusal take federally mandated exams makes it more difficult for school systems to direct resources appropriately, and to attend to the needs of specific populations of students, the National Council on Measurement in Education argues in a recent position statement.

The group urges parents, educators, and policymakers to encourage participation in the exams, and to improve the quality of the tests so that they better reflect high-quality teaching.

Information from the tests “allows those concerned with the quality and equity of education to plan and advocate for needed resources at both the system and the local levels,” the group said in its statement, issued last month. “When students do not participate in state assessment, or do not take the assessment seriously, the accuracy of results, and our ability to improve education for all, is severely undermined.”

The so-called opt-out movement includes both students who don’t take the exams, and parents who don’t let their children sit for them. Test refusals exploded during the 2015 and 2016 testing years. News stories out of New York, the epicenter of the movement, indicate that fewer students sat out the tests this year, but they remain a concern.

Confusingly, the Every Student Succeeds Act contains a bit of a dodge and weave on the issue of opt-outs. Under the federal law’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind, schools where fewer than 95 percent of the student populations sat for the exams could be penalized. Under ESSA, by contrast, states get to design the consequences if schools don’t meet this target.

You can see states’ proposed opt-out policies under ESSA and much more in this interactive graphic from the Politics K-12 team.

NCME’s position mirrors that of groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Education Trust.

Given that this is a group of testing experts, it’s fair to ask whether the statement is also self-serving to a degree. But the NCME statement acknowledges, obliquely, that test-makers bear some responsibility for the movement. It argues that efforts to improve participation are best justified when the tests are “worth preparing for” because they appropriately reflect high-quality instruction; “worth taking,” because they’re interesting and engaging (read: fewer multiple-choice questions); and “worth using” by teachers to improve their instruction because they generate useful information.

As longtime readers of this blog know, creating deeper, richer tests was the goal of the federally funded consortia that designed exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards. But as Education Week has reported, it’s debatable whether those tests lived up to that goal. The general pressure to reduce testing time makes it more challenging, too: It’s harder to develop really rich assessment experiences when you have a limited amount of testing time.

For more on the opt-out movement:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.