Focusing on the “Opt” in the “Opt-Out Movement”

Like most others, I have had the good fortune to be alive and paying attention enough over the last ten years to bear witness to at least two major revolutions.

I never thought I would see the day when people could actually talk to other people with their wrist watch, and just last month the Supreme Court reaffirmed its’ commitment to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by safeguarding equal access to the institution of marriage. These are major changes – both of which were propelled by and, in turn, will have major implications for democracy.

Though not as long-in-the-making nor as groundbreaking, I’ve been watching the growing “Opt-Out” movement with a muted – but similar – enjoyment.

Is the Opt-Out Movement Truly a Movement?

The “Opt-Out” movement, where parents block schools from testing their children with high stakes standardized measures, is pretty fascinating. In a sense this small movement is akin to seeing hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation turn to each other with expressions of utter disbelief saying, “Wait … we can do that?”

For so long, parents have sent their children to school without asking many critical questions about what their children experience during the school day, including the decisions that administrators make about curriculum, or how data about their children’s performance on standardized tests are collected and used.

Parental disgruntlement has usually centered around their child’s new teacher, and concerns about particular “trouble-makers” in their child’s class. Research has shown over and over that some parents feel entitled to follow these conflicts through, while others feel disempowered or reluctant depending on their cultural or economic background. (See the book “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Class in Schools” by Richard Rothstein for full descriptions of how this plays out.)

Regardless, disgruntlement is minor and scattered. Parents experience and deal with these conflicts in vacuum, and the conflicts experienced by many individuals separated by space and time could never be regarded as a movement. 

So, the recent uproar about the over use of standardized tests, and calls for opting children out of said tests, in contrast, seems to be something of a revolution in the way that parents understand their role in their children’s education.

Why We are Suddenly Concerned about Over-Testing

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stipulated in 2002 that all children grades 3-8 & 10th or 11th be tested using a state-administered standardized test. The intent then was to reach “universal proficiency” on those standardized tests by 2014. So, all students in every state had to “pass” these standardized tests by 2014. This was an extraordinary lofty (read: unrealistic), but worthwhile goal.

Most states contracted to private companies to develop standardized tests, and the students’ tests were scored with the designation “Failing,” “Basic,” “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Students’ performances on those standardized tests were spread across the four designations. However, districts with pockets of poverty were more likely to have concentrations in the “Failing” and “Basic” categories, and districts with concentrated wealth and college-educated parents were more likely to be labeled “Proficient” and “Advanced.”

This gap in performance was predictable. Students have performed similarly on standardized tests since the national government started administering National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP – sounds like “nape”) in the 1960s. This gap in performance is the well-documented “achievement gap.”

Getting to “universal proficiency” by 2014, therefore, conveyed the expectation that states could close the achievement gap in 12 years. All schools had to show “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” toward this goal of universal proficiency. If they didn’t, all sorts of penalties ensued. NCLB required standardized tests as the preferred way to track changes in student performance.

Testing Mania

As lofty as this goal was, when the data from these tests were crunched it became clear that NCLB and standardized tests weren’t closing the achievement gap.

Many very smart people decided that the tests were probably not very good measures of what we want students to learn. (Others decided it was probably the teachers’ fault, but let us leave that for another post.)

So, since the tests were to blame, a few powerful organizations set new guidelines about what American kids should be learning, resulting in the Common Core State Standards or CCSS. With little time to vet the standards, states adopted CCSS and implemented them in their schools.

Then, some very lucky private companies were contracted and got a whole lot of money to design new tests to measure whether students were mastering CCSS. Two tests, the PARCC test and the Smarter-Balanced or “SBAC” test were adopted by most states.

This year, our nation’s schoolchildren in grades 3-8 and 10th or 11th had the sad misfortune of “piloting” these new PARCC or SBAC tests while simultaneously phasing out their state’s old standardized tests. The result was dozens of school days (out of a 180-day school year) spent penciling in bubbles on Scantron sheets and/or clicking through items on the computer.

Add together the state standardized tests; the new, and considerably more challenging, SBAC or PARCC test; for most 10th or 11th grade students their AP test and PSAT or SAT test; and, perhaps their ACT or other college-entrance tests and it’s pretty clear that this year we tested the hell out of American schoolchildren.

Opting Out

This year, the number of parents who said “Thanks, but no thanks” (or more accurately, “Take your test and shove it!”)  to standardized tests exploded155,000 kids opted out of tests in New York alone.

As an education researcher, I lament the lost data. As a parent, I totally get it.

On the one hand, I know our nation’s children are over-tested. According to education expert, Linda Darling Hammond, we as a nation focus more on testing than any other country in the world. We have too many standardized assessments. Some of them generate meaningful data, but others not so much.

On the other hand, I know standardized tests are a source of information about student academic performance. Schools can use this data, but it’s typically used most by education researchers and the national government to help track (some would say exacerbate) the gap in performance between different segments of the American population.

This summer is really the first time that I have thought about it on a personal level, because this school year my oldest daughter is entering third-grade. That is to say, this school year marks the first time NCLB and yearly testing is a reality for me as a parent.

I also live in New Hampshire where our state’s new parent trigger law allows parents to opt-out of any public school curriculum they deem inappropriate. Though our governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt-out of standardized tests specifically, many of our state’s districts are allowing it. It’s probably only a matter of time before NH’s House and Senate override her veto, so I expect the Opt-Out debate to surface again in NH by winter.

My husband and I take parenting decisions on a case-by-case basis. If I had a child who experienced tremendous anxiety over tests no matter how valiant our efforts were to calm her, I would probably pull her out. In that case, the tests would do more harm than good. I defend parents’ rights to protect their children in these cases.

I also happen to think there is a massive level of hysteria around parents opting their children out of testing right now. I don’t judge them, they have their reasons.Their children might react more strongly to taking a test too, where my child doesn’t seem to register a difference between taking a standardized test and taking the teacher’s weekly spelling challenge. Yet, the hysteria overshadows the advantage of standardized testing, which is their power as a source of information and a diagnostic tool about how their child is learning. 

Finally, I hope that the parent veto rights bill isn’t overused in New Hampshire. I have many misgivings about parents telling schools regularly what should be in the curriculum. Parent vetoes convey a certain level of distrust in our teachers and schools and they are often used to prevent teachers from teaching things that are widely accepted by scientists to be true (e.g. evolution and climate change). 

For all of those reasons, we will have both of our children follow the standardized testing schedule in our district for now.

Opting-in: With Reservations & Just for Now

Even having thought through all of this and made a decision (for this year at least), I will do several things to parent my kids through standardized tests.

First, and most importantly, I will make sure my daughter understand these tests are not high stakes for her and don’t measure her intelligence. Standardized tests are not tests of intelligence, and just to be clear, intelligence tests (IQ) aren’t even tests of fixed intelligence

Any standardized test should be treated as a diagnostic tool at most, which can help us identify areas where we can support children’s learning more, and areas where they are already demonstrating mastery of skills and content. So, I’ll try not incite further hysteria in my child when I talk to her about the tests. I hope her teachers and building principals do the same – as far as I can tell they do.

I will definitely be examining the testing results when they are returned, and in this manner the personal and the professional overlap for me since I have the training to make sense of test reports (which don’t make sense to many parents). This information can be useful to parents, teachers and schools, but test makers need to do more in the way of making test results meaningful for all.

I also plan to be very active in the school district to make sure that the standardized testing results are NOT used in a high stakes or inappropriate manner. Standardized test results have been used inappropriately in New Hampshire’s recent past as a result of NCLB, and continue to be used inappropriately in other states now (e.g. as a punitive measure for districts failing to meet AYP or as a measure of teaching quality – both so wrong). NH has a waiver from NCLB so these misuses are unacceptable. 

In short, my children will take the tests for now, because standardized tests are a useful tool when used appropriately, they are no-stakes for my children in New Hampshire, and I can parent my kids through the experience.

Focusing on the “OPT”

But, I have the option to change my mind and opt-out, and therein lies the sentiment that makes me a true geek for democracy and overjoys the social studies teacher still very much alive inside of me.

The Opt-Out movement is a movement, and as such has the power to get more parents involved in very important day-to-day educational decisions. It also has the added benefit of bringing the “public” back into “public education,” because people more so than ever before in recent history, seem to be paying attention to what’s going on in our nation’s schools.

So when the frenzy kicks back in again in the upcoming school year and people are debating who is opting in, who is opting out and who doesn’t really care one way or another… know there is at least one person in the nation who’s happy simply that people are recognizing there’s an “opt” in the discussion.

The children are watching and learning that civic participation in our nation’s schools is a democratic and meaningful act.

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