Standards and Testing – What’s Up with Opting Out?

A few years ago I did a full “executive physical”.   I wasn’t sick or at risk for anything in particular at the time. But I thought it would be good to have a baseline record of lipids, blood glucose, cardiac health, etc.   Fortunately there were no surprises.

At subsequent annual checkups, I was able to have more intelligent conversations with my physician with this data in hand.    Each year I see what indicators are improving, or declining, like weight or cholesterol.  Then my physician might recommend adjustments to my diet or medications.  And if something is going more seriously wrong, it can be detected early.

Standardized testing has been used in our public schools for decades, with much the same motivation:  give students, teachers, and administrators useful information about student performance.

The earliest standardized tests in the US were the SAT (1926) and the ACT (1959).  When I was an elementary school student in the 1970s we took the California Achievement Test (CAT) every year (even though I lived in Massachusetts!?)   And the concept of standardized tests goes back much further, dating back to ancient Greece and the Han dynasty in China (206 BC) — although those examinations did not employ scantron sheets and #2 pencils.

In its current incarnation, standardized testing has noble aims.  Testing is designed to give the public, as well as educators, information about the performance of our students (and thus our schools).  Tests are designed to measure progress against specific standards.  For us, these are the PA Standards, which are aligned to the national common core standards.  With test results in hand, communities and educators  make adjustments to school operations to make improvements — large or small, depending on the circumstances — to better educate students.

If a student is struggling in a particular subject area, an intervention can be designed to get the student back on track.  But the focus is more on system-wide issues.  Test results flag gaps in the curriculum, point to issues in a particular grade or building, and provide benchmarks against other top districts.  Armed with test data, our “data teams” of  teachers and administration can take steps to further analyze and diagnose opportunities for improvement.   (These are not theoretical examples – UCF administration and IST teams in each building examine our test results and takes these kinds of steps every year.)

While this approach to testing may seem like common sense, standardized testing is beginning to draw fire from a small but vocal segment of the public.  In New York, New Mexico, and Colorado, the issue is getting lots of attention.   Delaware recently passed a bill to preserve parent’s rights to opt out.     Maine in considering the same.  In Pennsylvania, this is not yet a hot issue but there are signs that it might become one.

But there are large constituencies who support annual testing.  One reason is that testing plays a critical role in highlighting educational inequity, especially in poor, urban districts.   Without standardized tests, we could not compare the outcomes of English language learners to native speakers, rich districts to poor districts, and see where more resources or new approaches are needed.  And this is one of the many reasons why civil rights groups have come out strongly against the opt out movement.   Public test results prevent schools from sweeping bad results under the rug, and shine light on populations that are being under-served.

What motivates the “opt out” critics, and is there anything we should from their critique?  Is there anything we should do differently as a district?

In my next post will look more closely at how testing functions at UCF.  And then we will examine the argument of the opt out critics.