The Good Points of “Opt Out”

Opting out of standardized tests has become a high profile issue in neighboring states.   Any issue that quickly captures the interest of parents must be tapping into something important and real.   What can we learn from the opt out movement?  What are the valid observations that emerge from their critique?

I think the opt out movement makes several good points:

1.  Students obtain little direct benefit from standardized testing.  When a student takes a regular classroom math quiz or test, the results of the assessment can be used in several ways.

  • The student can review the problems she got wrong, make corrections, and in the process add to her understanding.
  • The teacher can see if there are any common areas where students under-performed, and the teacher can provide additional instruction
  • Parents can check the test results and provide additional help

Standardized test results are not released on a timely basis, and item by item results are not released.  While this does protect the confidentiality / integrity of test items, it provides no diagnostic value to help the student in real-time.   PSSA results are not made available until 6 months or more after the test is administered.    By this time, students have moved on to new classrooms and have advanced through new material and concepts.

2.  Parental choice is a good thing and should be respected.   In Pennsylvania, parents have the legal right to ‘opt out’ their children from PSSAs for religious reasons.   Other states are passing legislation to broaden this parental right so that students can opt out of standardized tests for any reason.    Parental involvement in education strongly correlated with academic achievement, and community engagement with our schools and policies is almost always a good thing.  If parents see testing as harmful, then we should support their right to make that decision for their child, even if we might personally think it is the wrong decision.

3.  Great teaching delivers more than good test results.   Teachers rightly point out that measuring teacher performance with an over-emphasis on test results is a mistake.  Great teachers don’ t only transmit knowledge, but generate excitement about learning, help students become self-motivated and organized, make school enjoyable, provide emotional support, and make a personal connection with their students.  Even if standardized tests were perfect measurement tools for academic achievement (which they aren’t) they measure only one important outcome:  academic achievement in the tested subjects.  Testing does not measure all of the outcomes that are important.

4.  Classroom time should not be spent on ‘Test Prep’.    Opt out proponents rightly see that there are two ways to improve test scores.  The healthy way is to teach a strong curriculum aligned to the standards (and administer a test that is also aligned to the same standards).  The unhealthy way is to over-invest in test-taking techniques and fact memorization in order to improve test results, but which does not result in acquired knowledge that stays with the student.  This is bad “test prep”.    Good “test prep” is teaching concepts to students, and later testing them to see if they have mastered those concepts … that is good teaching followed by a test to ensure mastery.  What we ought to avoid is setting aside good curriculum in order to prepare students for low-level tests that rely on rote memorization or rote application of a test-taking procedure.

5.  Wealthy, suburban, high-performing school districts derive different benefits from the reform agenda than do other kinds of districts.  The common core curriculum and standardized testing were designed with the very real problems of inner-city schools in mind.   Those schools socially-promoted students through the grades, had too few resources, and graduated too many students who were unprepared for college or career.   Standards and testing shined a bright light on the poor job we have been doing as a nation educating low-income, minority, and special needs students.   Testing revealed achievement gaps and inequity that had been hidden for too long.  And once those gaps were exposed, there has been a flurry of innovation and many positive changes have been brought to inner-city education.    But schools like UCFSD have different needs, and start from a different place.   And some opt out proponents are bringing this point into focus:  are the tools of reform that are useful in Philadelphia equally useful in Chester County?  Local schools benefit from local control.

So the opt out movement has some insight to offer, and we should hear and digest the legitimate concerns that parents and teachers are raising.   Nevertheless, I think that the ‘opt out’ argument has some flaws.

It is true that students do not realize much direct benefit from standardized testing.  However, important information does flow to school districts, principals, and teachers that can benefit the next cohort of students.

Parents should have choices, and opting out should be one of them.  But we should explain to parents not only the drawbacks of participation, but the benefits of participating.  One of those benefits is helping our district and state improve, and thus avoid a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

Great teachers deliver more than good student test results.   So teacher evaluations should not be dominated by student test results.  However we should still include test results as one element of assessing a teacher’s total performance.  There are reasonable and fair ways to do this.

Test prep should not get much air time in our classrooms.  We should teach our curriculum, helping students master the standards to which the curriculum is aligned.   That curriculum must be broader than the tested subjects.  But we should not shy away from testing student mastery of standards-aligned curriculum.  Optimizing, but not eliminating, testing time is a worthy goal.

Finally, testing may deliver more benefits to lower-performing schools.  But that doesn’t mean there are no benefits to our district from standardized testing.   Testing delivers different benefits to our district, and we should pay more attention to those.

I will expand on these points in my next post:  the problems with the opt out arguments.