Four Lessons from the Opt-Out Debate

With the end of the school year fast approaching and the annual testing window closing, we can make some preliminary judgments about what’s signal and what’s noise in the debate over parents opting their children out of state assessments. There have been missteps and lessons for those on both sides of the issue. Four have struck me hard.

1) Respect parental choice. Education reformers who support testing may not agree with parents’ decision to opt out. But it’s senseless to argue that parents know best when it comes to choosing their child’s school, yet are ill-informed when it comes to opting out. Parental choice is like free speech; the test of your belief is whether you still support it when you dislike how it’s used. My fellow U.S. News contributor Rick Hess writes that education reformers have dismissed test refusers as “conspiracy theorists and malcontents.” That overstates things, but no matter. Those of us who value testing need to do a better job of explaining to unhappy parents what’s in it for them. But we also must respect parental prerogative, whether or not we like where it leads.

2) Don’t follow the money. Parents have every right and reason to be concerned with the deleterious effects of testing, particularly curriculum narrowing and excessive time given over to test prep. But the complaint that testing only benefits corporate interests is odd, to say the least. I can’t name a single thing in a classroom, from smart boards and textbooks to juice boxes and No. 2 pencils, that isn’t sold to schools at a profit. We’re a capitalist country, and most Americans are fine with that. “The test prep industry is lucrative,” writes anti-testing NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz, who also points to a report that calculated $669 million spent on tests in 45 states, or $27 per student. That’s it? The desk on which your kid takes his tests (or carves his name) costs four times that amount.

3) Black test scores matter. If reformers risk alienating parents, the opt-out movement has its own problems with people of color and their interest groups. This week, a dozen civil rights groups issued a statement in support of testing, noting that when parents opt out, even over legitimate concerns, “they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child.” Opt-out advocates simply dismissed this worried declaration. “Instead of stimulating worthy discussions about over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and the misuse of test data,” responded the anti-reform Network for Public Education in the Washington Post, “these activists would rather claim a false mantle of civil rights activism.” Seriously? If reformers need to respect parents’ decision to opt out of tests, the opt-out activists might at least assume that groups like the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza are qualified to judge their members’ interests.

4) Unions are driving discontent. I agree with my Fordham colleague, Mike Petrilli, who attributes larger numbers of test refusals in New York and New Jersey to unions in those states rallying allies, “especially left-leaning parents, to make a statement.” I disagree, however, that parents everywhere else are fine with testing. It just might not yet have reached the level of urgency elsewhere.

It’s still too soon to gauge whether the opt-out movement is a true groundswell of opposition, a union-driven blip on the radar, or something in between. Empirical data on the depth and breadth of test refusals are hard to come by. But if I had to predict, I’d guess the enduring impact of the opt-out impulse will be to force a measure of clarity on states and localities regarding the role of testing—and a gut-check moment for the education reform movement on its priorities.

Opt-out activists have correctly identified test data as the mother’s milk of reform efforts. (That cuts both ways; robbing “the system” of your kid’s test data robs you of an objective measure of your child’s academic standing.) Those data have driven the contemporary reform movement, lending it the moral authority to push for higher standards, parental choice, and charter schools. The result has been a period of unprecedented school dynamism, especially in educationally neglected inner cities.

Test data also fueled the teacher accountability movement, perhaps the greatest overreach in the reform playbook and surely the source of much of the anger driving the opt-out movement. Hess observed that the reform agenda “was crafted with the troubles of the inner-city in mind…many suburban and middle-class parents have issues when those reforms are extended to the schools that educate their children.” He’s right. When well-loved teachers at popular suburban schools tell parents, fairly or not, that testing undermines their work and keeps them awake at night worrying about their jobs, reformers cannot expect those parents to sit idly by.

If reformers want the data that testing provides, they may simply have to abandon attempts to tie test scores to individual teachers. Personally, I think that’s a fair exchange. Test scores in a single classroom can have at least as much to do with class composition, curriculum, and district-mandated pedagogies as teacher effectiveness. Uncoupling tests from high-stakes teacher accountability to preserve the case for higher standards, charters, and choice might be the reasonable way forward. Ultimately, there may be no other choice.

My advice to my fellow education reformers is to play the long game, remaining mindful of both the sunlight and disinfectant power of student achievement data on the one hand, and of our own rhetoric on parental prerogative and local control on the other. No one is more invested in student achievement than states, localities, and parents. The reform fight is for higher standards and good, transparent data. Preserve those at all costs. If it turns out that schools post mediocre scores and parents aren’t spurred to act at least as energetically as they have to the excesses of testing, we are in far deeper trouble than we think.

— Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Common Core Watch

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