What do we lose due to Opt Out? What do we gain?

It is not my place to say if a parent’s decision to have their child not take a state test is the right or wrong call. Rest assured, there are plenty of people willing to say it’s their right and must happen or those who say no, don’t. As Joey would say, my take on it is a cow’s opinion. It’s a moo point. If you’re curious, though, I’ve shared it here.

Defenders of the “right to opt out” claim have a wide variety of opinions behind that claim. In my particular neck of the woods, the claim goes back to parents’ rights and policy related to teacher accountability. In other areas, especially NYC and Chicago, it’s about larger systemic issues, equity, and the impact of how test scores are used to close schools.

Critiques of the “right to opt out” claim generally fall back on the “it’s the law” rationale and point to No Child Left Behind (now ESSA) 95% testing mandate. Some will attempt to speak to the benefit the scores provide schools and parents, which at times, acts like gasoline on the fires kindled by the opt-out movement.

So here we are at the end of 2015, gearing up for 2016 and the buzz of large-scale testing endures. New York State tests are in April and I’ve already seen a flyers in store windows, letters to the editors, blog posts and tweets telling parents to Opt Out now; that this year’s opt-out numbers need to be the highest ever. To which, I wonder:

Why? And at what cost? What do we gain due to the Opt Out movement? What do we lose?

The Opt Out movement has given the system energy it hasn’t seen in decades. It’s given parents a name to use to describe their frustrations with school and an outlet for action. Opt Out allows parents to *do* something. Turning frustration into action is mighty, powerful thing.

The Opt Out movement is working to deprive a massive system of consistent, reliable data. This year’s third graders are the first group to take state tests who have only known Common Core. Without state testing data, educational researchers lose key information they need to look at interventions and figure out what works. A quick review of Google Scholar reveals over 8,000 studies and articles published since 2005 that use No Child Left Behind mandated state test scores to look at the success of funding initiatives, after school programs, to defend art and music programs, and to explore different curriculum programs.

The Opt Out movement has forced a long overdue conversation around what constitutes quality testing. Parents are looking carefully and closely at testing items and raising important questions about how we capture evidence of student learning. Since the Opt Out movement overlaps with the anti-Common Core movement, conversation around textbooks, curriculum, and homework has hit the mainstream.

The Opt Out movement is making it difficult for the layperson to understand what constitutes quality testing. State tests typically go through several rounds of design. The process includes field testing, statistical analysis, final eyes review, and teacher analysis. I’ve written before on how terrible adults are at predicting item difficulty and PineappleGate and the implication that an adult can recognize a bad item on sight is making the conversation harder.

Commissioner Elia shared what she’s doing to attend to the Opt Out issue. Yet, it’s a loud, local, and unstructured movement. Organizations representing some members proclaim opt outs will continue until, for the lack of a better phrase, their demands are met. Those demands, though, seem highly localized. Parent groups in Chicago and NYC have raised issues of equity, funding, and resources. Parents in suburban areas raise issues of teacher evaluation. If teacher evaluation goes away and tests are shortened back to pre-2012 length, will suburban parents opt back in?

It’s pretty clear that a variety of factors contributed to the rise in Opt Outs in NYS: the Regents Reform Agenda, a state commissioner who went out into the field, longer and more challenging tests, etc. etc. So we hit a tipping point. I continue to wonder though if the fall has been worth it. What have we – members of the American public education system, present and future – gained? What have we lost? What has the education profession gained or lost? Will it be worth it? How will we know?

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