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Why the Opt-Out Movement Won't Fix Testing

This is the first of a four-part conversation on the opt-out movement.

Ken Mattingly

Spring has arrived and with it the annual rounds of state assessments begin. Students sharpen their No. 2 pencils in preparation for this national ritual, and teachers read over their test-administration manuals. But today, a small but growing number of parents are choosing to remove their children from this process and opt out of the assessments. 

The opt-out movement is a collection of loosely affiliated groups with various objections to the assessment system. Their main concerns are that the tests don't provide specific enough information on student growth, the results are being misused, and testing is another example of government overreach.  As a means of expressing their dissatisfaction with the current situation, they have chosen to not have their children participate in state exams.

As a practicing classroom teacher, I share their concerns. I find that my state tests don't give data specific enough to make real decisions around student and teacher performance. The information puts students into categories without a clear indication of their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, testing results do nothing to help us address root issues affecting students, teachers, and schools. The discussion simply devolves into one that focuses on success or failure.

However, while I can sympathize with opt-out parents, I can't condone their response. Pulling students out of testing sends the wrong message. It states, "I don't agree, so my child doesn't have to participate."  If parents truly feel there is a problem with state testing, shouldn't they advocate not just for their child but for all children? This means actively trying to change the system and create better tests. Opting out is a passive response that hopes to incite change through inconvenience. 

Parents should demand assessments that are diagnostic at least to the level of a standard. This would allow parents to see how their child is doing standard by standard, delineating strengths and weaknesses, and provide the basis for specific next steps to address the shortcomings. This is in stark contrast to many current testing systems that simply label a student as proficient or apprentice, level 4 or level 2, advanced or basic. Right now many states are working to develop these kinds of assessments. Parents need to get behind these efforts because this type of data will drive the change that parents should be seeking.

We need to move away from assessments of learning, which judge the amount of learning that has occurred, and toward assessments for learning, which promote or improve learning. State assessments can do this job when designed and used appropriately. When schools use the data to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and plan their next steps for classroom instruction and assessment, they are using the data well.  Imagine students using test data to measure their progress. Or a teacher examining a student's previous state assessment data to pinpoint areas for growth in the upcoming year. Data should be part of continuous improvement. 

Parents should advocate for assessment systems that provide meaningful data on current performance, can be used to plan instructional next steps, and are used in a proactive manner. Pulling children out of state testing does none of these, and simply takes attention away from the real needs of students, teachers, and schools.

Ken Mattingly is a science teacher at Rockcastle County Middle School in Mount Vernon, Ky. He has 21 years of experience teaching 6th and 7th grades and holds national certification in early adolescent science. Mattingly has worked with multiple school districts to help develop a vision of balanced assessment and shift the teacher and student focus to the learning instead of the grade. He is a fellow with America Achieves. 

Read more from this roundtable discussion on the opt-out movement.

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