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What the Opt-Out Movement Teaches Students

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

Marika Heughins

One evening my daughter, then a junior in high school, came home and asked us to write a letter to the superintendent to grant her permission to opt out of taking the Smarter Balanced Field Test. We refused to do this, and my daughter responded with indignation. Everyone else was opting out; why should she have to take this test? She had done well on other standardized tests and was an A student. She felt that taking the test would be a waste of time for her.

As a veteran teacher, I am very familiar with the controversies surrounding standardized tests and the pressures these tests create. I am familiar with the excessive amounts of testing and the negative aspects of these tests. Despite all of this, I believe very strongly that opting out of a test should not be an option.

I want my daughter and my students to understand that in life, you cannot simply opt out of things. When our students graduate school and go to college or begin careers, they may be asked to complete difficult, time-consuming assignments. They may have adverse feelings towards these assignments, but they will not be able to approach their professors or bosses and demand to opt out of them. They must learn strength and perseverance.

Unfortunately, there is a frightening new sentiment in the education world these days that it is OK for students to pick and choose what they participate in. We are sending a message to our children that if they do not like something or if it seems too difficult, then they do not have to do it. Allowing students to opt out of tests they don't feel like taking undermines education and harms our students.

As educators, we must ensure that our students develop self-awareness and an understanding of their academic growth. Students need to learn how to identify their strengths and weaknesses and take ownership of their learning. If we let students pick and choose what aspects of schooling they want to participate in, with no deep thought behind it, how can we achieve these aspirations?

As educators, we are charged with deeply understanding where our students are and then doing everything in our power to meet their needs. We need to know where each student is in relationship to their peers. While far from perfect, standardized testing allows us to gauge how children are doing against other students in their age group. It also allows us to look at groups of students to make sure we are meeting the needs of all children.

The civil rights community has spoken out against the opt-out movement, because by looking at sub-groups of children (free and reduced lunch, gender, etc.) we can make sure we are moving all of our children forward and have hard conversations when we are not.

Standardized testing is an integral part of assessing students' strengths and weaknesses. It is how we choose to use these tests that will define our profession and impact our students. With a balanced approach, we can use tests as one indicator to move our students forward to be prepared to succeed in a global society and to better ensure equity for all students.

The answer isn't for our students to opt out of testing, but instead it is to prepare them to tackle difficult tasks and overcome challenges in life.

Marika Heughins is a 6th grade teacher from Stonington, Conn. She is an 18 year veteran teacher who holds a master's degree in education and a sixth-year certificate in administration, and is an America Achieves Teacher Fellow. Follow her on twitter @mheughins.

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

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