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How Does the Opt-Out Movement Intend to Close Achievement Gaps?

This post originally appeared on Connecting the Dots, and has been added to our roundtable on the opt-out movement.

Cristina Duncan

My own experiences of educational inequity growing up in Washington have always been central to my thinking about teaching. Coming from D.C., where there's no state government, I also never really experienced the concept of federalism, so I didn't understand it until I had to teach it to my students in nearby Baltimore. And federalism and educational equity are among the main reasons why I've been skeptical of the opt-out movement.

States don't have a very good track record of providing equitable access to education to all of their students, and the federal government should ensure that American school quality is consistent. This has made me an advocate of standardized testing, following the logic that we can't solve achievement gaps unless we measure them first.

While debating this point earlier this year, a fellow writer questioned the validity of standardized tests to measure learning, saying that it was akin to using a ladder to reach the moon. No matter how high a ladder goes, it can't successfully take you into the stratosphere. Likewise, a standardized test can never truly measure deeper learning, no matter how much it claims to.

That argument has a lot of resonance. It's true that a standardized test can't measure inspiration, or reflection, or a lot of the other deeper-thinking habits. But that ignores a major function of testing. A major reason we use standardized tests is to make the case that there's large-scale educational injustice in our nation.

Learning can humanize and liberate but our current system isn't even doing a good job of teaching poor students of color to read fluently by the 3rd grade. You can blame the tests for the lack of progress over the past 15 years, but it's probably a better idea to blame the school leaders and politicians for not responding effectively to what the tests are telling us. (FYI: The tests are telling us to address income inequality.)

The beauty of a federal system is that local interests and national interests can address a complicated problem by coming at it from different angles. Opt-out parents and students want a rich and rewarding student experience, while the national government is concerned about the overall quality of our education system and the inequality that it perpetuates. In the case of testing, local forces and federal forces have conflicted with each other rather than complimented each other.

Anti-testing forces need to accept that it's not within the ability of the federal government to ensure that every child leaves public school socially and emotionally ready to take on the responsibilities of adult life. A bureaucracy that oversees the education of 50 million students won't ever be able to meet that goal, which is why our federal system entrusts that role to local authorities, who are closer to the issues at hand. But the federal government can and should hold schools accountable for ensuring that students have the academic skills to find their place in the world. Local forces, particularly parents and teachers, can and should be a counterbalance that pushes for deeper, richer, more rewarding education; but they shouldn't do it at the expense of a valid federal government interest in increasing equality.

This is one of my major reservations. The opt-out movement is dominated by middle-class families that are concerned for the welfare of their own children, but seem less concerned about poor children who are languishing in low-performing schools. We haven't done a stellar job of improving schools based on data, but we absolutely can't improve them without that data. Our state and national policy systems are set up to respond to aggregates, not individual experiences.

There's plainly something wrong with the way that we've tested students in the past, and the problems with our new tests are more obvious to students and parents than the problems of the old tests, prompting greater backlash than ever before, even though the quality of the tests has improved. Can the opt-out movement provide a convincing counter-narrative to how we solve achievement gaps without tests? Are opt-out parents concerned about all children, or only their own?

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

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