Sunday, June 23, 2013

The opting out conundrum

I've had this post in the cooker for a few months. This article about a group of Virginia superintendents stepping up to the plate to protest high-stakes testing (the SOLs) has prompted me to finish and publish it. Also motivating is that I am scheduled to host #vachat this Monday, June 24th at 8 pm where I plan to discuss high-stakes testing. Please join us!

Okay, so last spring we were in the midst of third grade testing mania, which I wrote about here and here. We ended up opting one of our children out of the Reading SOL, which we consider to be the least legitimate of the tests. Although the staff and faculty at our children's school were reasonable, kind, and accommodating, it was still quite a difficult process. We had to write an official letter (which I may include in a separate post), we had several conversations with testing coordinators, we had to accept that opting out meant a big fat "FAIL" on my son's score sheet, and we had to coach our son on how to decline to take the test.

In Virginia, or at least as far as we were advised, there is no code for parent opt-out, so our son was listed as "refusal/disruption" and also given a score of "0"/ FAIL. Luckily, there was no retribution for our son not taking the test. When I asked if he would be placed in remedial reading programs, the testing coordinator laughed and said, "Of course not. We know what strong reader he is." Also, while I've heard of different policies in other districts, according to our county testing coordinator, the policy was that if a student missed an SOL test (we kept him home that day), the school was (despite our letter stating that it was our wish that our son not take the Reading SOL) required to offer him a another chance to take the test. So, there was a bit of theater where someone came by and asked him to take the test and we coached him to say, "No, thank you. Please ask my parents if you have any questions." This was not easy for our son to do as he is not a defiant kid (not in school anyway) and scared to death of attracting any negative attention to himself.

Did we want to go through all of this again this year? Not if we didn't have to. For us, the decision to opt out is a complicated one and unfortunately people at both extremes of the conversation don't do justice to that.

I've heard test-based accountability enthusiasts say that opting one's children out of high stakes testing is akin to opting them out of vaccinations. This is an awful analogy. There is broad scientific consensus about the individual and public health benefits of vaccines (see here for a series of posts I wrote about vaccines a few years ago). There is no scientific consensus on the individual or public educational benefits of high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, if anything scientific consensus seems to be advising against our current regime of high-stakes testing (see here and here). Furthermore, there are ways for parents to opt their children out of vaccines if vaccines will be a threat to their health--think of, for example, children with compromised immune systems. There is no similar way to opt out from testing children who suffer psychological trauma or for whom high-stakes testing is wholly inappropriate. That's why we have severely mentally disabled children and hospitalized children being forced to take tests. But even if my child is not hospitalized or disabled or will not suffer psychological trauma, opting my child out I would not put the rest of the population at risk or pose a threat to public health.

On the other hand, I've heard some who favor opting out compare high-stakes testing to child abuse and collaborating with repressive dictatorships. Educators and public school parents/supporters are in a tough place right now. Do we really need to bash them more than they're already being bashed?

As I've said in the past, it can be hard to balance supporting our local public schools while being in opposition to the undue emphasis on standardized testing, which discourages good practice, erodes the professional trust that most teachers deserve, narrows curricula, and corrupts a rich and meaningful learning process for students. But schools are already judged in great part on standardized test (SOL) scores and this year, teachers in  Virginia, including in our district, are being evaluated in part based on the SOL scores of their students. This puts us in an ethical pickle. Our kids go to a mixed-SES school. It is 50% FRL. As white middle class people, we come from a place of privilege. Our kids do well on these tests. We don't want our individual choice to punish the school or the other kids in the school. What good will it do if the school doesn't make AYP has had to be put on probation and then risk state takeover or closure. Why not leverage our privilege to help keep this good, mixed-SES school open? The school didn't choose to be evaluated this way. What fault of it is theirs? Why should we contribute to their (and our community's) potential sanctioning?

Second, is opting out fair to the teacher? Our children's teachers come to work everyday--they come early and they stay late. They are prepared for class. They give our children as much individual attention as is possible given rising work loads and class sizes. They are responsive to us, responding to e-mails late at night. They are caring. They are underpaid. Again, why should they have to contend with a "FAIL" on their record when they have not failed to do their jobs adequately, if not supremely, and when our children have been well-taught and cared for?

I appreciate that others may do this moral calculus and decide that opting out is for the greater good, but I could not in good conscience do this again given the above-stated considerations.

That all being said, I don't blame people for opting their children out. I think we should all have that as a genuine option and it makes me angry that we don't. When my studious, vigorously-reading children come home from a day of high-stakes reading testing wiped out, anxious, and fearful that they've failed "because many of the questions had more than one right answer," it is crazy-making and heart-breaking and can make me feel like a bad parent for not opting out. After all, we can opt out of family life education and other programs that we deem harmful or inappropriate. I am heartened when I see voucher and parent trigger advocates also advocate for parent choice about standardized testing. Unfortunately, this type of consistency is rare.

Sadly, it is not just the tests themselves that are problematic. NCLB dictates that that students be tested in reading and math every year from third through eighth grades and then once in high school and that schools meet certain benchmarks on those tests or face punitive consequences. The state of Virginia goes beyond that and requires SOL tests in multiple subjects. I believe those to be wrong but I acknowledge that individual districts and schools have no control over these mandates. I am also glad in a warped way, though deeply ambivalent, that at least the science, social studies and writing tests protect in some way the teaching of those subjects.

But then many schools go beyond simply giving students a brief tutorial in test format and then administering the test There is constant testing, test prep and test build-up: benchmark tests, multiple choice assessments in the same format of the SOLs, practice tests, test pep rallies, prizes for receiving certain scores on the tests, and skipping art, music, PE, science, social studies, foreign language, and sometimes recess to do test prep or because of testing. Paul Bruno wrote a good post about how schools build up testing and contribute to test anxiety. They are trying to motivate students and to engage them in the process and to normalize testing, but they are really just normalizing the anxiety.

So what we ultimately decided to do (yes, I'm finally getting to the end of this long post) was to opt our children out of the non-requirements as possible. We said no more cold reads, benchmarks, or practice tests. We picked them early the day of the pep rally. We do know explicit test prep at home. But even such an approach is not so simple. There are only so many days of school they can miss and that we can make arrangements  to miss work, and test prep (especially the reading tests prep) is ubiquitous and often not in as obvious form as a test prep booklet.

The best education is one that involves a rich and diverse curriculum where kids learn lots of stuff and read lots of books. Good leadership or bad, America's public schools students largely aren't getting that right now. Test prep and practice does not facilitate a rich and meaning full education and what's more, it doesn't even facilitate a meaningful boost in test scores.

So, by all means lets protest and work to end poor education policy and end high-stakes standardized testing. In the meantime, I am mostly willing comply with what is required. But I vigorously protest all the rest; it's not necessary, it doesn't work, and it's poor practice.


  1. Thank you for a thoughtful comment, but I think you left out a vital political dimension. The opting out(and teacher boycotts) of this spring were a huge step forward for the movement to end high-stakes testing and the related massive overuse of the tests - goals I believe you support. That is, opting out is an important political stance personally but also publicly.

    Opting out is not always feasible - think especially high school graduation tests that must be passed to obtain a diploma. Nor is it the only means of opposition. But it is showing itself to be a powerful act.

    1. @Monty Neill: Thanks so much for your comment. I follow your work with great interest and admiration. You are correct, I did neglect to mention the opting out and teacher boycotts of this spring, so I'm glad you brought them up here in the comments. They were important and hopeful and I fully support them. In this post, though, I meant to focus on what is involved in coming to such a decision an individual parents in a specific place.

  2. Rachel,

    If I may introduce myself: I am Duane Swacker and can be reached at . I posted this as anonymous because I can't figure out how to get my wordpress account to work.

    I'm greatly disappointed that you decided to not opt out your children this time around. Why should this old fart Spanish teacher from rural Missouri care about what a mom in Virginia does in this regard? Because some things are right and some things are wrong and high-stakes standardized testing, well any standardized testing, is wrong. And the educational standards and standardized testing beast must be fought many ways, at all times.

    You have fallen for the "marketing" that the ededeformers have promulgated appealing to your "conscience" about "not helping out the team" when it is they, the psychometricians and test pushers, who are selling a false bill of goods. How do I know it is a false bill of goods. Because one former "pusher" has proven just how error prone and invalid the whole educational standards and standardized testing process is. Read and understand what Noel Wilson says in “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: . This is the most important educational policy analysis of the last half century (and prior to that Banesh Hoffman's "The Tyranny of Testing was) bar none. See below for a summary and my comments:

    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

    1. A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions.

    More to follow. . .

  3. 2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

    In other word all the errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

  4. 5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren't]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. As a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap-in crap out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it measures “something” which supposedly is specified by the test maker but the whole process is so error ridden that any conclusions drawn are invalid. The test supposedly measures “'something' and we can specify some of the 'errors' in that 'something' but still don't know [precisely] what the 'something' is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

  5. As I have stated in many public forums, it is within the parent's right to opt the child out of testing that does not adhere to a parent's core beliefs. I opted my own child out of testing that was "required for high school graduation." My child was accepted and received scholarship offers from Tufts University, School of the Arts Institute of Chicago, and Maryland Institute College of the Arts. Additionally, she was accepted into Howard University,the school she chose to attend beginning this August. Keep in mind the goal of testing is to provide a forum to show evidence of standard mastery. If a child is able to do that with other methods, there is no state law that can inhibit promotion or graduation.

    Parents can and should use this to their advantage if they "feel like a bad parent for not opting out." I shared those feeling and acted on them. I am glad that I did, and I am even more overjoyed that I proved everyone wrong in their cautionary words that, "You are ruining your child's opportunity."

    If a parent truly believes in the standardized test regime that dominates public education, by all means they should follow the state mandates. However, many teachers -like myself, a National Board Certified educator - welcome parents and students resisting what we know to be damaging pedagogy. No school has ever suffered a shut down for a large group of parents or teachers opting out, but many have for opting in to NCLB's mandates for funding. With commitment and resolve, parents can prevail and be a mighty force to end "undue emphasis on standardized testing, which discourages good practice, erodes the professional trust that most teachers deserve, narrows curricula, and corrupts a rich and meaningful learning process for students." And they can do it without their child missing a day of school. I know this from experience, and if there is one thing that this experience has taught me is that parents really do have the final say in their child's education.

  6. I just believe that one cannot quantify the human spirit...the politicians, corporations and their minions need to stop trying.