Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Parent Jiggernaut Follow-Up: Opting out vs. Opting In

This is a follow-up to my post from earlier today:

Some people have asked me why we don't opt our kids out of testing such as this movement encourages people to do. That is definitely under consideration. My reluctance with that is two-fold:

1) I see value in the disruptive route--there are many ways to effect change. I am grateful to have been made aware of my rights as a parent and I see value in publicizing those rights. All power to unitedoptout. But I am not a disruptor. I'm a persuader (though apparently not a very successful one if measured by actions taken after reading this blog). I'd much rather try to reason with people first, citing evidence, and then try to work something out collaboratively without being disruptive, especially if children are involved.

2) Even if I did opt my kids out of the official standardized tests (in my state of Virginia they are the SOLs), that would not change everything that leads up to the tests or everything that the tests drive. In fact, if there really were only four testing days (in 3rd grade there are four SOL tests) with four tests at the end of the school year, I would not care so much. I might not care at all. It's everything else that bothers me. I don't want to opt out of the tests themselves as much as I want to opt my children out of excessive test prep, practice and benchmark tests (which mirror the official tests), as well as out of a test-narrowed curriculum. I want to opt in to rich and meaningful curriculum, to more hands-on learning, to more inter-disciplinary studies, to field trips, to more recess, to more art, to more music, to more theater, to more PE, to more history, to more civics, to more science, to more "life" skills, to a better education.

If I am going to my children's school or even school district office to tell them as a parent that I want a richer and more meaningful curriculum, a more joyful and interesting school experience for my children, one that capitalizes on children's curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and their response is We agree but we have no control over that then that's a problem. That's a big problem. And I don't see this being solved at the root by parent trigger-type laws or by the current federal and state education policies that dictate the very practices I find wanting. If the school or districts are structured such that power is not theirs to relinquish in the first place, with no flexibility to grant educators, then how can I as a parent, without there being any real change in policy or power hierarchies, locate any real power to make or advocate for change in how and what my children are learning?


  1. I think you're under-estimating the potential impact of even a small number opting out. Could the system tolerate even 10% opting out?

  2. Oh, I don't underestimate the power of 10% opting out. I just wonder what would happen next. Above all, I want meaningful, productive change.

  3. Here's something that happened in MI, just before NCLB took hold:

    MI had mandated high-stakes exams in the 11th grade, linked to the state curriculum frameworks. They were using the results to publicly compare districts, and because a school choice open enrollment law had just passed, to encourage parents to transfer students to other, more "successful" districts.

    A group of parents in MI's richest county, and one of its highest-scoring districts, decided to opt their kids out of the 11th grade exit tests. Why should their kids' scores form the basis of advertising what a successful school they had, potentially luring kids from Detroit and older, poorer suburbs around Detroit? Besides, the tests that really mattered--the SAT and ACT told them what they needed to know. Without trying too hard, they got a majority of 11th grade parents to opt their kids out. Invalidating the school's results.

    The panic at the state department and in the legislature was huge. Immediately, the Governor, House and Senate (all Repubs) cooked up a "scholarship" law, using tobacco money. All 11th graders who scored in the top two categories would get an automatic scholarship ($550). Call it a bribe. That went on for a couple of years until the $$ ran out.

    Then the legislature passed a law requiring all 11th graders to take the ACT, completely dropping the test aligned to the state standards and curriculum. They sold that on the basis of "once kids take the test, they'll want to go to college." Naturally, the first year that every 11th grader in MI took the ACT, scores dropped precipitously, a fact that made the headlines in every paper, often without corresponding explanation of why.

    I think of these things when I think about opting out. As a personal response, I support it. But as a lever to get policies to change, it could easily backfire.

  4. @Nancy: Thanks so much for taking the time to leave this insightful comment. I had not heard that story about Michigan--very interesting.

    At this point, your last paragraph is kind of where we're headed. I don't want to use my kids simply as a lever to get policies to change (especially if it backfires), but we may well opt at least one of them out as the testing is really starting to take its toll and starting to negatively affect his attitude towards school. We'd rather him miss the tests and still enjoy school.

  5. There's an important issue in all this talk of testing and opting out that is left out of most discussions: the students. People blithely assume that just because you sit a student down in front of a test, you'll get some sort of accurate measure.

    Well, there weren't a lot of meaningless tests when I was in school, but I do recall on a 1-2 instances I deliberately tanked state tests (as in I took the test and made sure every answer was wrong) because (1) my place in honors classes was assured so (2) there were no consequences to failure, and (3) I was annoyed at the whole process.

    The day that students understand what sort of power they have with these tests (at least the ones who can get higher scores) is the day that the *real* negotiations will begin. What would a principal do confronted with 15 of his twenty top students all vowing to tank the state exams and destroy the school's rating? What might that principal be willing to give to protect his job?

    What will teachers and parents give students to make it worth their while? I can't speak for students, obviously, but I wouldn't have been bought off by a pizza party. Maybe a pizza party every single week...

    Students are people, too, and parents aren't the only ones who can "opt out."

  6. This resonated with me: "We agree but there is nothing we can do." Sounds just like what my kids' teacher said. For elementary school, my priority is that my kids develop a love for learning. Everything else seems to fall in place after that (provided they have the basics: food, shelter, etc.)

  7. A significant opt-out movement would exclude an individual school from AYP because of the "percentage tested" factor. That would really be a bullet aimed at the heart of the beast. It could really provoke some ugly reactions and the children would be in the crossfire, I'm afraid.

  8. Even a small percentage opting out would skew the data enough to render it useless. Here's hoping......

  9. Rachel,

    As I said on FB, my background is not education but child development. However, I have a keen interest in the disconnect between the two fields and that is one of the things that led to my research into high-stakes testing. As I've followed this and the reformers (Ravitch, Kuhn, Darling-Hammond, etc.), I truly believe that large-scale opt outs are the only way to get any attention. In Texas, the testing companies are making a lot of money on this and they won't give it up easily.

  10. As a teacher, I would LOVE for more parents to opt their children out of the state tests. Why? Because students develop at different rates. Ask any pediatrician and they will give you normal ranges for when children cut teeth, walk, talk, etc. These ranges don't go away when children enter school. However, if students don't perform at the same rate, at the same time, they are pulled out of electives in order to be "remediated" or caught up. Our English Language Learners are expected to take the Reading test if they have been in the country for 12 months. They are not allowed the read-aloud accommodation, which means, my 8th grade students, who are reading way below grade level (remember they haven't been here that long) have to try to read an 8th grade test. The system is unfair! Here is what the state says about testing LEP students.
    Determining the LEP Student’s Participation in the Virginia Assessment Program Section 1111(3)(C)(v) of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) requires that LEP students participate in state content assessments. NCLB also states in Section 1111(3)(C)(v) (ix)(III) that LEP students “shall be assessed in a valid and reliable manner and provided reasonable accommodations on assessments” to yield accurate data on what such students know and can do in academic content areas until such students have achieved English language proficiency. How valid is a test that students can't even read. As teachers, we have been saying that these tests are unfair, but the politicians turn it around that we don't want to be evaluated..... Parents, you must advocate for your children.... they won't allow us to.

    1. One point that I left out. Schools are worried about losing funding. Do you realize how much money goes for testing? Not just the tests, but the benchmarks, all the paper, software, etc. that goes into testing. If districts got rid of testing, they might not need as much funding from the federal government. Pearson and the other testing companies are getting millions and millions of dollars of school budgets. The last amount that I saw was $90 per student, just for the test....


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