Opinion

Chancellor Tisch’s empty rhetoric on ‘opting out’

It’s testing season, with statewide assessments of children in grades 3-8 in New York and other states beginning in less than a month. Should parents opt to excuse their children from these tests?

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch speaks during a meeting on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Albany, N.Y.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch speaks during a meeting on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Albany, N.Y.

It’s a very personal decision. Some parents report that the anticipation of high-stakes tests, and the experience of taking them, makes their children physically ill. Other parents view opting out as a form of outsider protest; they support public education, but believe that high-stakes standardized tests have become the tail that wags the dog, driving far too much of what occurs in their children’s classrooms. By opting out, they seek to send a message to policymakers that the status quo is unacceptable.

The overseers of public education in New York state are hearing the message, but they may not be listening to it. Last week, Patrick Wall of Chalkbeat reported on a speech that Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch recently gave to the New York State Council of School Superintendents. Opting out is a “terrible mistake,” Chancellor Tisch’s prepared remarks stated more than once, as she sought to discourage superintendents across the state from endorsing the right of parents to choose to excuse their children from the annual tests.

Why is opting out such a terrible mistake? Because it’s “refusing the right to know.” “We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up,” said Chancellor Tisch. “Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination. We should not refuse to take the test.

These analogies don’t really support the Chancellor’s case. Take vaccinations, for example. Vaccines are the result of extensive scientific testing, and there is strong evidence that they prevent the contraction and spread of disease. Is there evidence that taking a particular test in grades 3-8 will change students’ educational trajectories, resulting in better outcomes? I’m not aware of any.

Related: Gov. Cuomo’s wrong diagnosis, wrong treatment for New York schools

And annual check-ups? Well, in 2007, more than a third of the non-institutionalized adult U.S. population reported that their only appointments with a healthcare professional within the preceding 12 months were when they needed healthcare right away. And that’s a lower bound on the fraction that chose not to have an annual physical exam, because not all visits with a healthcare professional to assess overall health are annual physical exams. Contra Chancellor Tisch, lots of adults “refuse” to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.

And is doing so irrational? Not on the basis of the best scientific evidence available. In 2012, the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization devoted to summarizing scientific evidence on health, released a report on the effect of general health checks—an annual physical, if you will—on a variety of health outcomes, including the incidence of illness, hospitalization, disability and mortality, both overall and due to specific causes, such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. Across a series of 14 randomized trials with available outcome data, general health checks did not have systematic beneficial effects on health outcomes.

Why might this be? If you’re like me, you go to your healthcare provider when you’ve got a symptom that you’d like to address, and the diagnosis process often will involve some of the routine tests that are conducted during an annual physical. If I go to my primary care physician because of persistent redness in my eye, she’ll check my blood pressure, even though it’s unlikely to be directly related to why I’m in her office. And if it’s running high, we’ll discuss it and decide if treatment is appropriate. Too, skilled practitioners know their patients’ histories and listen to their patients. They know that an office visit for one purpose may also reveal other symptoms of underlying disease.

The upshot is that healthcare professionals already know a lot about their patients, and the incremental information provided by an annual physical exam may be quite small. And the same may be true for statewide assessments. Parents and teachers already know quite a bit about the academic performance of their children and students, especially by the end of April in a given school year. Knowing that a third-grader scored “Level 2” on the English Language Arts test may not be that meaningful to a parent, beyond other available evidence about what the child knows and can do.

Related: Researchers give failing marks to national effort to measure good teaching

I’m not arguing against statewide assessments, any more than I’m arguing against annual physicals. Thirteen years ago, during an annual physical, my wife complained to her primary care physician about some continuing gastrointestinal symptoms she was having. According to clinical guidelines, she wasn’t scheduled for another colonoscopy for a couple of years, but her doctor, drawing on her knowledge of my wife’s history and her own intuition, referred her for one. The colonoscopy revealed the presence of colon cancer, and she subsequently had surgery to remove more than a foot of her colon. The annual exam set in motion a series of steps that may have saved her life.

We’ll never know if the conversation between my wife and her doctor that led to the diagnosis and treatment of her cancer would have occurred at an office visit for some other purpose, or if that would have led to a timely referral. The symptoms weren’t new, and it’s not clear that the symptoms were actually related to the slow-growing cancer. Both doctor and patient had existing knowledge about gastrointestinal issues.

As for statewide assessments, they have their place. States have a legitimate interest in the performance of the public education system, and in holding schools and districts accountable for that performance. But school and district accountability does not require subjecting every child in the state enrolled in grades 3-8 to an annual high-stakes assessment. It’s possible to develop a pretty good picture of how schools and districts are doing using samples of students and samples of test items—that’s what the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been relying on for decades—and there’s nothing magical about a school year that makes it the inevitable time period over which to assess changes in school and district performance.

There are tradeoffs, to be sure. One of the key features of No Child Left Behind was its intent to reveal subgroup differences in student performance, and thereby prevent schools and districts from hiding the fact that they were doing well with, say, economically advantaged white students, and poorly with their economically disadvantaged Black and Latino counterparts. These subgroup differences may be harder to see with sampling. Too, one can get a more precise image of a school or district’s contribution to student performance if the same students are assessed over time than if differing cohorts of students are.

Related: Why we can’t threaten our way to better schools

But let’s be clear: Annual statewide assessment of all students in grades 3-8 is in the interests of policymakers much more so than it is in the interests of individual parents. And beyond the school and district accountability provisions spawned by No Child Left Behind and its kin, many states have upped the ante to incorporate teachers’ contributions to their students’ test performance into teacher evaluation systems, and these value-added measures require testing large numbers of students. In New York, 20 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation currently rests on state growth measures, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged to increase this to 50 percent.

Some parents view the use of their children’s test scores to rate teachers as equally short-sighted as the role that tests play in the day-to-day activities in their children’s classrooms. Rather than insult parents who choose to opt out by calling them ignorant, policymakers such as Chancellor Tisch would be well-advised to acknowledge these parents’ legitimate concerns, and to craft policies that address them.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about K-12 education.

Add Comment
comments powered by Disqus

Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and… See Archive