Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
Now that spring is finally here, kids cooped up during this particularly brutal winter might be looking forward to enjoying some sunshine. Many will have to control the wiggles a little longer, though. It’s standardized testing season, which means silent hallways, desks arranged in rows, and for many kids, a lot of anxiety until it’s over.
Now that the tests in many states are getting harder in order to align with the new Common Core standards and being used to grade teachers, not just students, they’re also producing a lot of anxiety among parents and teachers, too. In response to the added pressure this year, a movement against standardized testing is gathering steam as some parents decide to let their children opt out of the tests.
Their movement may not stop the use of the tests. But it does raise the question of whether the resisters have a point.
The Hechinger Report asked parents who are pulling their kids out of the tests to explain the reasons they did so. And then we asked Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which supports the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers, to make an argument for why kids shouldn’t opt out of tests.
Here’s what parents in favor of opting out said:
1) The tests don’t actually measure the skills we want students to learn, such as critical thinking, creativity and complex problem solving. Latoshia Wheeler, a work-at-home mom of three, has led an opt-out movement at her third grader’s school, the Riverdale Avenue Community School in Brownsville, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. Ninety percent of the students receive free lunch, a measure of poverty, and 94 percent are black or Hispanic. Wheeler estimates only two or three students will take the tests this year in the third grade. The rest have opted out.
Instead of multiple-choice exams, Wheeler says she wishes the state tests could be modeled on the portfolios of class work and projects her high school-age daughter turns in twice a year. “That teaches them how to express themselves. They can see where they grew,” she said. “That’s more on the lines of critical thinking. That makes you want to do better, and I just feel like kids learn more from experience.”
2) The tests aren’t reliable measures of how much students know and how well teachers can teach. Liz Rosenberg is the parent of a fourth grader at the Brooklyn New School, a school with a sizeable middle and upper middle class population. A group of New School parents announced on Tuesday that 80 percent of students in testing grades were opting out of the tests this year. “There’s very little reason to have faith in the tests,” Rosenberg, who works as a teacher trainer, said.
“All you get is one little score. You actually get no information about your child,” she added. “You get no information about what it is they do well. What it is they need to work on.”
3) Schools spend too much time prepping for mediocre, unreliable exams, especially at struggling schools where students could benefit from more enrichment. Wheeler says her son’s school does not offer art or music to students, and that they rarely go on field trips. She says the focus on the math and English tests also takes away time from the other core subjects of science and of social studies.
“All they do is teach them to take a test. You should teach a child to learn,” she said. “There’s so much that’s missing.”
Although many educators and officials admit the tests aren’t perfect, in New York, state and city education officials have urged families like the Rosenbergs and the Wheelers not to opt out. We asked Jacobs why students should stick with the exams.
1) The tests are about to get better, now that Common Core aligned tests are rolling out next year in many states. The new tests will have problems that ask students to do more than pick an answer from a list of four choices. For instance, the English tests developed by two testing consortia include questions that may ask students to pick more than one answer or ask them to highlight important points in a text. They also include short essay questions. The new math tests in some cases allow students to write out formulas or manipulate shapes on a computer screen.
But Jacobs said one reason many parents are frustrated is that the tests haven’t caught up with the new standards being taught in schools yet. “There’s a very valid concern that they’re not well aligned with the standards that are in place,” she said. “That should change in the very near future. I think that frustration is real, at the same time, it’s part of the process.”
2) The tests may not reveal everything about how much a student has learned, but they’re an important element of a more holistic picture of student performance. Proponents of the tests, and of the teacher evaluations now attached to them, usually argue that the tests should be one piece of an evaluation of student performance that includes formative tests, too, and that teachers should also be graded on classroom observations and lesson planning.
“The idea that assessment isn’t an important part of teaching and learning, I’m not sure how the conversation got to this point where we seemed to lost sight that anything a teacher knows about her students is because she measured it some way,” Jacobs said.
3) The tests show how unequal the school system is, and identify which schools need more help and resources because their students are falling behind. Standardized tests have been the main way educators, experts and policymakers have measured the achievement gap between low-income and minority children and their wealthier, white peers. And knowing how big the gap is has prompted more urgency in the effort to close it.
“I haven’t seen anything that suggests that we’re at a point in the opt out movement where we’re skewing the data. If it was to get real legs and we saw big groups of kids not taking the test, then I think we do have an equity issue,” Jacobs said. “The results of the tests are some of the best markers we have to help identify those equity issues.”
Which argument is more convincing? Latoshia Wheeler, for her part, was still adamant there is a better way than standardized exams.
“I don’t want to put my son through any of that to show that we need resources. You could live a day in the life of a Brownsville student and find out we need resources,” she said. “The test shows inequity in education. I agree with that. But that’s not a reason to do it.”