The Opt-Out Debate

For students in grades 3 – 8 today marks Day 3 of the three-day New York State English Language Arts Assessments.  The state tests are finally here and the combination of relief, anxiety, stress, excitement is overwhelming both teachers and students.  The majority of the students in the state of New York walked into their schools yesterday, took a deep breath and braced themselves for no less than 90 minutes of the hardest exam ever to be given by the State of New York over the course of three days.

Hence the relief, anxiety, stress, and excitement.  The sentiments were felt by teachers and students alike.

  • Relief that the test is finally here which means that it is almost over and the rest of the year with be test-free.
  • Anxiety that the work in preparing for this will not be enough.
  • Stress that it will be too hard, that the kids won’t finish.
  • Excitement that the hard work all year was not for naught, that the students finished, that they worked to the ability we believed they could work.

The daughter of my school’s literacy coach came home from the test excited that she learned something new from the test.  But she was not the norm.  For the most part the test came and went and the stress of the moment was replaced by the usual comings and goings of the day. Only to be repeated and repeated again.

While the majority of the students cycled through just another year of testing, albeit, not like any other year, but still another year, another subset of students added themselves to a growing group of students who have decided to OPT-OUT!

A term that was almost unheard of two years ago, when New York joined adopted the Common Core Standards and a small number of families had their students refuse to take the state examination.  For the most part these students simply stayed home during the exam, but this year the opt-out movement is growing…and growing.

Students across the state of New York came to school yesterday with the following letter – Refusal Letter.  A letter that many schools across the state knew was coming but didn’t really know what to do with.   The notion that students would simply walk into school and say, “I am not taking this test.” was as much a change as the test itself. And while some superintendents in the City of New York are declaring that students who opt-out will not be promoted (a level 2 mastery of the New York State assessments is required for promotion, or is the case now completion of a portfolio which requires the student to demonstrate level 3 mastery, and in my opinion is far more difficult than even the new state tests).

Please don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in civil disobedience when warranted.  However, as an educator for many years, I am trying to understand what message we are sending our students by having them take part in the Opt-Out.  What was the message  instilled in them? Did it empower a generation of students to believe that they can opt-out of anything that they don’t want to do?  Did it drive the notion that their parents will fix everything in a letter?  Did it divide communities with in schools between the students who tested and the students who didn’t? Did it foster the belief that they don’t ever need to take a test? Is it the students that don’t want to take the test or is it the parents pushing a different agenda? Probably none of the above, but it’s questions that came to my mind.

The reality is that life, here in the United States or otherwise is filled with tests.  SAT, PSAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT, Drivers exam, civil service exams, high school entrance exams, certification exams.  There are tests and there are laws around tests.  Some of them include;

  • 1898 Williams v. Mississippi ruled that literacy tests and poll taxes were not a violation of the 15th Amendment.
  • 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ruled that  it is unconstitutional to give separate testing to students other than “white” for purposes of admission.
  • 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger ruled that giving minority students a predetermined amount of points for their  “race” on an admissions exam was unconstitutional.

If the supreme court can decide that it is not unconstitutional to give its residents a literacy test to get your voter registration, why is it that this year there is a sudden determination that it is “unfair” to test students.  Didn’t we all take tests in school growing up?

While I firmly believe that teacher evaluation needs to be reexamined and that testing is not the only answer, the notion that “(testing is), taking the fun out of learning.” is a bit extreme for me.  The students in my school have done some wonderful fun work this year that have supported some of the same things that they were tested on.

Considering that US is a global leader, wouldn’t we want to prove our education prowess with some concrete data?  Don’t we want to show the world that our students are academically ready to face challenges with concrete solutions on a global scale. On some level doesn’t the state tests show that?

Until we can come up with an uniformed way to do so, I would hazard a guess that the test will remain, especially with PARCC finding its way in front of students during the 2014 – 2015 school year. Commercialized or not, the likely hood of that assessment not being used by students in at least 34 states is slim to none.

Yet, the articles and the controversies that surround the test are multiplying.  From the Opt-out to the unpaid product placement, even if the tests were perfect, they will forever be flawed.  The days of testing quietly coming and going are gone.  In an age of high stakes testing anything that assesses our students is going to be controversial.   Just take a look at some of the articles surrounding this years testing;

Yet at the end of the day, New York compared to other states seems to fall somewhere in the middle when you consider that  Texas tests 45 of the mandated 180 school days while North Carolina tests about 10 hours of the 1,025 instructional hours. In comparison, New York seems middle ground testing the majority of the students in garde 3 – 7 about 6 – 7 days a year.

Every state tests.  While the tests vary, no matter where you go in the country, students will face testing.  Maybe the debate should be on the national level and not the state one.  If we are moving to a “national” testing system then why isn’t the Opt-out debate in congress now?  Instead of teaching to the test or against the test or for the test or about the test, maybe we can just find the moments that matter, the standards and skills they really need so when they do test, those teachable moments will count for even more.


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