Educators urge meeting before students ‘opt out’ of tests

Nathan-on-Education-newShould parents have their children “opt out” (not participate) in local or statewide testing? Some anti-testing advocates are suggesting this. Last week, more than 30 districts, charter and union officials responded when I asked them about this. Their responses reflected a mixture of respect, responsibility and frustration.

Some educators agreed that tests are imperfect, they don’t measure everything that’s important and there have been and are problems with statewide testing programs.

Stephen Jones, Little Falls superintendent, wrote in an email: “There’s no doubt that E-12 education has become too dependent on test results in terms of being the most viable measurement of student achievement. Even as we talk about developing students who are well-rounded assets for society possessing career and college-ready skills, public and legislative sentiment invariably revert back to test score results. We believe that test scores in their current state carry too much weight but nonetheless do provide some useful and pertinent assessment information.”

George Weber, Pierz superintendent, wrote: “I have not been contacted by or heard of any parent opt-out initiative in our school district. My brief understanding is that there is some federal support backing parents who make that choice. My professional opinion is that there is a certain segment of our population who are not served well with the type of tests we are using. There are many aspects of intelligence and many indicators of adult success that are not accounted for in our current slate of state-mandated assessments. I hope for the day when we use our world’s technology resources to assist in the education of our children by creating the same types of interactive, highly engaging experiences that the professional video world sells to children, but instead building these products to serve our greater educational needs. Then we could have more accurate assessments of many attributes.”

Most educators offered considerable respect for parents and a willingness to work with them. They urged parents with concerns about testing to contact their youngsters’ teachers or principals. In some cases of extreme “test anxiety,” educators agreed that opting out might be appropriate.

For example, Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president, responded: “Education Minnesota hasn’t taken a formal position on this, but I can say what I would do if a parent approached me about opting out. I would explain that some standardized tests are more valuable to educators than others. I would also explain that some students handle the stress and loss of learning time associated with those tests better than others. Then I would leave it up to the parent to make an informed decision about what’s best for that individual student.”

Educators also noted the schools’ responsibilities to participate in testing programs. They pointed to federal and state legislation that makes them responsible for testing. These educators also say testing can be valuable both for the students and the system.

Jim Johnson, Monticello superintendent, explained: “We have had very few requests regarding this issue but we would honor a parent’s wishes. We would encourage them to have their child participate, as the district does find value in using the data to monitor student progress and as a way of evaluating our own programming.”

Les Fujitake, Bloomington superintendent, told me via email: “Our district will share the following to help parents make an informed decision:

• Parents that opt out of state tests (such as the MCA, MTAS, and Modified assessments) will lose the ability to compare individual levels of proficiency to state and national standards as well as learning rates compared to a state norm.

• Parents that opt out of local assessments (such as the NWEA MAP tests) will lose the ability to compare  individual  student rates

of learning  to  a  national   norm.

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• Parents that opt out of state and local assessments will lose the ability to help track their children’s progress on their respective pathway to graduation.”

As a parent and educator, I found that in-classroom, teacher-designed tests helped show how much progress students were making. Standardized tests showed how well students were doing compared to others around the state and country. Moreover, students planning to enter most colleges will find “test-taking skills” help them show what they know.

However, traditional standardized tests don’t assess many important areas of knowledge and skill. And both in Minnesota and other parts of the country, there have been many problems with tests. The best path for parents is to learn what tests do and not to measure and monitor how their youngsters respond to testing. If you have concerns, meet with your student’s teacher or principal to determine what makes the most sense.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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