The Opt-Out Opportunity

Does the opt-out movement have legs? Or could what some are calling a ‘revolution’ just be nothing more than normal growing pains for the Common Core State Standards? Whichever of those is accurate, it’s also a rare opportunity to rethink the wisdom of the strange path we are heading down.

The extent of opting out and the passion of its proponents have surprised a lot of observers, and, of course, it’s not over yet. While I haven’t heard any recent public statements from Secretary Arne Duncan{{1}}, radio, television, newspapers and the web are full of reports and analysis. {{2}}

How widespread is opting out? In New York State, where about 60,000 students opted out last year, at least 200,000 opted out of the first round of testing (English Language Arts), with math yet to be tested. Across New Jersey, Colorado, Washington and Oregon and elsewhere, thousands and thousands of parents chose to withdraw their kids from the Common Core State Standards tests. In some schools, less than half of students slated to be tested actually took the exams, and in as-yet-uncounted number of districts, the percentage tested fell below the magical 95% required under federal law.

As we reported on the NewsHour last month, it’s a ‘perfect storm’ that has brought together the left and the right, generally with very different motives but with a common purpose: slow down or stop the testing machine. Sweeping generalization: Most on the right want to get rid of the Common Core State Standards and anything that smacks of federal control; most on the left believe schools test too much, and this is their moment to draw a line in the sand. As one CCSS testing opponent said, “We are not anti-testing; we are against these tests.”

What makes America’s approach different from nearly every other country is that we use test scores to judge teachers, not primarily to assess either students or schools. The people in charge do not trust teachers. That, to be blunt, is the root cause of the mess we are in. Years ago we trusted teachers{{3}} but had no system for verification; today, however, trust has virtually disappeared, and education is about verifying — using scores on standardized tests to weed out ‘bad teachers’ and reward ‘good teachers.’ {{4}}

Trust without verification doesn’t work. Verification without trust is a disaster.

But what exactly are we intent on verifying? There are three basic options: Student progress, teacher performance, and school quality? That’s the key decision.

The Obama Administration has put its money–lots of it–on assessing teachers, and standardized test scores are the essential measure. A requirement for “Race to the Top” millions was a test-based system of teacher accountability.

But that was then. Has Secretary Duncan been ‘evolving,’ as politicians like to do? Two years ago at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, he said, “Despite the flaws of today’s tests, we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t believe that the problems of assessing student growth are so unsolvable that we should take a pass on measuring growth—or bar the consideration of student progress in learning from teacher evaluation.”

At the beginning of this school year, he threw the critics a bone, saying “(T)esting should never be the main focus of our schools.” He went on: I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more.

But he did not back away from his central belief that student test scores must be used to evaluate teachers; he just gave states a bit longer. “States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems.”

This may be moot, because the current rewrite of ESEA/NCLB takes away a lot of the Secretary’s power. That, and the election of a new President next fall, mean an opportunity to rethink the big picture.

To many in education, testing students in order to measure, reward and punish teachers is a flawed strategy, because half of students are not in testing grades. Most are also studying subjects that aren’t tested, but of course those teachers have to be evaluated. So, bending logic beyond recognition, some teachers are being judged by the scores of students they’ve never taught! If there’s no standardized test for, say, music, then music might as well be dropped from the curriculum.

Testing kids in every subject — including art and music — just so their teachers can be rated may strike you as an idiotic notion, but it’s the logical outgrowth of federal policy.

Focus on students, argues the new president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia. She says that No Child Left Behind defined ‘success’ as a test score. That has to change.

What we need instead is a whole dashboard of indicators that monitor better measures of success for the whole child — a critical, creative mind, a healthy body and an ethical character. And we need indicators of each student’s opportunities to learn — what programs, services and resources are available?

Success should be measured throughout the system — preschool to high school — but a standardized test tells us so little. We want to know which students are succeeding in Advanced Placement and honors programs, where they earn college credit in high school. You can measure that. We want to know which students have certified, experienced teachers and access to the support professionals they need, such as tutors, librarians, school nurses and counselors. We want to know which students have access to arts and athletic programs. Which middle school students are succeeding in science, technology, engineering and math tracks that will get them into advanced high school courses, which will get them into a university. You can measure all that, too.

And we want the data broken down by demographic groups, so we can ensure that all types of students have access to these resources. Without this dashboard of information, how would the public know which children are being shortchanged? How would anything change…?

I like President Garcia’s ‘dashboard’ image and the multiple measures, but why not put the emphasis on measuring school quality? Test scores could be on the list, but so would graduation rates, college/career readiness, classes in the arts, community service, teacher and pupil attendance, teacher turnover and more.

I would argue that no school should be allowed to stay open if most of its students consistently fail the state’s tests. At the same time, no school would dare to ‘dumb down’ its curriculum and devote hours to ‘drill and kill,’ because of those all-important multiple measures it’s being judged by.

“Multiple measures” cannot be handed down from on high. We need to trust each community to create the kinds of school programs it wants for its children, instead of the state or federal government making the rules. I hope citizens would accept this wisdom: “We are what we repeatedly do {{5}}.”

A community might choose:

  • Significant programs in art, drama, journalism and music.
  • A community service requirement.
  • Project-based learning.
  • Competence in a second language.
  • At least 30 minutes of recess daily.
  • Honors recognition for academic excellence.
  • An emphasis on ‘blended learning,’ the healthy mix of teaching and technology.
  • Teacher-made tests to regularly measure student progress.
  • Uniforms for all students.
  • Economic and racial diversity.
  • Early college opportunities for advanced students.

Give a community one point for each vibrant program it establishes. For argument’s sake, let’s say a school must get at least 10 points to stay open. However, merely having some or all of these programs would not be enough to earn a “passing grade” for a school, because every school must also earn points by doing well on the high-stakes test and demonstrating that its graduates are capable of moving on.

That’s the verification side of the equation.

Give three points if 60 percent of kids score basic or above; four points if 75 percent reach that level; and five points for a score of 85 percent or above.

The idea is to establish multiple priorities and provide a program that is valuable to the community. A school couldn’t just “drill and kill” to pass the test, because it wouldn’t earn enough points to stay open. Nor could it just have a host of wonderful programs that make everyone feel good, because passing the state test and preparing graduates for their future are also requirements.

Trust the community to decide what kinds of programs it wants for its children, but look to  (a smaller number of) standardized tests and the college/career readiness results for proof that the community’s trust is justified — or, in worst cases, evidence that changes must be made.

I’m suggesting that states should focus on verifying the progress of schools, not teachers, while the federal government should return to its roots: assuring the rights of the disadvantaged. However, we need to trust a school’s community (of teachers, administrators and parents) to see that everyone in that school is pulling their weight–and to do something about those who are not.

Today’s bitter battles about the Common Core State Standards and their tests could become an opportunity for community leaders to bring people together to talk about what we want for all our children. Doing so could lower the temperature in education — and help us begin to catch up with other industrialized societies.


[[1]]1. Speaking on background, a Department official questioned whether it’s a real movement. “It’s far too early to judge that. States will report their participation data to us later this summer, and the testing window is still open in some states.”[[1]]

[[2]]2.I was surprised–and disappointed–by the front page story in The New York Times on Tuesday, April 21, which reports that opting out is union-led and union-driven.  That was not the case in New Jersey, where the union got involved only late in the game.  The national effort led by Peggy Robertson says it has received no support from either teacher union. The Times’ story cites analysts but no parents.[[2]]

[[3]]3. When teaching was one of the few jobs open to competent women, classrooms were staffed by smart, responsible and caring women, women who would probably be attorneys or executives today.  When a changing economy opened doors for women, schools suffered. The teaching force changed, and trust gradually eroded as we learned the hard way that trust alone did not produce results. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came in 2003, when a high school valedictorian in New Orleans failed the math portion of the state’s graduation test five times.
By then we were well into the test-intensive era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires all children to be achieving at a basic level by 2014. Today, public education is all about verifying, and states are falling over themselves to rate teachers according to their students’ test scores. Washington, D.C., led the way, but now about 30 states require the evaluation of teachers based on test scores, a requirement most added to qualify for Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” money. [[3]]

[[4]]4. This approach has had unintended consequences, particularly outbreaks of cheating by adults determined to increase student test scores.  Atlanta is the poster child, of course, but only because no one in power in the District of Columbia had the courage to investigate what went on during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor.[[4]]

[[5]]5. The aphorism continues: “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” I and most others attribute this to Aristotle, but apparently these are the words of philosopher Will Durant, who was riffing on an observation of Aristotle.  I’ve also learned that Mark Twain did not say about Wagner, “His music is better than it sounds.” He was quoting another humorist, Bill Nye.[[5]]

11 thoughts on “The Opt-Out Opportunity

  1. The most important group to hold accountable is politicians and
    self-anointed “education reformers.”
    They should be held accountable to develop education policy that is
    equitable for all children, based on hard evidence, and based on the
    best research into childhood development and learning.


  2. The one place where we differ is your call for some continued use of standardized tests. Even if there are fewer hours devoted to the actual testing, they will still take time away from meaningful learning and I believe will undermine creative teaching if every child in every grade is tested every year. Perhaps a version of NAEP that uses random samples and can’t be taught to would have some value, but even then I am skeptical of the process by which test questions are arrived at, and how a decision is made as to when a skill/knowledge should be in place. We act as if test makers and tests are “objective” but who has defined that?


  3. Very cogent advice, John.
    (Where were you last month when Senators Alexander and Murray were drafting their bill — allegedly over takeout pizza? 😉
    Isn’t it peculiar that some of the very people who offer (at least rhetorical) support for IEPs and individualized learning, wisely recognizing that children progress differently along different paths, often seem to have no regard for the use of multiple means of assessing achievement?
    An evolution of perspective within the country’s education community is overdue; your essay speaks to issues badly in need of policy evolution.


  4. That’s a good start John. I would argue that a percent above or below the norm would be skewed by the level students came into the school. I would rather see, for example, 70% make 1 year or more gain so the issue would take kids from where they are with progress. Of course they can have ultimate goals but they would no longer be deadlines for failure, rather they would be guidelines for success. Of course the goal is for all students to be on level but we must realize it may take a little longer for some while others will complete quicker and move to college at a younger age. The thought of everyone graduating “on time” becomes less relevant while more importance is given to everyone graduating with skills, whenever that may be.

    The problem of course, is the polarization of those who claim to understand educational needs. One side seems to be hell bent on testing with minimal flexibility. When they become flexible the other side becomes hell bent on eliminating the “test” with no viable alternative. Clearly both sides give the appearance of being more interested in power ego and control than they are in children.

    I don’t believe that to be in their hearts, but as long as they scream and shout at each other, that will continue to be the perception.

    I called my book “Brainstorming Common Core” because that’s what I wanted to do. I start out kinda rough as a wake up call but somehow, I end up standing in the middle like the guy with the union pants and confederate shirt. Union shot him in the back and confederates shot him in the butt.

    However, I believe you are looking in the right direction. I hope my book can serve as talking points but not sure if anyone is listening. Right now I just see power plays but maybe you’re right. Maybe all sides will come together and think about kids for a change. Until then, I’ll stand alone and take my lumps, thinking about, at age 72, embracing complete retirement.


    • There may be a major breakthrough in the effort to provide quality education with fair accountability on an even playing field. The Collins amendment to ESEA as well as others in the House allow an alternative to the testing fiasco. This could easily allow 1st class or whole child assessment to be implemented in 5 states. This is not a be all end all but it would be a major step in the right direction.


  5. The problem with your testing scenario is rewarding proficiency instead of growth. We could have a school that takes students from a 10% proficiency level to a 60% level in one year and wouldn’t be rewarded as much as a school that takes students from a 80% to a 85% level. I realize that I am oversimplifying this a bit to make my point but regardless growth can matter much more than proficiency, not that proficiency doesn’t matter.

    It is important to realize that students come into a school a much different levels in different communities and that is why the dashboard model is such a good idea. You can monitor progress and if trends are positive or negative.


    • That’s a good point, and I would expect communities to debate and discuss all the details, which is where the devil dwells.


  6. I find it interesting that none of this discussion is about children and learning. It is only about measuring a particular milestone in classroom instruction. Did a nine year old successfully learn a given bit of information or skill? The truth is that every nine year old, or thirteen year is learning at a different rate, in a different learning style, in a different cultural situation. How can we expect all children of a certain age/grade level to know the same thing and be able to use it the same way? We can’t. Yet, that is what standardized testing, falsely, is designed to do. It makes sense not to blame the child who might not be developmentally ready to answer a question. So who do you blame – the teacher, easy.
    When I served in our state legislature a representative stood in front of the assembly and stated, “This is not about children, this is about money.” That is exactly what this discussion is about, the money our state education systems are now pouring into for-profit charter schools. If public education professional teachers can’t teach our children rote memory test answers, then let’s hire those who can train them to jump through hoops.
    The constant references to Arne Duncan as “Secretary of Education” and his “support” of education is a horrible misnomer. His background in education is only as an administrator of a charter school institution, not even a teacher, or principal, or superintendent. He was in education to make money. It was not about students, it was about money. He has been a horrible choice to head our national education department as can be evidenced by the state of public education today, the negativity, the degrading of teachers, and even the opt-out movement that shows the disgust of parents for the treatment of their children relative to standardized testing.
    John, if you want to have a positive influence on education in America, move beyond standardized testing in any form. Treat each child as an individual learner, don’t advocate standardizing them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s