Stuart Rhoden, Ph.D. is originally from Chicago, IL. He has been in education for over 15 years. He worked in Washington D.C. and Chicago on education policy and advocacy. He also was a high school teacher in Chicago and Los Angeles for a number of years. For the past five years, he has been a lecturer teaching on issues of culture and diversity, education policy, education philosophy and youth cultures in colleges both in Philadelphia and Phoenix. He currently lives in Phoenix, where he is a full-time Instructor at Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

In the past three or four years, there has been a grassroots movement across the country created by some progressive educational groups surrounding students “Opting out” of mandatory high-stakes state test.  My opinion of this is that it is a copout. Until we change the system at broader systemic levels, we are not adequately preparing our students to succeed if we tell them they can opt-out of assessments along the way. This goes well beyond the “work harder/smarter” or “bootstraps” mentality that is often cited as code for structural inequality, but rather my perspective stems from an insistence that students can shine in an inequitable system as it is currently constructed. What is equally important is that as the adults; including educators, policy makers and researchers, need to consider more appropriate ways to analyze positive academic achievement, as well as strive towards creating more accurate measures of student achievement. The student’s role, while important, should not focus on being change agents of systemic inequality (that should be left to the adults), but rather beacons of light who consistently overcome systemic inequality.

Let me be clear, I abhor high-stakes testing.  I can see the merits of some uses of numbers and statistics, but in regards to high-stakes testing, however, one of the more overlooked aspects is that in the past few years, in the waning days of No Child Left Behind, school districts have increasingly become wary of teachers actual teaching being the sole method of preparation for students taking high-stakes state exams. Specifically, the number of high-stakes test preparation courses and the reduction (or in extreme cases, elimination) of science, history and electives such as physical education and the arts has occurred in lower socio-economic, lower performing, higher minority enrollment schools.

When it comes to the quantifying classroom success, there are so many variables which enter the equation that it has become exceedingly difficult to streamline positive academic achievement exclusively through numeric metrics such as grades, or through the high-stakes testing terms “proficient,” “basic,” or “far below basic.”  Lani Guinier in her new book The Tyranny of Meritocracy highlights this point explicitly.  She argues that the current state of high-stakes testing has created a skewed sense of what defines merit.  Rather than merit measuring what an individual knows (which even then, standardized tests have not proven to be highly effective), we should be examining ways in which collaboration and group knowledge can and should be used more effectively in defining academic achievement.  I agree.  However, until we reach that end, I think it is critically important that students, and in particular, students of color, be able to demonstrate their competencies in the system as it is currently constructed.

There are three key points I want to make concerning the “opt out” movement:

  1. In regards to standardized testing being “too frustrating” for our students and thus we should avoid at all cost, I know countless teachers who see the frustration on their students’ faces as not just defeat but rather persistence and resilience. Yes, tests are difficult, but with time, patience, practice and yes teaching (both from parents and educators) it gets better.  Are there better ways to demonstrate academic competency, yes.  We should do everything within our power to ensure that our students excel on the current incarnation of test, even as we strive to change the system.
  1. What message are we sending to children of this generation if we insist that if something is “too hard,” they can “opt out?” It is already bad enough that there is a false sense of accomplishment with this generation receiving awards for simply showing up and participating on the soccer field and expecting that if they do the same in the classroom, their simple attendance equals positive academic achievement.  We are doing a disservice to students in public education when we blindly aim towards the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency (which, according to NCLB was supposed to have been met by 2014). In instances such as this, we are fraught with an environment in which cheating and gaming the system overtake actual student learning and achievement. A more pragmatic approach would be to prepare students through rigorous coursework and less emphasis on test preparation to aim for high achievement and excellence, even if they never achieve 100% proficiency.
  1. Critics of high-stakes testing, of which, ironically, I count myself as one, usually deride that; ‘high-stakes testing culture has eliminated all the fun out of teaching. I don’t know why anyone would get into the profession.’ In my current position as an instructor in a Teachers College, I am constantly reminding pre-service teachers, as well as those already in their own classrooms, of the frequently articulated refrain that teaching is considered by many to be both as much an “art as it is a science.”  With that said, we cannot always reside in the art part of our lessons, sometimes there are hard science lessons we need to instill in our students.  Unfortunately, testing is one of those science parts of our job.

We must work diligently to improve the metrics we give our students.  We must cease to depend on independent testing companies who want to “data mine” our students.  We must continue to make these tests measure what students actually know rather than try to play gotcha.  We must continue to decouple these test scores with exclusively determining a teacher’s “worth” or worse, employment status.  We must continue to make these exams less culturally biased.  Can these diagnostics be improved? Absolutely.  But we are fooling ourselves if we think that students should not have any quantitative measures of identifying academic growth – even flawed ones such as the current iterations of high-stakes testing. As such, we must continue to have high expectations of our students and their academic achievement, while also working to dismantle the current toxic high-stakes testing environment.

The articulation of the science component stems from the process of failing, learning from ones mistakes, retrying from the beginning, and ultimately succeeding – in other words the implementation of scientific inquiry.  Students are not supposed to be proficient on their first try, or maybe their second. However, if we encourage them to simply “opt out” they are never going to learn.  Critics contend that that this process takes the joy out of teaching and learning.  I’m sorry, from my perspective that is exactly where the joy is.  What is unfortunate is that we are so deep in a contaminated era of mistrust and fear that many are afraid to even think of how to better prepare students for these exams.  Rather, many feel that the oppressive and ineffective test preparation (e.g. “drill and kill”) is the only way.  What is interesting is when we examine any high performing, high socio-economic public school across the country, we will see that they rarely if ever focus on test preparation to the extent that underperforming, lower socio-economic public schools do.

I am 100% positive that James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Steve Jobs, John Lennon, Michael Jordan, Albert Einstein, Serena Williams, Maya Angelou, or any other person who achieved excellence in their respective profession (intellectual or otherwise) had some exposure and experience with failure, and wanted to “opt out” as they drove towards excellence.  We have to instill in students, the ethos of the Japanese proverb; “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”  Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit and Resilience speaks to this, as does my own research on trust and resilience in which students themselves articulate that they are more inclined to persist if they trust both mentors (peer and adults) as well as the process itself.

So in my humble opinion, don’t opt out, opt in…Keep going, keep fighting, keep pushing students (and teachers) towards finding the joy in the simplest discoveries, while at the same time, keep fighting to improve accountability measures which more accurately demonstrate student positive academic achievement. Students only have one chance at their K-12 education. An adage that I used to have on the wall in my high school classroom from Marianne Williamson stated “it is not up to you what you learn, but only whether you learn through joy or through pain.”  Find the joy.

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6 Responses to “Why the “Opt-Out Movement” for High Stakes Testing is Bad for Students in Urban Public Schools”

  1. Mary Bouley on 4/6/15 5:49 PM US/Eastern

    You make some very compelling points regarding a very complicated topic. My main concern is that the human appetite for metrics appears to be insatiable and that the greed for data will continue unchecked unless and until large numbers of parents put their opt out foot down. Like many things, it becomes a matter of intentionality…sure, telling kids they don’t need to do something because it’s “hard” sends a unhealthy message. As a parent though, opting out with the intention of sending a message to policy makers that the immoral use of test scores to label schools, evaluate teachers and the many other nefarious uses of the numbers needs to end seems to me to be the best hope of changing this particular issue. I agree with you totally that it is just one of many. But at the end of the day, the numbers become meaningless if they don’t test the vast majority of kids.

  2. Stuart Rhoden on 4/6/15 7:45 PM US/Eastern

    Hi Mary, I have a quick question. If opting out because it is hard sends an unhealthy message to students, and opting out sends a significant message to politicians and school districts, is there currently a middle ground where the politicians and districts could (and in my opinion, should) be forced to change their high-stakes testing policies without students opting out? Is there such a thing as collecting data that is not seen as “greed(y)?”

    Thanks for your insightful comment.

  3. Michael Peña on 4/6/15 8:42 PM US/Eastern

    Those are your three main points? You are HILARIOUS. I don’t recall anyone connected to the opt out movement making those arguments as to why students should opt out. We may use the frustration of students as evidence of a broader idea, to be sure. And we use the idea of taking the ‘fun’ out of learning- which does translate to making our profession an enjoyable one. I’m disappointed by your ineffective spin on what are truly important topics confronting those of us currently in the K-12 classrooms.

  4. sue alexander on 4/7/15 1:26 PM US/Eastern

    “Keep going, keep fighting, keep pushing students “
    I agree. Set high expectations; pick the kids up when they fail, and press them to work harder.
    But the goals need to be attainable. Expecting every child to graduate from high school ready for college work is not an obtainable goal. Pressing children to reach an unobtainable goal year after year after year is cruel.
    I have not lowered the expectations of my children. Their teachers and schools have set high expectations for them, and I press them to meet those expectations.
    The opt out movement has grown large enough to gain attention to the problems in our schools. It has done much more to press for changes in education than I can do alone. We in the opt out movement are also speaking, writing and calling our state and federal representatives and asking for changes. We are NOT opting our children out to protect them from failing. We are opting out to press the government to make effective changes to assure all students receive the resources they need to succeed.
    How does silently following the rules help to reach the goal of equality in education?

  5. Francis Sullivan on 4/7/15 1:29 PM US/Eastern

    The history of “literacy” testing in education as a means to control access to cultural capital extends back at least 200 years. As to the first point in your blog, the tactics that groups have used in response has never neatly divided between progressive and reactionary groups. I take your concern to be that if those already marginalized within the ducation system are “opted out,” the results will only be further marginalization. I respect that concern, but whether that happens depends upon the success of the opt out movement itself, which seeks to repeal a requirement that uses up as much as 6 weeks instructional time for just taking the exams, in addition to test prep time. Given that no one in school has had anything like sufficient time to prepare for these exams, taking them is not likely to result in any “knowledge” about student performance.
    As for the “message” that opt out sends to youth, I agree that too many educatiors use the “too hard” response. That needs to be unpacked and clarified. When I talk with teachers, what they mean by that is, generally, that the format of the tests is often so unfamiliar as to be alien to them. Precisely because students have had little or no instruction that would provide them with the kinds of “procedural knowledge” needed to make sense of the questions, students are at a loss as to what the questions want from them.
    In other words, the narrowing of the test to focus rigidly on a subset of only those cognitive acts used in “high-level” intellectual activity actually functions to obscure the kinds of “background knowledge” and “schema” nevertheless needed to address the literacy tasks set for students. Even in Math and the sciences, the use of (simulated) real-world problems as the frame for demonstrating content knowledge requires that learners be familiar with the kinds of situations used in the simulation. In reading the problem is even more pronounced, since David Coleman et al have focused on the use of “text dependent” questions. Such questions ostensibly require only literal understanding and rational inferencing to respond to, when, in fact, they presuppose specific kinds of background knowledge AND a specific orientation to making meaning of a text, what researcher in my field call a “situated identity.” Since none of that is even made explicit, students on the margins are the very ones unlikely to respond “appropriately,” and so “fail” the test.

    I go on at this length because I share your concerns about the messages students receive, which, I fear, will be that their mistakes mean that they are “stupid.” Too many of our youth already have internalized this message from the way schooling works now. The new regime of truth (testing) only focuses that message with a kind of blinding intensity. It reminds me of that racist and classist book from the 90’s by Herrnstein and Murray, “The Bell Curve.” It tells all of us, “See, things are as they should be. Everyone is in their appointed place. The system is working and the metrics give us an objective reflection of that fact.” That is a message worth fighting. Opting out is a tactic worth employing as a way to fight it.

  6. Scott M. Petri on 4/17/15 9:26 PM US/Eastern

    Hi Stuart, I like your piece, but think a larger part of the opt-out movement is directed at the federal government and large corporate testing companies. Most Americans are used to local control and when they see tests produced by Fortune 500 companies that don’t reflect their regional values – BAM they opt out. I also object to the term “high stakes.” A test is not high stakes if it doesn’t affect the student. Most of the SBAC and PARCC tests will never appear on a student’s transcripts, affect their GPA, or graduation status. These tests are used to evaluate schools and teachers via dubious statistical methods that are not clear to the customers aka the parents. When parents see the value in tests that measure not only what students know, but what they can do with what they know, the opt-out trend will subside. I recently wrote about attending a testing charette in CA with a vendor and the department of ed. I hope states will invest in creative, high-quality and meaningful tests that engage students and truly inform instruction. Until parents perceive that the tests have value, the opt-out movement will continue.

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