by joe nathan
Should 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 district, charter and union officials responded when I asked them about this. Their responses reflected a mixture of respect, responsibility and frustration.
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.
Mary Olson, director of Communication and Public Relations for Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools, wrote in an email: “Anoka-Hennepin School District does not have a written opt-out policy for testing, but it does allow parents to opt out of state tests. When parents or guardians request that their children opt out, a school official meets with them and explains the purpose and the value of the test for the students and the district. The district is accountable for student learning and the tests measure that learning. If the parents/guardians still wish to opt out, they must submit that request in writing to the school.”
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 school’s 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.
Orono Superintendent Karen Orcutt, wrote: “We would never urge families to opt out of the state testing or a school’s testing program. We embrace accountability and want our test scores to inform our decisions about teaching and curriculum changes that might be needed. We would not meet state or federal expectations if we encouraged parents to opt out, nor would test results be statistically valid or informative for continuous improvement if all students are not tested. We rarely have parents/guardians request to opt out of testing. We work with parents to accommodate any concerns that they may have.”
Kate Maguire, Osseo superintendent, explained: “We rarely have parents/guardians request to opt out of testing. We work with parents to accommodate any concerns that they may have.”
Joseph E. Stangler, director of Research and Assessment at Elk River Area School District, wrote: “At this time I am not aware of anyone encouraging our district’s families to ‘opt out’ of either the state or school’s testing program nor are we encouraging any families/students to do so. Our policy follows the (federal) ESEA guidelines; meaning that we notify parents in advance of tests and we honor parent refusals for testing. Presently, I can’t remember the last time we had a parent refuse to have their child tested on the MCA or any other portion of our district testing program.”
Aldo Sicoli, Robbinsdale superintendent, told me: “Standardized assessments are valuable because they provide parents and teachers with information about how a student is performing relative to their own past performance, as well as how the student is performing in terms of career and college readiness. Parents may refuse to allow their children to take state and local standardized assessments by submitting their wishes in writing to the district; this is consistent with the state procedures manual.”
St. Anthony-New Brighton Superintendent Bob Laney wrote: “We would discourage parents from opting out of our assessment program, both state and local. Assessments are used to assess student growth, allowing us to make instructional decisions to support student learning; help us monitor our curriculum and programs; benchmark students against state standards; assist in designing system improvements to support all student’s learning and close the achievement gap; and for public accountability.
“We have not had any requests. If we were to get a request for opting out of a local assessment, for example MAP, we would need a note that would be on file. For a state assessment, we need a written note from a parent. We would keep a copy on file and send the original to the MDE Assessment Center. ‘REF’ would be bubbled in on the student’s answer document.”
Chace Anderson, Wayzata superintendent, explained via email:
“1. State and district testing programs are the only standardized method we have for measuring student achievement and growth in academic areas.
2. State and district test results are a vital part of our continuous improvement efforts at the school and district level. They are the only reliable and valid method we have of measuring our progress toward our achievement-related strategic directions. They are a vital part of our ongoing data-based decision-making efforts.
3. If we have masses of parents opting out of the assessment system, that would greatly reduce the usefulness of the results. We would no longer be able to assess the effectiveness of the work we do.”
Finally, 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.
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 don’t 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 Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org