This is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.
For the past few years a movement has been growing to save our public schools from a culture obsessed with standardized testing. After the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RttT), testing has been forced upon students, teachers, and parents at an alarming rate. We all took tests when we were in school, but unless you have a child in school today or you are a parent of a child or teacher, you have no idea how much these tests have changed. Instead of 3 hours a day 3 days out of the school year that we remember of standardized testing, we now have 6 weeks of testing 6 hours a day and 2-3 months of test prep. One teacher acknowledges that her students had only 3 weeks of instruction not related to testing.
Many parents and teachers are fed up with the culture of testing. The opt out movement has grown and this year the numbers are so large the media has been forced to pay attention. Teachers are refusing to administer the tests and parents are opting their children out of all standardized tests especially those used to punish their child’s teacher and school. United Opt Out National*, a leading organization supporting parents right to opt out, has a map on their website that shows the numbers of opt out across the country. Jesse Hagopian editor of and contributor to More than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing, has been leading the fight against testing when he and his colleagues at Garfield High School refused to administer the MAP test in 2013. More than a Score provides personal accounts of teachers, parents, and students who refused to allow a single test to determine their worth. These are just some of the examples of how the opting out movement is growing.
However, as the movement grows so does the push back. There are many who have a vested interest in keeping standardized testing in place and thus they are threatened by parents, teachers, and students who choose to opt out. As testing season began and the opt outs started rolling in we have a seen a plethora of articles and interviews admonishing the opt out movement. After John Oliver addressed standardized testing and Pearson (the multinational corporation that creates most of the profit tests and testing materials estimated to cost public schools $4 billion dollars annually) on his show Last Week Tonight, Peter Cunningham felt the need to accuse John Oliver of throwing poor kids under the bus. And he is not alone in his defense of standardized testing. Some Civil Rights groups have been vocal about their belief that annual standardized testing is needed to deal with racism in schools and President Obama has said that he would veto the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that did not include annual testing.
Most of the arguments made by those who believe in standardized testing are filled with myths about what standardized testing can and should accomplish and misconceptions about the promise of opting out. Those of us who are advocates for a public education system that honors all children and supports families have an obligation to address the myths head on. Here are five popular myths about standardized testing and the opt out movement and the facts you can use to counter them.
1. Standardized testing is needed to address the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
This is the main point of 12 national Civil Rights group who issued a press release on May 5, 2015 denouncing “anti-testing efforts.” The group joint statement claims “For the civil rights community, data provide the power to advocate for greater equality under the law. It’s the reason we’ve fought to make sure that we’re counted equally in every aspect of American life, such as in employment, the criminal justice system, and consumer lending.” They acknowledge that high stakes standardized testing (tests used to determine graduation or grade retention) can be misused and undermine the purpose of public education, but they counter that the today’s opt out movement prohibits the collection of important data that will reveal the education disparities by race and class and our ability to fix what we measure. Additionally the statement takes issues with opt out activists using the language of the civil rights movement to remind people that standardized tests have a long history or eugenics and racial biases.
At first read it sounds like standardized testing was designed to close the achievement gap. This is simply not true. No test can close a gap. Testing can only show you were the gaps are. We know we have an achievement gap in this country and that after 10 years of NCLB and nearly 8 years of RttT the gap has not closed. Do we need more standardized testing to show us that African American and Latino students do not score as high as their white and Asian counterparts? How can knowing this close the gap? Perhaps if we know where the gaps are then we can take appropriate steps to close the gap. But we know where the gaps are. We know that if you plug in student zip codes on a map, you could easily determine which areas would have high test scores and which areas would have low test scores, because testing reveals more about economic inequality than academic achievement.
So how do we respond to standardized test results that show a racial or class achievement gap? Well under NCLB we would label the school as failing to meet adequate yearly progress. We would sanction the school and possibly close it and turn it into a charter school. Is that how we close the achievement gap? The charter school experiment has been under way in the U.S. for over 20 years and we still have an achievement gap. Although some charter schools are able to produce amazing results (especially when they self-select good students and remove those who threaten to lower test scores) but overall charters do not outperform public schools and have not closed the achievement gap.
The problem with this is myth, is that it leads people to believe that by testing students more and more we can somehow make the achievement gap shrink and eventually disappear. We do need to know how students are doing in school and if there are disparities based on race and class but we can collect this information by testing a random sample of students once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. We do not need annual testing in grades 3 through 8 to show that academic achievement is tied to social class and race.
2. Standardized testing is needed to hold teachers and districts accountable.
This myth is often tied to the previous one and used by those who seem to think teachers and their unions are the reason why all children are not succeeding in school. The idea is that teachers are either racist, lazy, or both and if we do not have standardized tests in place to measure their effectiveness (this is known as VAM- value added measure, and VAM is a SHAM) then our children will be the ones to suffer. Are there racist teachers? Yes some teachers are racist. Are there lazy teachers? Yes some teachers are lazy. Will standardized testing make teachers stop being racist or lazy? No, they will not. Instead when teacher evaluation is tied to test scores you see fewer teachers willing to teach students who traditionally score low. Why should a young teacher work in a school where 95% of the students are on free or reduced lunch and less than 30% receive a passing score on standardizes test when at the end of the year their ability to keep their job will be based on their ability to increase test scores?
Often when teachers remind the public that poverty is the real culprit they are often accused of making up excuses. But how does one excuse the effects of poverty when there are an abundance of research studies that prove that poverty can have negative effects on a student’s ability to learn? By now you are probably thinking, well not all poor children do poorly in school. Many go on to be quite successful. This is true, and I am one of those poor children who succeeded in school despite my impoverished background. But these students are the exception not the rule. The hundreds of thousands of children born poor and who fail to graduate high school are the ones we need to remember. And for them poverty is the elephant in the room that no one wants to address. It is much easier to blame the teacher, or the parent, or even the student, then to deal with the effects of poverty. However, one thing we cannot do is expect standardized testing to solve the poverty problem by making teachers more accountable.
3. Opting out does not prepare children for the real world.
This myth is directed towards the students who are choosing to opt out. In a plea to young leaders a former high school drop out reminds students that although they are told these tests are high stakes, they are nothing compared to other tests they will need to take. And since you cannot opt out of the SAT or GRE or LSAT then you should not opt out of your current standardized testing. It is true that after high school there will be more standardized tests you need to take. If you want to go to college you need the SAT or ACT and if you want to go graduate school you need the GRE and other academic areas will require even more standardized tests like the LSAT. But there is one difference between those possible future tests and the current standardized tests you are refusing to take today: a low score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, or LSAT does not mean that you cannot go to college, graduate school, or even law school. If you fail to pass a high stakes standardized test, you may not graduate depending on what state you live in. Or if you are in elementary school you might be held back a grade, or force to give up electives and specials for additional test prep. If you get a low score on the SAT or ACT you may not get into an Ivy League school but you can still go to college. Same for graduate school and law school, so in fact these tests are very low stakes.
Another difference is that your score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, or LSAT is not tied to your teacher or public school. Your high school will not face sanctions if you do poorly on the SAT. Your college dean will not have to worry about losing their job if your GRE scores are too low. After high school, you may need to take standardized tests, but they are not the same as the tests you are taking today. Currently, students are drowning in our testing obsessed school culture. They come to college unable to think critically because all they have been taught is how to eliminate poor choices and make an educated guess. As a college professor, I can attest to the effects of testing industrial complex on new generation of college students. Not all, but many of them have no desire or joy for learning because they spent years preparing to take tests. And they have a hard time adjusting to the expectations of college life because testing is not the goal of higher education. What these students really need is an opportunity to reclaim their public education. They will be much better off learning how to stand up and fight for something they believe in then searching for the right answer out of four not so right choices.
4. Opting out is for white middle class families who only care about their children.
This is probably one of the most interesting myths on the list, mainly because in some ways it is true, however, the way it is being used to attack the opt out movement is false. Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Department of Education, bolstered this myth when he accused white soccer moms of fighting the Common Core State Standards because the tests showed that their children were not as bright as they thought they were. Others have also pushed this myth, arguing that “The opt-out movement is dominated by middle-class families that are concerned for the welfare of their own children, but seem less concerned about poor children who are languishing in low-performing schools.” I say this myth is partly true because the opt out movement is dominated by white middle class parents (so are many of our public schools). But this does not mean that those pushing the opt out movement are not concerned about poor children in public schools. In fact many of us in the opt out movement, are the same ones demanding that poverty and income equality be addressed. We know that poverty and racial discrimination are real problems affecting student achievement which is why we refuse to play along with the status quo that more standardized testing is going to make things better.
Many white middle class parents did not join the fight to save public education until the Common Core standards and standardized testing began to affect their child and their public school. When urban schools were being closed and turned into to charters and urban teachers were being fired and replaced by temporary Teach for America staff, many white middle class families remained silent. And that silence allowed Common Core and standardized testing to spread into middle class schools. Now that Common Core is in 45 states plus DC, and the Smarter Balanced or PARCC tests are being administered to a majority of children, these families are ready to say enough is enough. To the movement this is problematic for a number of reasons. Will these white middle class parents continue to fight when the issues are those effecting urban schools? Will they fight for all children and not just their own? These are important questions worth asking but that is not the goal of those who say the opt out movement lacks diversity. The truth is there are many parent and teachers of color who have been a part of this movement from the beginning. And in New Jersey and New York there are schools that are predominantly high-poverty opting out in huge numbers. The opt out movement will continue to strive for diversity in its members and work with all parents, students, and teachers who believe that our public education system should not be reduced to preparing students to pass a test.
5. Opting out does nothing to stop the testing industrial complex that is dismantling public education.
No matter what side you are on, almost everyone can agree that there is too much testing. Many of those who critique the opt out movement, are quick to acknowledge that there is too much testing and teaching to test going on in schools today. Their response however, is not to opt out of testing, but to demand that the test be used appropriately and that the curriculum not be based on testing. Wow, why didn’t we think of that? Why didn’t we just decide to say look, just get rid of the test prep and we will take the tests? Perhaps it’s because we knew this would not work. The goal of the opt out movement is simple: deny the testing industrial complex the data it needs. Without the data the testing machine will grind to a halt. Like the prison industrial complex, the testing industrial complex grew into a monster that we can no longer control. Once it became apparent how much profit could be made off of testing all children in public schools all the time, the beast was unleashed and now the only way we can stop it, is to starve the beast, deny it the data it needs to survive.
No amount of wishful thinking or rational conversations is going to stop the testing industrial complex. All of the major players who have millions if not billions invested in standardized testing are not going to pack up and go home because we ask them to. In fact they will do whatever they can to ensure that the testing stays in place; even if it means closing schools, bullying parents, students, and teachers who opt out, and locking up teachers who try and cheat the testing industrial complex. Now we must do what we can to save public education. We must expose the myths and lies for what they are and educate the public to the truth. We must remind people that a norm-referenced standardized test is designed to get results that produce a bell curve, meaning only a certain amount of children will score below average, average, or above average. We must call out the insanity that insists we use a test that will never allow for 100% of children to succeed to prove that not all children can succeed. We must reclaim our rights as students, teachers, and parents to have an equitable democratic public education system that prepares everyone for life as an informed citizen. We must opt out now.
*The author is an administrator for United Opt Out National. For more information on how you can opt out of standardized testing visit unitedoptout.com