Seven More Reasons to Opt-Out of High-Stakes Testing

04/10/2015 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

In case you need more reasons to oppose high-stakes Common Core tests, here are seven more reasons to opt-out.

1. The opt-out campaign may have already won! A new bill introduced in the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support if passed into law will radically revise No Child Left Behind. It would still require annual testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8, but it would end the punishing of students, teachers, schools, districts, and states if students do not do well on the tests. Because states will not be required to evaluate teachers based on student performance, it will end the pressure to replace teaching and learning with perpetual test preparation. The federal government would also no longer pressure states to close schools that do not meet NCLB and Race to the Top guidelines. The White House has signaled tentative support but parents, teachers, and students must keep the pressure up!

2. Even Arne Duncan seems to be backing off. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once contemptuously dismissed opponents of high-stakes tests aligned with Common Core as "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden" discover "their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were." But Duncan, the Race to the Top hatchet man for the Obama administration now claims testing policies are state, not federal, decisions, and state governments are free to change them.

3. But some politicians are still trying to divide us. In New York State, two-faced Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the State Board of Regents and ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, is doing all she can to divide parents along racial, ethnic, and class lines. Tisch is suddenly hinting that teachers in affluent suburban communities and some high performing urban schools won't be evaluated based on student test scores so parents don't have to worry anymore about their schools being transformed into test prep academies. Speaking out of the other side of her mouth and to a different audience, Tisch is telling minority families that the tests are really designed to ensure equity for their schools and children. I don't understand. If they are good for one community, why aren't they good for the other?

4. And we need to support parents, teachers, and students in states where people who opt-out are being threatened. In Kentucky, the education commissioner ordered district superintendents not to honor opt out requests. Children who do not take the test receive a grade of zero that will be averaged into the school's report card grade. New Jersey also has no opt-out provision, but school district superintendents concede they have no way to force a student to take the tests. Rather than using a heavy hand, New Jersey state education has tried to convince parents of the supposed benefits of having children take the exams.

According to the group FairTest, schools will not lose money if parents decide to opt-out. Its website has a list of statewide coordinators with additional sources that parents can contact with questions about local situations. United Opt Out also has a state-by-state opt-out guide with local contacts.

5. Meanwhile it is not clear that the high-stakes standardized tests have any educational or even assessment validity. New York State claims "All NYS exams are developed in accordance with national industry and professional standards for educational testing. The exams are carefully constructed to align with and assess the knowledge and skills set forth in the NYS learning standards . . . and to determine whether schools, districts and the State meet the required progress targets specified in the NYS accountability system and in No Child Left Behind." But is this actually true? To convince parents the state posted an incomprehensible and unbelievable multi-pathway sequential map showing a fifteen-step review process with forty-five sub-steps along the way.

The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is actually more honest with parents and the public. It confirmed that its Smarter Balanced high-stakes standardized tests administered in the state have not been demonstrated to be either reliable or valid. Its website refers people to a memorandum produced by the Smarter Balanced testing consortium. In the memo, Smarter Balanced admits that it will not be possible to determine the validity of the tests until after they are administered. Until then, they do not know what the tests measure and whether students who do well in school will also do well on their tests.

According to the Summer 2013 issue of Rethinking Schools, "There is no research or experience to justify the extravagant claims being made for the ability of these standards to ensure that every child will graduate from high school 'college and career ready.'"

6. Teachers report poor tests design. Anthony Cardinale, a third-grade teacher at Kent Elementary School in the Carmel, New York school district did a careful analysis of test aligned curriculum packages. He found reading material intended for seventh graders used as sample reading passages in the guide to the test for third graders. According to Cardinale, "As a teacher who has administered the last two Common Core ELA assessments, I can tell you that the passages presented to my students were just as difficult . . . As a teacher and a parent, I know this is unjust."

7. And I am tired of subsidizing edu-companies that make money at the expense of children. In 2014, Pearson Education, the mega-publishing and testing company, provided high-stakes tests for nine million students across the United States. Half of its annual global sales, totaling about $4 billion, comes from the U.S. market. Pearson not only profits by testing children, but also by exploiting unemployed minimally trained college graduates unable to get a job as a Starbucks barista as test scorers for $13 an hour. The following advertisement for "scorers" appears on a Pearson website.

Pearson is the most comprehensive provider of educational assessment products, services, and solutions. We are looking for qualified college graduates to read and score student essays on a temporary basis at our Chicago Scoring Centers. Paid training will begin early April for this 4-5 week scoring session.
Use your degree to make a difference!
$13.00/hour. Evening shift will earn an extra 10% shift differential
M-F Day Shift 8:00 am - 4:30 pm; Evening Shift 6:00 pm - 10:00pm
Flexible hours will be available after training
Bachelor's degree required.
Will be required to provide proof of eligibility to work in the U.S.
Refer a friend and be eligible for a $200 dollar referral bonus. New Hires will receive a $75 dollar sign on bonus after working 80 hours. Various projects offer hourly plus incentive compensation!

Ironically, Pearson pays more than other test scoring temp agencies. The Measured Progress assessment company hires temporary test scorer through Kelly Services. It only requires some college experience and pays $11.50 an hour.

Parents who are still not convinced should check out a "youtube" of Dr. Michael Hynes speaking at the Stop Common Core on Long Island (SCCLI) forum. Hynes is Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District.

I received two emails from old friends questioning my position on the opt-out movement. Josh Karan and I were community organizers together in the 1970s. He has been a member of the Manhattan District 6 Community Education Council and was active in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Allison Cannavina is a former teacher education student at Hofstra University, a parent, and has been a high school social studies teacher for over twenty years.

Josh wrote "I do not agree that testing is the rock on which the destruction of public education is occurring. It may be the rock on which the 'local' public schools of the somewhat more privileged is occurring, but the rock on which public education for most has foundered for decades is inequitably inadequate funding, with an outcropping of segregation that mocks even separate but equal. The schools that you and I know well were not preparing students for citizenship and decent employment opportunities long before NCLB and the proliferation of High Stakes Standardized Tests. When the Long Islanders and the Park Slopers become as dedicated to the fulfillment of the principles of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity as they are to opting out their own children from High Stakes Standardized Tests, we may have the makings of a movement concerned with the education of all, rather than that of only the relatively privileged.

I don't disagree with much of what Josh wrote. Testing itself is not the greatest problem facing public education in the United States. Inequity based on race and class, the corporate take-over of public education either through charters or the outsourcing of curriculum, the deprofessionalization of teaching, and the lack of a clear vision about the purpose of education in a democratic society, are all much more threatening. But what Josh misses or minimizes is that the opt-out movement, because it attracts "Long Islanders and the Park Slopers," middle-class families, to the campaign for better schools offers an opportunity to attract people upset with the impact of the corporate for profit takeover of schools on their children to a broader alliances to defend and improve public education. That is why people like Arne Duncan and Merryl Tisch are working so hard to divide parents and teachers from urban and suburban school districts.

Allison wrote "I am a little confused by your 'opt out' post. When I attended a workshop of yours two years ago you spoke of how the Common Core, at least in terms of history, fits into the ways we are suppose to teach, promoting critical thinking and addressing the different needs of the students. I have two children. A ninth grader goes to the Catholic school where I teach and the sixth grader attends a public middle school. I don't find them to be overstressed or overtested; not any more than I was at that age. Children will feel the stress if parents pass on the stress. I don't pretend to be an expert on the Common Core, but the problem seems to be the rush to implement it and tying it with teacher evaluations. Middle and high schoolers should be able to handle it; the real concern to me is the younger grades. Of course, private schools gain "points" by saying they don't follow Common Core but their curriculum never followed state standards; in fact, they exceeded them. Why shouldn't all students have that level of education? Isn't that how we should prepare them for their careers and other life challenges? I love my children, but coddling them isn't the answer either. I am concerned that the calls against Common Core become like the Salem Witch Trials (historical reference!), with hysteria overcoming common sense. What am I missing?

I responded to Allison that I have tried to distinguish between using Common Core in the classroom as a tool and following Common Core guidelines as we design curriculum to be tested. If Common Core was a series of recommendations for enhancing understanding I would probably have no problem with it. It reminds teachers to use document-based instruction and to focus students on supporting conclusions with evidence that they find in the text. For me the problem, the big problem, is that Common Core was designed to be tested without any clear reference to what makes sense in the classroom or what students should actually know. In ELA classes reading is taught as formulas and broken down into discrete components that lose the meaning of the text. It is like a word search puzzle with no understanding involved. My biggest objection is that because everyone is being judged on the test scores, students, teachers, schools, districts, and states, teaching and learning are abandoned and schools become test prep centers where everyone essentially cheats. I did a presentation on the origin of No Child Left behind for the recent Hofstra University Presidential Conference. George Bush made it clear when he argued for NCLB that the goal was to promote standardized assessment. Curriculum was not designed based on what makes sense to teach but on what is testable.

In response to both Josh and Allison, I am suspicious of the Senate proposals to rewrite NCLB and will address it in a future post. I would like to see a real national discussion of standards for education that addresses equity, school governance, the purpose of education in the 21st century, how children and teens should be treated, and curriculum, including content and concepts as well as skills. Unfortunately, all we have right now are fractured skill components, curriculum out-sourced to publishers, threats to replace public schools with charters, and lots of high-stakes testing - more reasons for parents to have their children "opt-out."