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Why the 'Opt-Out' Movement for High Stakes Testing Is Bad for Students in Urban Public Schools

04/12/2015 05:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

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 students' 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.

2. 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 percent 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 percent proficiency.

3. 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 percent 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.

This blog post was originally published at equityallianceatasu.org. Thanks to their editors for allowing me post this on my own Huffington Post page.

The citation for the original publication is: Rhoden, S. (April 6, 2015) Why the "Opt-Out Movement" for High Stakes Testing is Bad for Students in Urban Public Schools. Retrieved from: http://www.niusileadscape.org/bl/why-the-opt-out-movement-for-high-stakes-testing-is-bad-for-students-in-urban-public-schools/