The opt-out movement is huge on Long Island. I’ve received numerous emails from friends and even strangers and have read countless posts on social media, all stating that we should “opt-out” our children from the standardized tests. Besides discussing it with a few close friends, I’ve chosen to remain relatively quiet because, drum roll please, I actually think our kids should take the test. Since the other side has been making such a concerted effort to convince people to opt out, I figure it was about time to speak up as to why my daughter sits for the state standardized tests.
First, my background- I am a NYS certified teacher and I also hold a professional teaching certification in Florida. I spent eight years teaching in what is considered a “high-stakes testing” state. My school was given a grade based on our test scores and we as teachers received bonuses if we were an “A” school. I have been out of the classroom for the past five years as I spend this time at home with my own kids but I remain extremely passionate and up-to-date on all things related to education (I even receive daily google alerts regarding any articles related to education) and volunteer my time in my daughters’ schools. My point here is I have sat at both sides of the table.
The hoopla about these tests is related to the new standards, the Common Core. Before the Common Core, each state came up with their own set of learning standards. For example, what a child was expected to know in the 2nd grade varied greatly from state to state. The idea was to come up with a set of uniform standards that all states would adopt. I don’t think many would argue with the rationale behind that idea. However, the issue became with the assessment of these new standards. Some states started assessing right away. Some states gave it three years, meaning they would begin teaching the new standards right away but hold off on testing for a few years. Others started the new standards in kindergarten and would assess when those kindergarteners were in 3rd grade. As you can see, this part got a bit tricky.
New York decided to assess right away. It was not a good call in my opinion but, like most things related to politics, money was involved as an incentive so our state signed up. We were told the students would not do well and they didn’t. There would be no penalty for the students, teachers, or schools for the first year but these scores would serve as a baseline to measure future growth. As a parent, I was OK with that. As long as there is not a negative consequence to my child for not performing well, I understand we have to start somewhere.
Now we are approaching year 4. There are still no consequences for students who do not perform well on the test. This is important to note because not all states are set up this way. In Florida, for example, if your child does not pass the yearly standardized test, they are in danger of being retained. Many states use these tests for promotion/retention decisions. We in NYS do not.
There seems to be three main reasons for opting out. There are people who believe these tests are harmful to their child, people who are taking a stand because they don’t believe in the actual standardized test and people who do not want teacher accountability to be tied to standardized tests. I’m not going to spend any time discussing teacher accountability because, for now, that piece has been removed from the equation in NYS.
First and foremost, if you believe that taking these tests will be detrimental to your child, by all means opt them out. If your child is suffering from a real, overarching anxiety about taking these tests, that’s a serious matter. Having said that, in eight years of teaching, I can only site one experience where a child had true test anxiety. Most kids get nervous and that’s OK~ it’s our jobs as parents and teachers to help them learn to manage their anxiety and nerves. I would also look to where the stress is coming from. Teachers should be working to create a “We’re not scared, we’re prepared!” vibe in the classroom. If you feel your teacher is putting undue stress regarding these tests onto students, pick up the phone and speak to them about it or speak to your principal. In addition, if your child is significantly below level and will not be able to read the passages or perform the equations, I can see why opting out would be a consideration. Before I continue, I want to state that I do believe strongly in a parents right to choose what they feel is best for their child. If you feel taking the test will hurt your child, opting out may be your best bet.
But lets assume your child does not suffer from any type of severe test anxiety and is not significantly below level. Next is the argument that these tests are pointless or invalid. I’ve heard many say, what is this test going to tell me that I don’t already know? The answer is a lot! Standardized tests are not new; they’ve actually been around since the mid-1800’s. I took them as a child and I’m guessing you did too. The reason why standardized tests are so important is because they are objective measures of student achievement. Yes, your child’s teacher knows them well and can offer more insight than one test can. I do not disagree with that point. However, insight can be subjective and often relative to your child’s classmates and even the community you live in. “Danielle is a great reader!” used to be an acceptable form of feedback for parents at teacher conferences. What exactly is a great reader? Is she a great reader compared to her classmates? Is she a great reader compared to other students her age? Does her teacher think “great” means the same as the teacher next door? Even in-class tests can be subjective, especially at the elementary level. Teachers often give a test back to a student and have them “look again”. Questions are often deemed “bonus questions” because the teacher may feel they are too hard. The students in the same grade but different classes often complete different assignment and may take different tests. All of this creates a subjective view of how the student is doing. A standardized test, that all students in the same grade, at all schools in the same state take, provides an objective measure of student progress. You will see how your child is doing compared to all the children in the entire state. This is valuable feedback to me as a parent, and should be to my school and teacher as well.
For example, I, as a parent, can see on last year’s mathematics test, in the sub-area of Number and Operations in Base Ten (what exactly that means is also spelled out), my child earned 15 out of the possible 18 points. The state average was 11. I feel pretty good about that! If I didn’t, I would know what area to ask her teacher for extra enforcement of skills. I would also know what to work at at home with her or, if she was significantly below average, I would look into a tutor. Do I take this as the end all, be all? No way. If the test told me she was below the state average and I did some digging and found that her teacher disagreed strongly and felt she just had a bad day, I would take that into consideration too. Regardless, I want to know where my child stands so that I can make informed, personal decisions pertaining to her education.
The school SHOULD be doing a lot with this information. Teachers should use the data to reflect on their teaching. Did a large portion of students struggle with vocabulary? Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the methodology used for teaching vocabulary in the classroom. Your child’s teacher the following year will have access to their test scores and be able to see specifically which areas they were successful in and which areas they encountered difficulty. It’s true; they will not be able to see the entire test but over 50% of the actual test is released each year. If teachers do not use the data from these tests, then yes, it is a waste of time. That would be a district/school issue that would need to be addressed.
In the end, we as parents need to do what we feel is best for our children. I only hope the decisions are based on facts and not just that the children don’t want to sit for a test. What child would? Beginning in 8th grade, Regent grades are listed on high school transcripts, as are AP exams and, of course, SAT and/or ACT scores. Tests are an integral part of education and are necessary to measure knowledge gained. I’m happy that this is sparking a dialogue about education reform and look forward to hearing other viewpoints.