Opting out of testing is like opting out of our personal and collective responsibility as parents. As a mother, I want to know how my own kids are doing but, arguably more importantly, we all need to know how all kids are doing. We would not even be aware of the seismic gaps between white students and students of color if not for the data that kids like mine provide. Opting out makes it too convenient for all of us to deny hard truths and to do that would be to betray millions of students and families.
I recently read a piece in Education Week by Starr Sackstein in which she explains why she opts her son out of state testing and why she, as a mother and a teacher, believes that all other parents should do the same (and would do the same if we only knew our rights.)
I was never allowed to tell my students to opt-out, even though I knew it was in their best interest. Too many parents in the city are unaware of their rights and so they force their kids to take the exams despite it working against them and their teachers.
With all due respect to Ms. Sackstein, my experience as an educator and a mother tells me that she is dead wrong and suffice it to say that I’m grateful that she is not the one making decisions for my three children (or my former students).
This year, for the first time, all three of my sons will take annual standardized assessments because the baby of the family is finally in third grade. And unlike a small but vocal subset of anti-testing parents, I have not ever considered opting any of my children out of what I see as one of their many responsibilities as students.
My three sons’ scores are important to me as their mother because they provide me with information about how they are doing—and how that compares with other students their age locally, statewide, and in neighboring states if the tests are the same.
Equally, if not more important, their participation in the assessments provides vital data for their school leaders and teachers to compare against different subgroups of students. My boys don’t qualify for free/reduced lunch and they are not students of color. English is their first language and they do not have IEPs. Their testing data is important as a comparison to the groups of students who do fall into one of these categories.
The whole idea of opting out is problematic. Putting aside the information lost to the school system and the opportunity to practice the life skill of test taking, the opportunities to opt out aren’t applied equally to other school requirements. With the exception of sex education, students must fulfill a wide range of requirements and they include courses, activities, and yes, tests, that scads of kids —and their parents—would avoid if given the chance.
Some might opt-out of the dreaded swim test or for some, physical education altogether, any class that requires public speaking; dissection (I still remember almost vomiting when we dissected the squid in 9th grade biology.); books they find boring. They could even opt out of a social studies class that teaches difficult and painful subjects about our country’s past.
And if we look through the parent lens, there are lots of things we’d love to opt our kids out of that have nothing to do with testing. Christmas movies the day before winter break would be on my chopping block – I’d rather keep them home and let them watch Frosty the Snowman and The Grinch in their jammies.
Anxiety is often cited as the reason that parents opt their children out of tests and Sackstein is no exception. But anxiety plagues students for lots of different reasons and often testing isn’t anywhere near the top of the list. For some kids, lunch time is their most anxious time of the day but in most cases, they still have to go to the cafeteria. Presenting in front of the class can cripple students with fear—I don’t hear parents demanding their children be released from that responsibility. And again, that swim test or dissection or study of slavery and the holocaust can all induce anxiety for students. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
Our decisions about our kids are inevitably driven by both mind and heart. The whole concept of helicopter parenting would not have come about if not for the intersection of worry and love. And my sense is that the opt-out phenomenon emanates from a similar place.
Just as no one seems to think helicopter parenting to excess is beneficial for kids or parents, neither is opting out of testing. Tests are an inevitable part of life whether you want to be a firefighter, an electrician, an ultrasound technician or a doctor. And, even if you don’t value the information that the tests provide about your own children, lots of other people rely on it. I see it as my personal and social responsibility—as well as my children’s—to take the test.