The Opt Out Discussion

Wednesday night I had the opportunity to speak at the 14th representative district in Lewes, Delaware, on the topic of opt out. This came about because Mike Matthews was asked to speak but was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict, and he was kind enough to think of me. Claire and Mikki Snyder-Hall communicated regularly with me, and when I arrived I was told instead of a debate we would be presenting our own particular viewpoints on the topic, as the other original debater was unable to attend and also had a different person speaking.

I had already prepared a 10-minute speech for the program, and as I sat and talked with people I really didn’t get much of a feel for how people felt about opt out in general. At the conclusion of my speech, and that of my fellow speaker, we fielded some general questions. Boy did that make me glad I read Diane Ravitch and Exceptional Delaware! I knew so much detail about things in education, funding, test scores, the test resistance movements, and legislation around education that I felt really well-equipped to address a lot of the questions.

Although there are still people out there who don’t know a lot about what’s going on in the schools and districts, there are certainly lots of people who do, and that number is growing regularly. I’m posting here for you the speech I gave Wednesday night. There are always two sides to an issue; this is mine.

“Good evening, and thank you for having me here to discuss the opt out movement and its importance in the greater educational environment. To frame my comments I’d like to establish that I will be specifically discussing the movement in Delaware, so any references I make will be related to Delaware happenings unless otherwise noted. Additionally, although much of my knowledge comes from being an educator, almost all of my passion for this comes from being a mom. As educators we are often caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, wanting to do what’s best for our students but not always knowing how to best advocate for them without potentially negative repercussions for ourselves. As a parent, however, I have found a voice to shape the change I wish to see.

“The first and most obvious issue with telling my daughter she doesn’t have to take the test is making sure she understands which assessments she must take. Having a fourth grader, along with a second grader, a pre-k student, and an almost-two-year-old, has made me super conscious of the amount of time being spent on different types of instruction at various levels of education. My background as an educator has been limited to secondary, with 11 years teaching grades 9-12 and another 3+ teaching grades 6-8. Seeing first-hand the increasing amount of time students spend preparing for and taking tests that aren’t for the sole purpose of evaluating learning for the teacher’s use in driving instruction, red flags were already going up. For the sake of ease in calculating, let’s assume a standard high school sophomore is taking 8 classes this year. That student can expect to take a minimum of 16 standardized assessments, 8 at the start of the year and 8 at its conclusion, to fulfill the evaluation requirement for educators (if for no other reason). That doesn’t seem too bad, right?

“Factor in mid-term and final course exams. That’s 32 total.

“That same student is taking 3 advanced placement courses; that’s an extra 3 exams, bringing our total to 35. Oops, can’t forget the PSATs!

“36 assessments that a sophomore student has to take at a minimum just to make it through course requirements. That does not include teacher-created tests and quizzes, to which some educators refer, tongue-in-cheek, as “old school”.

“Let’s assume those assessments each take one class period to complete. Out of a total of 180 school days, that reduces educational time to 144 days. Planning to prepare for those exams? Even discounting the pre-tests, that still gives us 20 days of preparatory time, assuming 1 day per test.

“That 180 day calendar is sitting not-so-pretty at 124 instructional days.

“What does this have anything to do with making sure my daughter knows which assessment she can skip? She’s in fourth grade, where they only use 8 or so assessments, and even then only 1-4 times each, for a minimum total of 19 assessments, taking about 20 and a half hours total…..

“Oh. That’s why. She may legitimately not be able to identify the assessments her teacher can and will actually use to actually determine her actual needs and then make changes in instruction accordingly.

“The opt out movement specifically targets the statewide standardized test, currently the Smarter Balanced Assessment. This test is given once a year, in the spring, and results for the most recent year were available in the fall. This is not even remotely close to being useful data to inform instruction, and I believe everyone involved in this debate is aware of that as a major flaw in the argument for forcing students to take this particular test. It would seem, in fact, that the SBA is really only intended to be used to evaluate educators, which is also a poor argument because the scores are received far too late for inclusion in the Delaware Performance Appraisal System.

“But I digress.

“At its most basic level, the opt out movement has a simple elegance: parents are refusing to allow their children to take tests that have no potential to make an impact on their child’s educational progress. Unless forced to take this test for entrance into certain programs or schools, the Smarter Balanced Assessment scores do not in any way change any thing about the educational life of the student.

“What I mean to say is, unless an artificial use of this test is enacted, such as in the examples I just mentioned, there is no reason my child needs to take this particular assessment.

“Are there concerns with data mining and privacy? Absolutely. However, that is a sort of idealistic argument, to my mind, especially since most people voluntarily place an excess of information online through social media. Yes, I want my child’s privacy to be maintained, but do I not already post her pictures, birthday, friends, school, extracurricular activities, boo-boos, good days, bad days, and vacations online myself?

“There is a concern with narrowing of the curriculum, in addition to the concern over the test itself. In essence, education has become so focused on increasing scores in math and English language arts that students are spending more time in those two subjects than in all others. COMBINED.

“I teach in a middle school in the Christina School District. We operate on a block schedule that has opposing days: blue and white, our school colors. Students take four classes and a shorter support or enrichment course daily. This schedule has potential for eight courses per year, plus the two additional “extras”. In reality, students are taking six courses per year; math and English language arts classes meet daily, while science, social studies, and all elective courses meet every other day. To paraphrase Delaware’s own Joe Biden, don’t tell me what you value; show me where you spend your time, and I’ll tell you what you value. By giving students twice as much seat time in math and English language arts than in any other class, the system is setting the focus up to be on math and English language arts.

“A quick anecdote about having so much instruction in one topic: Earlier this week, a colleague who teaches English language arts and I were discussing the enrichment course. She told me that she has a student who has first block ELA, then ELA for intervention during the skinny class, and then a reading support block. In a row. That’s a lot of ELA instruction, and it isn’t that ELA isn’t important, but English reading, writing, and speaking are taught in all classes, so there are opportunities for students to learn these skills regardless of whether they are in ELA-specific courses. We are denying students the opportunity to learn a variety of subjects, and you better believe that is having an impact on the interest and engagement of students in school.

“Will opting my child out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment make an impact in the narrowing of the curriculum, or in the amount of time spent on test preparation? Nope. Not one iota, to my mind. However, if enough students were to refuse to take this test, maybe, just maybe…

“Nationwide, scholars, psychologists, educators, administrators, parents, and legislators have come out in opposition to the excessive use of high-stakes standardized testing. The test, label, punish system is responsible, in part if not entirely, for the decreasing value of public education in the eyes of the American people. By removing my child from this system, I remove her from the stress and anxiety of being labeled a failure on the basis of ONE test. One of…how many did we say? About 20. 20 tests, 18 of which might say that she’s doing really well, or that she’s growing, which the SBA will NOT show. Not on a school-year basis, anyway. It also won’t show what observations her teacher has made, and the impact that has on a student’s performance.

“Another anecdote: When in the first grade, my second grader was pulled out of class by an educator assisting the classroom teacher in testing the students to determine their reading levels. He scored quite poorly, and his teacher thought that was strange. So she re-tested him herself. He scored above-average. His shyness and anxiety about testing with someone he didn’t know, the mere fact that he was removed from his classroom environment and taken out of his regular schedule, was enough to drop this bright young man who enjoys and is good at reading from above average to struggling. Why would I ever trust a test over my child’s teacher?

“Recognizing that we haven’t touched on any issues of test validity, cultural bias, absenteeism, transience, or ability to utilize the technology required to take the test, I’d also like to address one final, major reason often cited in favor of all students taking standardized tests: needs identification and resource allocation.

“I had the pleasure of testifying before the House Education Committee about House Bill 50, commonly known as the opt out bill. What was interesting was, having public comment after the legislators themselves spoke, I was able to modify my statement. And I did. Several legislators expressed that opting out would not be good for the “at risk” populations; specifically, the low-income, single-parent, inner city households. They questioned how those families would be told they could opt out, and how we would support them if the data for the school no longer showed they were struggling academically and needed additional support.

“I’m hoping you see the same issue with that argument that I see.

“If you can already tell who needs the extra support and resources, why force them to take a test to justify giving them those additional aids?

“If we’re using the test to determine who needs the extra support and resources, why aren’t we giving those students and schools the extra support and resources?

“And we’re not. Let’s be clear about that. We absolutely are not giving students who need additional help smaller class sizes, more access to technology, books to read, food to eat, shelter over their heads, mental health counseling, access to physical health needs like glasses, safe playground equipment, clean and comfortable classrooms and schools, or toiletries and clean clothing.

“No. Instead, we spent millions of dollars on this assessment we can clearly see has no value to the education of our children, and said we have no money for all the other things.

“Thank you.”

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5 Responses to The Opt Out Discussion

  1. Thank you for getting down to Sussex County. This was the one area where opt-out had the least amount of conversation last Spring.

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