Opt Out: Fixing it is a Shared Obligation

By Randy Bennett

We don’t yet know the full extent to which students refused to participate in 2015-16 state assessment but we do know that the problem has not gone away. In New York State, 21% of eligible students refused to take the annual assessment in grades 3-8 this past spring, a level slightly higher than in the prior year. Although New York had the highest nonparticipation rate in 2014-15, other states—most notably, Colorado, Rhode Island, Washington, and Maine—failed to meet their overall 95% federal participation requirement. Still other states missed the target because of individual districts or grades.

Who has tended to opt out? In New York, Colorado, and Washington State, students who refused to test in 2014-15 tended to more often be White and were less likely to be economically disadvantaged. A survey of opt-out supporters conducted by Teachers College, Columbia University shows a similar demographic distribution, and the 2015-16 participation data from New York also confirm the presence of an economic divide. These demographics have resulted in opt out becoming a civil rights’ concern. Position statements opposing opt out have been released by the National PTA, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, which includes the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the National Disability Rights Network, and the American Association of University Women, among others.

What caused parents to opt out? Parents who refused to let their children test appear to have been motivated by a variety of reasons. In New York, however, perhaps the primary motivator was the combination of a much more rigorous Common-Core-aligned assessment with a significant increase in the weight given test results in promoting, compensating, granting tenure to, and dismissing educators. That combination appears to have caused a chain reaction in which educators devoted inordinate amounts of time and attention to narrow test preparation activities that in turn created anxiety for kids and unhappiness among their parents. That discord led educators and a particular demographic of parents to mobilize, local and national media to respond, the movement to spread, and politicians to react. The political reaction has primarily been to denigrate the value of assessment, reduce the amount of time devoted to it, and legitimize opt out.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because state assessments are the only comparable measures of student achievement at the school-building level that are disaggregated by demographic group. Opt out distorts those measurements, making it difficult if not impossible for parents, educators, policy makers and the public to know how effectively individual schools are educating particular groups of students.

How do we fix it? Fixing opt out is a shared obligation.

Policy makers have an obligation to encourage through legislation, policy, and technical assistance the use of student test results for helping educators improve school management and classroom instruction. That obligation is in direct contrast to the NCLB-era orientation of using test results for consequentially evaluating schools and educators. This latter orientation promotes inordinate attention to narrow test preparation, whereas the former orientation should not.

Educators have an obligation to direct their instruction, not toward the test, but toward state content standards, taking special effort to make teaching and learning an enrichment of the standards rather than a test-driven reduction of them.

Test makers have an obligation to create assessments that are worth taking and worth preparing for. Educators and students should be spending time on assessments that are, not only measurement devices, but learning experiences in and of themselves. Policy makers have an obligation to demand such assessments, recognizing that they will take significant class time and cost more than multiple-choice tests.

Parents have an obligation to have their kids take these assessments. Without their participation, our chances will be diminished for effectively monitoring–at the building level–and then gradually closing the significant achievement gaps that exist among socio-econnomic, racial/ethnic, disability, language, and gender groups.

Randy E. Bennett is Norman O. Frederiksen Chair in Assessment Innovation at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ. This commentary is based in part on his report, Opt Out: An Examination of Issues. The positions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Officers and Trustees of Educational Testing Service.