(Photo: Robert Daly/Getty Images)

Buying In to Opting Out: A Growing National Movement Shuns Standardized Tests

A Florida district’s decision to ditch high-stakes assessments has reignited the debate over whether testing is sound education practice.
Sep 8, 2014· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It was a vote heard around the education world. The 85,000-student school district in Lee County, Fla., rejected state and national education assessment tests, becoming perhaps the largest school district in the nation to make that choice—and opening a new front in the battle against high-stakes standardized testing.

The victory for a coalition of educators and parents who want the testing to stop, however, was short-lived. A day after the Lee County School Board took its historic vote, the board rescinded the vote and reinstated the testing.

But advocates who think kids are overtested, say the battle is far from over.

“The biggest and broadest [education] consensus is around the fact that kids are tested too much these days,” says Sabrina Stevens, a former teacher and founder of Integrity in Education, a pro-pupil education reform group. “At some point, there will be school boards who will vote to stop that testing. With the level of organizing that has already taken place, this is the next logical step. It’s inevitable that someone is going to do this.”

Last month’s vote in Lee County, home to a cluster of communities on the southern edge of Florida’s Gulf Coast, was the first major outcome amid a growing national movement to throttle back on standardized testing. Parents and some teachers believe school administrators overemphasize the assessments, dialing up the pressure on students and creating a “teach to the test” classroom culture that leaves little room for individualized student evaluations, creativity, or critical thought.

Starting with No Child Left Behind and continuing with the Common Core curriculum, student testing has spiked in the last decade. In addition to state assessments, students in some districts are tested as often as once a year on math and reading proficiency; in previous decades, testing typically happened just once in elementary school, middle school, and high school.

But proponents of student testing say it’s a valuable tool for helping parents guage how well a student—and his or her school—is progressing. Besides holding teachers accountable by offering an independent, objective measure of learning tied to baseline standards, it also can help determine what kind of college a student should attend and set the direction for his or her future.

“People are rethinking testing, with the transition to the Common Core. Standards and tests are in the limelight,” says Michael McShane, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “I’m sympathetic to complaints of overtesting. But it’s important that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. [For Lee County] to say, unilaterally, ‘We’re not going to take the tests,’ is a little extreme.”

Still, small groups across the country are making exactly that decision. In New York, an organization of parents and educators has created New York United OPT OUT, which urges parents to have their children reject standardized testing. There’s also a national organization, OptOutOfStandardizedTests.com, a clearinghouse of sorts for sympathetic parents and teachers, and the Bad Ass Teachers Association, a reform group for educators, that strongly supports the movement to end standardized testing.

“There’s been entirely too much time spent on testing,” says Stevens, who taught third grade and fifth grade in a Denver public school that was labeled as failing. “It really doesn’t measure what people think it does. It really is not doing us any good.”

Stevens recalls a fifth-grade student who rushed through his standardized test in minutes and then picked up a seventh-grade-level book. He probably didn’t do well on the test, Stevens says, and a bureaucrat scoring it would probably conclude the boy was a failing student—even though he was reading above grade level.

“Having taught and seen up close what goes on in these types of tests, it’s really frustrating to see how much of our education policy depends on this,” says Stevens. “If you want to know what students are learning, just look at their work.”

But McShane believes many anti-testing arguments are specious—including Stevens’ contention that other countries test less often and examine a student’s portfolio to gauge achievement.

“It’s an inaccurate characterization of what other countries do,” he says. “They also have high-stakes tests. It’s not uncommon for them to take two or three tests that can determine their academic career. The U.S. is not out of step with other countries.”

He also disagrees with another argument of testing opponents: They exist only to enrich the testing companies.

“Do they only have textbooks to make textbook companies wealthier? [Do] they have pencils to make pencil companies wealthier?” McShane asks. “I think that’s a red herring as well.”

“I think there is a reasonable middle ground that can be reached,” McShane says, suggesting that fewer, higher-quality tests might be the answer. “Folks that are stronger advocates for testing are making the case that tests aren’t as intrusive as they were in the past and can yield information people actually need.”

“It’s important that we have these kinds of yardsticks,” he says.