By Joe Nathan
Should parents have their children “opt out” (not participate) in local or statewide testing? Some anti-testing advocates are suggesting this. Recently more than 30 district, charter and union officials responded when I asked them about this. Their responses reflected a mixture of respect, responsibility and frustration.
Most educators offered considerable respect for parents and a willingness to work with them. They urged parents with concerns about testing to contact their youngsters’ teachers or principals. In some cases of extreme “test anxiety,” educators agreed that opting out might be appropriate.
Imina Oftedahl, Fridley Public Schools director of education services, explained, “While our district has very rarely received any request to opt out, we do honor parent requests to have a student opt out of state testing requirements following the procedures identified by MDE (Minnesota Department of Education) in the testing administration documentation.”
Mounds View Superintendent Dan Hoverman wrote: “Our district response is to call and discuss with each family the reason for their desire to opt out. This gives our representative a chance to explain how the state testing is complemented by our local assessments and the purposes of all the assessments. If the family insists, we permit them to opt out without any further action.”
Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president, responded: “Education Minnesota hasn’t taken a formal position on this, but I can say what I would do if a parent approached me about opting out. I would explain that some standardized tests are more valuable to educators than others. I would also explain that some students handle the stress and loss of learning time associated with those tests better than others. Then I would leave it up to the parent to make an informed decision about what’s best for that individual student.”
Educators also noted the school’s responsibilities to participate in testing programs. They pointed to federal and state legislation that makes them responsible for testing. These educators also say testing can be valuable both for the students and the system.
Les Fujitake, Bloomington superintendent, told me via email: “Our district will share the following to help parents make an informed decision:
• Parents that opt out of state tests (such as the MCA, MTAS, and Modified assessments) will lose the ability to compare individual levels of proficiency to state and national standards as well as learning rates compared to a state norm.
• Parents that opt out of local assessments (such as the NWEA MAP tests) will lose the ability to compare individual student rates of learning to a national norm.
• Parents that opt out of state and local assessments will lose the ability to help track their children’s progress on their respective pathway to graduation.”
Casey Mahon, director of communications for the Columbia Heights School District, wrote: “Columbia Heights Public Schools, like every school district in Minnesota, is required to administer state tests that align with national mandates. We believe that standardized testing is an important, but not an all-inclusive, measurement of a student’s educational growth. We will continue to assess our learners because we know there is substantial data that can be acquired and invested in teaching every learner. Our hope is that all parents will make the best educational decision in the sole interest of their child(ren).”
Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz reported: “The overwhelming majority of our parents support their student’s participation in testing. Should the parent decline to have their student tested, we would always honor that request. I believe that parents have confidence that our teachers use both district and state test results to inform instruction and are confident in that use.”
Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson explained: “We have very few parents who want to opt out. Our students work hard in school and are eager to show how well they are doing. If we have a parent who wishes to have their child opt out, we work with that parent to determine if they really want that to happen. Then we allow the child to be in an alternative activity while others are testing.”
Monticello Superintendent Jim Johnson said: “In Monticello we have had very few requests regarding this issue, but we would honor a parent’s wishes. We would encourage them to have their child participate, as the district does find value in using the data to monitor student progress and as a way of evaluating our own programming.”
Orono Superintendent Karen Orcutt, wrote: “We would never urge families to opt out of the state testing or a school’s testing program. We embrace accountability and want our test scores to inform our decisions about teaching and curriculum changes that might be needed. We would not meet state or federal expectations if we encouraged parents to opt out, nor would test results be statistically valid or informative for continuous improvement if all students are not tested. We rarely have parents/guardians request to opt out of testing. We work with parents to accommodate any concerns that they may have.”
Aldo Sicoli, Robbinsdale superintendent, told me: “Standardized assessments are valuable because they provide parents and teachers with information about how a student is performing relative to their own past performance, as well as how the student is performing in terms of career and college readiness. Parents may refuse to allow their children to take state and local standardized assessments by submitting their wishes in writing to the district; this is consistent with the state procedures manual.”
Tony Taschner, spokesperson for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, wrote: “If the standardized test is a district test, the parent can excuse the student from testing with a note or phone call. If the standardized test is a state test, the parent can provide the school test contact with a note excusing (or refusing) to have the student tested. ‘REF’ is bubbled in on the test answer document and documented on the test contact’s checklist. The District Assessment Coordinator keeps the note for one year.”
St. Anthony-New Brighton Superintendent Bob Laney wrote: “We would discourage parents from opting out of our assessment program, both state and local. Assessments are used to assess student growth, allowing us to make instructional decisions to support student learning; help us monitor our curriculum and programs; benchmark students against state standards; assist in designing system improvements to support all student’s learning and close the achievement gap; and for public accountability.
“We have not had any requests. If we were to get a request for opting out of a local assessment, for example MAP, we would need a note that would be on file. For a state assessment, we need a written note from a parent. We would keep a copy on file and send the original to the MDE Assessment Center. ‘REF’ would be bubbled in on the student’s answer document.”
Robert Metz, St. Louis Park superintendent, wrote in an email: “We highly encourage each student to take the various tests administered in the district because we use the data for a wide variety of purposes. These include:
• Public accountability.
• Monitoring our curriculum, programs, schools and district progress.
• Determining student eligibility for certain courses and programs.
• Benchmarking student performance against comparable groups.
• Assessing student growth.
• Determining if the system is making improvements on stated goals.
“So far, very few of our students have opted out of the testing process,” he added.
Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent, explained: “Most parents I come into contact with ask very few questions about these state test results and most view these tests as something that does not benefit their students and teachers. To be honest – with the tests constantly changing and the results coming after the students have completed the school year – this is becoming more difficult to defend. These tests have become more about accountability instead of providing data to the teachers when they can use it to change and improve their instruction. With that said, in the absence of any other state data to help teachers improve practice for students currently in his/her classroom – we do have our own district data for this – I would feel compelled to encourage parents to have their students take these tests. Otherwise our comparisons would be skewed when looking at scores across school districts.”
Tom Kearney, director of New Heights charter in Stillwater, wrote: “Opting out would only create a huge administrative issue for the schools to deal with. As with any public issue, the best way to deal with this type of thing is to directly contact the people who make the rules or laws that schools have to abide by. Writing letters, emails, or making phone calls to state legislative representatives about standardized testing should have the greatest impact. Bear in mind that quality school systems are able to administer tests with minimal disruption and school officials analyze and use the test score data to make curriculum and instruction enhancements so that all students are able to make forward academic progress. Opting out would limit the schools’ ability to do that.”
Chace Anderson, Wayzata superintendent, explained via email:
“1. State and district testing programs are the only standardized method we have for measuring student achievement and growth in academic areas.
2. State and district test results are a vital part of our continuous improvement efforts at the school and district level. They are the only reliable and valid method we have of measuring our progress toward our achievement-related strategic directions. They are a vital part of our ongoing data-based decision-making efforts.
3. If we have masses of parents opting out of the assessment system, that would greatly reduce the usefulness of the results. We would no longer be able to assess the effectiveness of the work we do.”
Finally, some educators agreed that tests are imperfect, they don’t measure everything that’s important and there have been and are problems with statewide testing programs.
Greg Winter, Braham superintendent wrote: “I think it is easy to understand why there is a movement to ’opt out‘ of the state testing. The series of ever-changing standardized testing done in our schools has been and continues to create much confusion on the part of students and parents in regard to the meaning of the outcome of these tests. We will continue to move forward this year with the implementation of the standardized testing as required by the state. However, we will also begin to look at other types of assessments. Some schools are requiring (and paying for) all students to take the ACT. Although this creates an additional expense upon the schools, it does offer valid results that can be clearly interpreted by its stakeholders.”
As a parent and educator, I found that in-classroom, teacher-designed tests helped show how much progress students were making. Standardized tests showed how well students were doing compared to others around the state and country. Moreover, students planning to enter most colleges will find “test-taking skills” help them show what they know.
However, traditional standardized tests don’t assess many important areas of knowledge and skill. And both in Minnesota and other parts of the country, there have been many problems with tests. The best path for parents is to learn what tests do and don’t measure and monitor how their youngsters respond to testing. If you have concerns, meet with your student’s teacher or principal to determine what makes the most sense.
Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org.