Some Thoughts on Opting out

fwy110405 019By Tom

Today was the day when “The Cart” came rolling in. That’s when testing becomes real in my school. The cart full of Chromebooks gets wheeled into your room; the day before your student start with the SBAC training test, and a week before they take the real thing. And as far as I know, every one of my fourth graders will be taking the test. No one’s opting out.

And I’m glad.

I have nothing against the opt-out people. In fact, I admire their passion and the courage of their convictions. Probably because I know in my heart that I’m far too subordinate and way too pragmatic (and maybe a little too Catholic) to follow any kind of conviction to the extent that these parents follow theirs. These people fervently believe that testing has gone too far and they’ve chosen to take a stand here and now. And I admire that.

But I’m still glad that all my students are taking the SBA. You see, for the first time in the 31 years that I’ve been a teacher, I finally feel like I know exactly what I’m supposed to teach my students. I have clear standards that are well-articulated and (for the most part) make sense. What’s more, I know that these same standards are being taught in fourth grade classrooms all over the country. I also know that the test was designed specifically to measure my students’ progress toward those standards. And again, the same test will be taken by other fourth graders all over the country.

So what?

Well, I believe in standards. I believe every profession that wants to be taken seriously needs to adopt and adhere to a set of standards. When I call a plumber, I want to know that she’s been trained to a certain standard, performs at a certain standard and uses materials that meet a certain standard.

And when I send my kids to school, I want to know that their teachers were trained to a certain standard, perform to a certain standard and teach them to a certain standard. I don’t want to guess whether or not they’ll be ready for college when they finish.

And like it or not, standards require measurements. If a one-inch PVC pipe has to withstand a pressure 450 PSI, that means some poor soul has to grab some pipe every now and then and apply 450 pounds of pressure per square inch on that pipe to see whether it breaks or not. That’s just how it is.

School’s the same way. I’m supposed to teach my students how to make equivalent fractions. So somewhere along the line, I need to check to see if they can actually do it. If they can, great. If not, then that’s something I need to work on; and it’s also something their fifth grade teachers need to work on. I have no problem with that, and I actually feel comfortable knowing the same degree of supervision and accountability is happening with the third grade teachers at my school; I can plan for next year knowing where to begin.

You may ask, “Well, why can’t every teacher just test their own kids in the context of their own classroom? Why do we need to make kids take an expensive standardized test?” That’s a fair question (or two), but most of us are well aware of things like validity and reliability. Me testing my kids may look entirely different from even the fourth grade teacher next door. Standardized testing is a good way to simply check whether or not students from different classrooms, schools, or states really know how to do something under the same conditions.

Besides that, I’m curious! I want to see how my students can perform on the test. I don’t waste time on “Test Prep.” I do have my student take the training tests and the practice tests so they’re comfortable with the machinery, but since I’ve focused on the CCSS all year, I’m not concerned that they aren’t ready.

And I’m glad none of them are opting out.

12 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Opting out

  1. Shari Conditt

    Good for you for not being afraid to see assessment results. I wonder how clouded we are by the cost of the test, associated name of the producer, etc… Assessment can reveal data if written properly, analyzed properly, and results are shared in a timely manner. But perhaps we read too much into what the test can tell us and struggle to distinguish what it can’t.

  2. Andy Russell

    I have NEVER gotten the kind of information you’re talking about here (whether a student understand how to find equivalent fractions) from a standardized test– I’ve only gotten as specific as that from the assessments I have created and administered myself. My opposition to standardized testing has grown stronger each year I have taught– please don’t expect me to change my mind based on reading an article that compares students to PVC pipe!

  3. Linda Myrick

    Really, Tom? I think you are exhibiting some symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome here. You’ve hit all of their talking points. I agree with Andy above. We had fine standards in the past. As to your question about alternatives—he just said: classroom based assessments. As NBCT, I find it interesting that you consider these new standards to be worthy of your students. I teach grade 4 also and I also probably won’t have “opt outs.” But I have noted all year that the curriculum has aligned sloppily, there are tons of mistakes, the language in the books is not grade 4 appropriate, the SBA directions are extremely confusing for my ELL learners (and no, the “translations” and glossaries don’t help much), the tech is having lots of problems—so there are plenty of issues. If I believed that these standards and tests were appropriate, I would work through these issues happily, but I gave up on my Catholicism a long time ago, and I believe I have an obligation to know and teach and assess my students based on appropriate goals. Why did I pursue NBC if not to teach and assess my students in the best way possible? We’re on equivalent fractions and decimals in my class too. Gave them a Quick Quiz yesterday. Scored it last night and we’ll be doing small group work today based on what I’m seeing. So I have no clue what you’re getting at re useful information. Math SBA won’t be till end of May.

  4. Tom

    Stockholm syndrome?

    OK. But let me quote Lily Eskelsen herself:

    “making it easier for parents to opt out is not the end game. The end game is designing a system where parents and educators don’t even consider opting out of assessments because they trust that assessments
    make sense, guide instruction, and help children advance in learning.”


    Mock me if you want, but I honestly believe we’re getting to this. We’re not there yet, but confused rants that tangle assessment, curriculum, standards, and testing technology don’t get us any closer.

    1. Linda Myrick

      First, if I said anything that sounded like mocking, I apologize. That is not my intent. I’m just confused by your trust in these particular assessments and these particular standards that are causing so much trouble right now. I don’t see how they are getting us closer to anything. I think they are vague and poorly written, inappropriate for many learners, and also copyrighted, so not able to be revised by Washington educators. As for Lily’s quote, I think the assessments that I use right now in my classroom “make sense, guide instruction, and help children advance in learning.” So I guess I don’t understand what we’re working toward. The more we try to make things work for “all children,” the more inappropriate they are for many children who may not fit the mold. Standards that work on the notion of all children needing to meet the same standard at the same time, regardless of their age, development, unique strengths, challenges, language, special needs, or other unique attributes go against every professional bone in my body. I do appreciate standards that make sense and guide instruction, but these standards are hooked into assessments that have high stakes for kids and, Lord forbid, potentially high stakes for teachers. Even real estate agents apparently look at them to grade neighborhoods and schools. No, thank you. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to reasonable standards that act as guideposts, not guardrails. Parents opting out are not the end game. But the parents opting out are seeing that these tests are not right. They’ve looked at the practice tests online, the curriculum that has been mapped to the new standards, the resources allocated to this, and they are questioning. Their opting out is helping convey a sense of skepticism that is needed. All of this was developed in a big rush and in secret, by testing and curriculum companies who stand to profit from change and student failure, so we should be questioning. So, no, not end game, but one of the blocks in the giant Jenga game.

  5. jolene

    Common standards? Yes! Smarter Balanced? NO! I watched 3rd graders cry over this. Confusing wording, day after day of testing, and what will we learn? Nothing. In math the results are based on claim. That tells me….nothing. I had no problem with the MSP. Smarter Balanced is not the answer.

  6. Tom White

    Linda, a few questions:

    1. Are you opposed to standards per se, or just the Common Core standards? And as a follow up, what is it about the CCSS that you don’t like?

    2. Are you opposed to all summative assessments or just those that are tied to standards? Is there any conceivable, non-classroom-based assessment that would meet with your approval?

    3. If a set of standards and an accompanying assessment came along that you actually liked, would you then embrace them? And if a subgroup of teachers decided they didn’t like them, would you then decide that they were inappropriate or would you continue to embrace them?

  7. Hope

    I’m glad you’ve opened this up. I was in a district that worked hard to understand the CCSS before they were rolled out on the state level.

    They are a starting point not an ending point. Which means, the language of the standards was meant to dissect and turn into kid friendly language. Now, in my experience not all districts or curriculum companies have done this. Instead, they’ve communicate the opposite (slap on a standard; combine standards instead of unpacking them in student friend language).

    One of many benefits with CCSS is that we have national standards so that no matter where my students move to/from they’ve heard this language before.

    Let us not forget is that we are in the midst of growing pains with CCSS. It takes time to understand their purpose, intent, and use them in an appropriate way for our students at every level. Has anyone read the cover/intro for the CCSS? It specifically states how to address the standards for SpEd and ELL. It gives plenty of room for the responsive educator. In fact, it demands that we be such a teacher.

  8. Mark Gardner

    My fourth grader is also on day two (today) of his testing. We have talked about this whole deal a lot over the last month or so. I asked him, “are students worried about this?” He said yes. I asked him why he thought that was. He wasn’t sure at first, but as he talked more and more, he pointed out that the kids were worried because the teachers were worried and were “making a big deal out of it.”

    After the first day (yesterday) of his testing, his only complaint was that he had to wait until tomorrow to finish. He enjoyed the passages he had to read, he felt like he had the skills to be successful, and he wasn’t stressed out. Mind you, this is the kid who had such tremendous anxiety about school in previous years that he had to be excused from certain activities…some as simple as watching magic schoolbus clips during indoor recess. This is the same kid that crumpled when I pointed out his one mistake on his math homework (as I wrote about in a previous post). If anyone were a prime candidate for test anxiety, it would be him. And I think that if he and I had not had our talks about the tests, what to expect, and why (really) he needs to know that doing is best is the goal…and in the grand scheme of life, to him, the test is just one more chance to practice… I would have probably had a basket case on my hands.

    My point: we create what we want in this experience. If we are angry or frustrated or stressed about the tests and the standards, then our kids (who don’t know the nuances of our opposition) sense only the emotion, and that’s what they own.

    I too am tired of testing. I think the stress it can put on teachers and schools is unnecessary and counterproductive. However, any assessment that I can plumb to extract actionable information about my students as learners has potential. I wonder how many teachers would look at SBAC differently if it weren’t mandated? What if it were a tool we could voluntarily seek out and employ? I bet there’d be tremendous interest in that parallel universe.

    Last… regardless of stance on the issue, Tom’s question in this comment thread is the real question: What is the solution? In this case, I see him finding a solution by working with what he has, making the most of it, and keeping his interests squarely on his students. Why hate on him for that just because he has found a way to make it work while others are unwilling to even try?

  9. Kevin

    “I finally feel like I know exactly what I’m supposed to teach my students. I have clear standards that are well-articulated and (for the most part) make sense. ”

    Washington State always had state standards. I don’t get this comment.

    Can we agree that devoting 8 class periods- for middle school students- to take Language ARts SBAC is a bit too much? Then, can we agree that 4 periods of Math testing, on top of language arts tests, significantly decreases instructional time?

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