Punishing opt-outs

Feds more interested in sanctions for testing opponents than helping low-achieving students

THE AMOUNT OF energy, time, and money that is being put into curbing students from “opting out” of state- and federal-mandated standardized tests tests makes one wonder what these tests are really for. The Every Student Succeeds Act, the 2015 re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind law, put the “problem” of opt-outs in the hands of state education departments. Yet, the US secretary of education, John King, can’t seem to keep his hands off of the “problem.”

He seems more concerned with punishing opt-outs than figuring out how to help low-achieving kids do better. At least, he hasn’t told the public what he wants schools or teachers to do differently for the kids who take and fail to pass the criterion-referenced tests aligned to the Common Core standards. All he’s told the public is how he’d punish the opt-outs. King is pushing new draft regulations that “would designate public schools in which large numbers of students refuse to take Common Core tests as in need of improvement,” according to report in Newsday.

Maybe King will issue a decree to put scarlet letters like NI (for Needs Improvement) on kids’ T-shirts—to put pressure on their schools to go after dissident students or their parents. In any event, King’s labeling efforts were not appreciated by New York State teachers.  Nor by New York parents. Nor by other New Yorkers who were reminded of earlier attempts in the former Soviet Union to label dissidents. Already there are hints of connections between Common Core and mental health services. Maybe King needs to be reminded that the federal education law was designed to help low-achieving kids, not punish higher-achieving kids or the schools they are in.

No one, not even Sen. Lamar Alexander, who co-sponsored the Every Student Succeeds Act and sold all his colleagues in the Senate on its virtues, has made it clear why anyone but a low-achieving kid should be taking any test for accountability. If they are criterion-referenced tests (meaning students’ scores are whatever number of points students get out of the total number possible, with a pass/fail score determined in advance by a small but representative group of citizens), it shouldn’t matter how many kids opt out. If the tests are norm-referenced (meaning that a student’s score is related to all other students’ scores and shows where it is), then the problem is with the tests. Parents, local school boards, and state legislators weren’t asked what kind of tests they wanted, and it’s about time Alexander addressed the problem he created. All mandated federal tests need to be changed so that they are criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced.

Strangely, even the editorial board at Newsday likes the idea of punishing schools with high opt-out rates. The day after the Long Island newspaper noted the high percentages of opt-outs across Long Island, it published an editorial noting that “John B. King Jr., the US secretary of education, is pushing to keep and enforce long-standing regulations that will downgrade ratings of schools that have inadequate participation on standardized tests.” But King had forgotten to tell the editorial board where and when this phenomenon had actually taken place and how it had worked out in the past.

Nor, even more strangely, did Newsday ask for all used test items to be released so parents could see what students actually did. It simply chose to make an unverifiable assertion: “The Island has been the epicenter of the opt-out movement in New York, which began with grassroots activism by parents and educators upset with tougher tests aligned with the Common Core standards, and spread through social media and community forums.”

How does Newsday know that the tests are “tougher?” No one knows if the tests are harder or easier, or simply ridiculous. But Newsday’s editorial board wants parents to believe in an omnipotent wizard behind the green curtain—whoever vetted the tests and set the pass/fail scores at each grade level. Moreover, Newsday thinks there’s no way Long Island teachers can tell how well students read or write in the absence of scores from these annual state-mandated standardized and computer-based tests. Nor does the editorial board seem to think that the contents of these tests should be transparent.

Newsday is not alone, unfortunately, in apparently seeing no connection between complaints about these tests’ validity or comparability from year to year and the lack of transparency in these tests. In Massachusetts, Justice Margot Botsford of the Supreme Judicial Court wrote last month that a citizen petition to let voters decide on keeping or eliminating Common Core’s standards was unconstitutional (even though the attorney general had declared it to be constitutional in 2015) on the grounds that the release of used test items is not related to the transparency of a test (and, therefore, the petition was not coherent). Her irrational argument was supported unanimously by her colleagues on the SJC in a full court decision—meaning that no appeal was possible by the 100,000 citizens who signed the petition to put the question on the ballot or by the attorney general’s office which lost the lawsuit.

Why Foley Hoag, the pricey law firm that prepared the lawsuit against the attorney general for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), used the same flawed argument it had worked out for the MBAE’s 2015 Memorandum of Opposition to the attorney general is something only Foley Hoag’s lawyers can explain. Why Judge Botsford and her colleagues on the SJC used an already rejected argument in their July 2016 decision is something only she and they can explain. Why the attorney general’s office simply accepted the use by the SJC of a flawed argument the AG’s office had rejected in 2015 when it declared the citizen petition constitutional is something it should explain.

Meet the Author

In the meantime, Massachusetts parents and others who gathered all the signatures for the petition are planning a major opt-out campaign against MCAS 2.0, the Common Core-based tests approved by the current governor and secretary of education for use in 2017. It is doubtful that the state’s English teachers will encourage high school students to read Hawthorne’s novel since it requires an upper high school reading level, which many students can no longer reach. Whether the state department of education will require opted out high school students to wear a T-shirt with the right scarlet letters on it remains to be determined. Maybe it can convene a committee to recommend less literary punishments for opting out.

Sandra Stotsky is a former senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and was in charge of developing or revising all the state’s K-12 pre-Common Core standards.

  • Two Teachers

    The author does a brilliant technical dissembling of John King’s policy aims – enforcing standardized testing quotas. But the author is wasting her time making an educational argument against a political problem. The issue here is not whether tests are valid or not, it’s how hard John King will work for the philanthropists that are obsessed with forcing tests on our children.

    King’s wife is already the recipient of a plum job and King’s reward will be sweet, because he has done everything the billionaire social engineers have asked him to do. This is all legal of course, as long as the revolving door is not mentioned in writing, it cannot be proven as a quid-pro-quo.

    The blame here goes to elected officials and the media. King was appointed Obama’s Secretary of Education and his election as NY’s Commissioner of Education was but a rubber stamp. In reality, he was appointed by billionaire heiress Merryl Tisch when the public was not paying attention.

    And that’s where blame comes in – NY Assembly members okayed King, and they were probably paid to do so by the small circle of hedge fund managers that Zephyr Teachout later exposed. The problem here is money-in-politics, and the federal/state takeover of local schools to impose junk science accountability metrics. This was made possible by apathy of voters and spineless legislators that will soon face voters.

    • Sandra Stotsky

      Federal-mandated tests via ESSA for anyone but a low-income child is probably illegal, too. ACLU should take on that issue.

      • Two Teachers

        Amazing how the federal government would think the remedy for kids who are not getting sufficient education believe the remedy is to toughen their standards and pay corporations to test them. Why not directly fund more teaching and learning?

        • Sandra Stotsky

          The standards were NOT toughened. That is part of the problem.
          Another part was the misguided notion that someone had to be held “accountable” to the state and federal govt for the money it gave local school districts? It couldn’t be the “school” or “school district” as in NCLB. It couldn’t be the students themselves or their parents. So who was left?

          Local schools were always accountable to their local community for financial support, in US history. But not the way NCLB and ESSA see it.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Speaking of MCAS 2.0, WBZ4 has an article “Eye on Education: PARCC vs. MCAS” dated 11/9/2015 that points out of the 1800 schools in Massachusetts 442 don’t have the technology to administer a computer based test whether it’s access to the internet or not enough computers/tablets. While I understand where parents are coming from on the testing opt-out, my issue with the new $151,000,000 test is Massachusetts has 25% of its schools unable to administer it because those schools aren’t operating with 21st technology. Why isn’t that part of the statewide public education conversation? Is it because charter schools and Question 2 are dominating public debate with all their rallies, press releases, letters to the editor and commentary?