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.

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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.