Common Core Testing: Should You Opt-Out?

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core Standards as they have been widely implemented over the last few years. Parents and educators are gravely concerned about the over-standardization of learning and the overemphasis on testing at the expense of learning, and rightly so. This week in New York and elsewhere across the country begins a days-long process of ELA and math testing for students in grades 3-8.

The Common Core Conundrum

Generally speaking, standards in education are necessary but must be flexible and take into account the individual nature of students and their needs. The Common Core Standards were developed largely by politicians and educational publishers, whose interests may not be aligned with those of students and parents. (Read more about the history and development of the Common Core: http://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/articles/2014/02/27/the-history-of-common-core-state-standards)

The Common Core test questions are often confusing and frankly take tasks that are already slightly complex in nature (such as reading and answering questions, and solving multi-step word problems), and make them more complex to the point of confusion. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been befuddled by some of the questions I’ve seen on the ELA practice exams for NYS, so you can imagine a 7th grader being completely stumped on how to answer questions that are so badly worded that English teachers are having difficulty. I have honestly grappled with the opt-out issue as I so strongly believe in providing students with a high quality, individualized education that’s not rooted in “sameness” or standardization.

The Opt-Out Option

All of this said, I think that the opt-out movement has taken on a life of its own and parents who choose to go this route may be a little misguided and influenced by other interests. Read more about the national opt-out movement: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/03/10/as-students-opt-out-of-common-core-exams-some-say-movement-is-not-about-testing

The Opt-Out Movement in New York and Special Interests

In states such as New York, where proposed teacher evaluations would be based heavily on these test scores, the teachers unions are understandably going after the Common Core and testing, and are widely encouraging parents and students to opt out of the state tests. While I do not support teachers being evaluated and paid based on standardized test scores, I also do not support parents keeping children from taking the tests simply because they are blindly following advice that’s been disseminated by teachers’ unions or other special or political interests (or their neighbors). Check out this piece that discussed in-depth the issues surrounding Common Core and the opt-out movement in New York State: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2015/04/07/opt-movement/25433719/

When to Opt-Out

There are exigent circumstances under which I think it is completely appropriate for a parent to opt-out of their child being tested. I understand and support opting-out in situations where a child may have special needs that are very different from the generalized population. A good example of such a case would be a child with a disability or a language barrier that would markedly impact their ability to take or perform reasonably on such a test or who is not yet receiving accommodations that include alternate assessments. Or, for instance, the case of a child with such extreme testing anxiety that making the test mandatory would actually cause them undue harm or distress.

Testing is a Reality

Beyond these more extreme situations, testing is a reality of life that almost every person in every generation has had to go through at different points in their education, and will continue to have to, even if the Common Core standards do not survive long-term. If students want to go to private school, college, graduate school, or the military, or get certified to be a professional in any number of industries, they will undoubtedly be required to undergo a variety of tests in order to achieve that goal. And on another note, to parents who are opting out simply because they think that their child will not perform well, I say that every child is being held to the same standard here and when a question is badly worded or even incorrect, most students will not do well. It’s not so much about the grades and scores in younger grades; it’s about the experience of taking a test and practicing the many skills (focus, reading, following directions, writing, problem-solving, self-monitoring, time-management, and many more) that students must learn if they are going to consistently perform well on tests.

And as we all know, it is harder to acquire new skills and to feel comfortable in new situations as we age, so by not exposing students to these tests while they are young and the pressure is less, we may be setting them up for disaster in testing situations later on- when it actually counts towards their future. What is the student who opted out now going to do when she must take Regents, APs, and ACTs/SATs in order to gain admission to college? Testing anxiety is an unfortunate reality that many students of all ages face, but it can be greatly mitigated through practice, instruction, and good use of study, testing, and metacognitive strategies. In fact, subjecting students to a barrage of unnecessary tests now may have the unintended but desirable consequence of desensitizing students to these high-pressure testing situations later, so that they can perform better when it truly matters. This is not a defense of the Common Core, rather a practical choice to turn what is a negative aspect of our education system into an opportunity to help students acquire life skills.

Lessons to be Learned from Common Core Testing

The most important point of not opting out is this: Teaching students that “opting-out” of a task or assessment which virtually all of their peers are taking, just because it may be difficult or even a little “unfair”, is a questionable lesson to be teaching our youngsters. Is this going to be a generation of children who, when the going gets tough in life, simply “opt-out”? There is something to be said for teaching lessons of social justice via education and protest, which perhaps many parents think they are doing by opting their children out of testing. And maybe parents who opt-out are accomplishing just that: the beginning of the end of standardized testing. But sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen at all, as we are heading further into an era of standardization of everything and data-driven everything. So in fact, this opting-out movement may accomplish very little at all, while the children who are not participating in the testing may be missing out on an invaluable experience.

Taking a test is not necessarily the most “academic” of experiences or even one that should be so valuable; but it is a worthwhile and necessary experience because we are pragmatists living in the real world, and assessments of all kinds are real. As we all know, tests are necessary to have options in life and in one’s career. Opting-out in the adult world is generally impossible or will result in negative consequences or missed opportunities; doing one’s best, even when the task at hand is not easy or straightforward, is a life lesson that we can always be learning and reinforcing. That’s the teachable moment here: We live in a world that is not set up just for us, so acquiring a certain amount of mental fortitude and perseverance, (in addition to some actual test-taking experience), is invaluable.

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