Leaders of the opt-out movement in New York managed a neat trick last week.
They not only rejected the arguments of their usual opponents, the state Education Department, but also their usual allies, the state teachers union.
The parent representatives said proposed state legislation that would de-emphasize the use of student scores in evaluating teachers did not go far enough and that the state law which links students’ test scores to teachers’ job performance should be wholly replaced rather than revised.
“I think that parents who understand what it means to link tests of any sort to teacher’s evaluation will not bring their children back,” said Deborah Brooks, a Port Washington attorney and mother of an eighth-grader who has opted out of state testing the past four years, according to a Newsday account.
This is a telling comment. Especially when New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group, says the proposed legislation would represent a big step forward in decoupling standardized tests from job performance ratings of professional educators.
This is also a problem for the United States and especially New York state, where nearly one in five school-aged students opted out of standardized testing.
Standardized testing is meant to serve three purposes: monitor student performance, improve teaching and learning, and evaluate the quality of teaching and schools.
New York taxpayers, especially on Long Island, pay a lot of money in taxes. Shouldn’t they use the most accurate tools to measure how well that money is being spent?
Shouldn’t they know how well their school district is performing, how well their children’s teacher is performing, how well their child is performing?
Opponents have argued that tests cause undue stress for teachers and students, and that they do not provide valid or timely information about what students know and understand.
They also contend that testing on math, science and reading can marginalize courses in untested disciplines like art and social studies.
There is some truth to the criticism. Tests do cause stress, which in the case of weak teachers is not necessarily a bad thing. And sometimes they don’t provide valid or timely information, and sometimes untested studies can get lost in the shuffle.
But those are all flaws that can be fixed. And standardized tests still offer some of the best objective information about student performance.
Decades of research has shown that grading practices can vary dramatically depending upon the teacher, even within the same school.
Research has also shown that reliance on teacher judgments about student ability may systematically limit access to accelerated classes and gifted programs for talented black and Hispanic students.
And without standardized tests how exactly are teachers evaluated? On the basis of how they grade students? This is an open invitation to grade inflation if there ever was one – and a lack of accountability.
Curiously, supporters of the opt-out movement have little to say about our reliance on property taxes to fund school districts. Under this system, affluent school districts spend thousands more per pupil than students from less affluent school districts.
This is known as destiny by zip code. And public education becomes a cause of income inequality, not a cure.
Or perhaps spending thousands more on students from affluent districts than less affluent districts does not make a difference.
Why don’t we give all the students a test and see? Perhaps the affluent districts don’t need to spend as much. Or perhaps more money should be provided the less affluent districts.
Another question: how is the current system working?
According to U.S. News and World Report, not very well.
New York state may be No. 1 in the country in opting out of standardized tests, but according to the magazine, it ranks 23rd in the county in education.
This, in a country whose students do not fare well in comparisons with students from around the world.
According to the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, 15-year-olds from the United States ranked 24th in science, 38th in mathematics and 24th in reading.
Critics may legitimately question the validity of studies comparing both states and countries. And the picture painted may not be as dark as it appears.
But what if they are right?
The world, as New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman has pointed out, is now flat and today’s students will be competing for jobs with students from across the world.
And in that competition, there will be no opting out.
Standardized tests are the best way to evaluate whether we are doing all we can to prepare our children for the future.
Fix their problems, but do not get rid of them.