Where does the “Opt Out of testing” movement come from? You’d be surprised.

formative and summative assessment paper

The “opt out” movement is a supposedly-grass-roots movement against K-12 standardized testing, primarily focusing action on encouraging parents to refuse to allow their kids to take tests, i.e., opt out of testing.  The absolutely bizarre part of this is that large scale test scores are rarely used for individual impact on the student, and that tests take up only a tiny fraction of school time throughout the year.  An extremely well-written paper was recently released that explored this befuddling situation, written by Randy E. Bennett at Educational Testing Service (ETS).  Dr. Bennett is an internationally-renowned researcher whose opinion is quite respected.  He came to an interesting conclusion about the opt out of testing topic.

After a brief background, he states the situation:

Despite the fact that reducing testing time is a recurring political response, the evidence described thus far suggests that the actual time devoted to testing might not provide the strongest rationale for opting out, especially in the suburban low-poverty schools in which test refusal appears to occur more frequently.

A closer look at New York, the state with the highest opt-out rates, found a less obvious but stronger relationship (page 7):

It appears to have been the confluence of a revamped teacher evaluation system with a dramatically harder, Common Core-aligned test that galvanized the opt-out movement in New York State (Fairbanks, 2015; Harris & Fessenden, 2015;PBS Newshour, 2015). For 2014, 96% of the state’s teachers had been rated as effective or highly effective, even though only 31% of students had achieved proficiency in ELA and only 36% in mathematics (NYSED, 2014; Taylor, 2015). These proficiency rates were very similar to ones achieved on the 2013 NAEP for Grades 4 and 8 (USDE, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c,2013d). The rates were also remarkably lower than on New York’s pre-Common-Core assessments. The new rates might be taken to imply that teachers were doing a less-than-adequate job and that supervisors, perhaps unwittingly, were giving them inflated evaluations for it.

That view appears to have been behind a March 2015 initiative from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (Harris& Fessenden, 2015; Taylor, 2015). At his request, the legislature reduced the role of the principal’s judgment, favored by teachers, and increased from 20% to 50% the role of test-score growth indicators in evaluation and tenure decisions (Rebora, 2015). As a result, the New York State United Teachers union urged parents to boycott the assessment so as to subvert the new teacher evaluations and disseminated information to guide parents specifically in that action (Gee, 2015;Karlin, 2015).

I am certainly sympathetic to the issues facing teachers today, being the son of two teachers and having a sibling who is a teacher, as well as having wanted to be a high school teacher myself until I was 18.  The lack of resources and low pay facing most educators is appalling.  However, the situation described above is simply an extension of the soccer-syndrome that many in our society decry: how all kids should be allowed to play and rewarded equally, merely for participation and not performance.  With no measure of performance, there is no external impetus to perform – and we all know the role that motivation plays in performance.

It will be interesting to see the role that the Opt Out Of Testing movement plays in the post-NLCB world.


Nathan Thompson, PhD

Nathan Thompson, PhD, is CEO and Co-Founder of Assessment Systems Corporation (ASC). He is a psychometrician, software developer, author, and researcher, and evangelist for AI and automation. His mission is to elevate the profession of psychometrics by using software to automate psychometric work like item review, job analysis, and Angoff studies, so we can focus on more innovative work. His core goal is to improve assessment throughout the world.

Nate was originally trained as a psychometrician, with an honors degree at Luther College with a triple major of Math/Psych/Latin, and then a PhD in Psychometrics at the University of Minnesota. He then worked multiple roles in the testing industry, including item writer, test development manager, essay test marker, consulting psychometrician, software developer, project manager, and business leader. He is also cofounder and Membership Director at the International Association for Computerized Adaptive Testing (iacat.org). He’s published 100+ papers and presentations, but his favorite remains https://scholarworks.umass.edu/pare/vol16/iss1/1/.

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