Opinion | Columns

Opting out is not the solution to standardized tests

Updated 5:40 on 4/08

Educational policy has once again taken center stage in city politics. Even as Mayor Bill de Blasio licks his wounds in the aftermath of his confrontation with charter schools, which saw his approval ratings drop sharply in the face of a relentless $5 million pro-charter advertising blitz, parents across the city have begun organizing a campaign to opt out of statewide standardized tests, like 3-8 State Assessments. 

Liberal commentators have hailed the New York State budget agreement that allocates $300 million for universal pre-K—something that was only achieved by sacrificing a broad expansion of after-school extracurricular activities and a mainstay of de Blasio’s campaign proposals: higher taxes on the wealthy. But de Blasio’s administration faces new dissension in the ranks, increasingly among lower-income and minority communities who are fighting by opting out of the state’s standardized tests. 

The origins of the opt-out movement are based on the newly instituted Common Core requirements, which are a prerequisite for receiving federal funding for programs like Race to the Top. After the institution of these standards last year and their application to statewide standardized tests, rates of students passing plummeted from 70 percent to roughly 30 percent. The Department of Education estimates that roughly 2,000 New York City students will opt out of the tests this year in protest to these tests. 

As DNAinfo’s Jeff Mays reported last Friday, parents in Hamilton Heights have joined forces with Time Out From Testing, an advocacy group that encourages parents to remove their children from standardized testing. This has added significance because the opt-out movement has previously been the province of higher-income families and school districts, where more resources and comprehensive educational services make it easier for students to gain access to selective middle schools or high schools. This makes parents more willing to accept the potential harms associated with not receiving the government stamp of approval from standardized test scores. Parental fears largely revolve around the argument that standardized exams force teachers to teach to the test. Mays interviewed one parent who said the tests had “perverted the sense of discovery” inherent in learning. Opting out, for many, is a fight to restore what they believe teaching should be.

However, while standardized tests are undoubtedly a flawed and incomplete metric for evaluating a student’s academic performance—and therefore should not be solely responsible for consequences like the promotion of a student to a higher grade—opting out of them could endanger a school’s ability to make budgetary decisions and make it more difficult for parents to assess their child’s academic proficiency. One example of how these tests factor into budgetary decisions is the existing system of Fair Student Funding, which is the primary funding system for most public schools. Each school starts with a fixed allocation based on student population and enrollment, but receives additional funding for students with a track record of low achievement in essential learning areas like math or English. Standardized testing provides an objective basis on which to make these funding decisions, and can therefore assist schools that are unable to meet certain academic benchmarks. Opting out and removing this funding could prove disastrous.

But under the state budget deal that will be announced on Monday, many of the high stakes for state tests will relaxed or even eliminated, and tests will receive far less emphasis as determinants of academic advancement. New adjustments mandate that, among other things, testing cannot be used as a primary determinant of advancement, and test scores cannot be permanently recorded for students between fourth and eighth grade. Furthermore, teachers are now restricted in the amount of time they can spend on test-specific preparation—specifically, only 2 percent of yearly class time. In a school day running 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., that amounts to roughly eight minutes of class time per day. With these changes, the rationale for opting out has lost most of the wind from its sails.

Standardized tests will continue to be a controversial issue—most will agree that they should be taken into account as gauges in these kinds of areas, but they cannot be the ultimate determinant of a student’s academic future or a school’s funding. Additionally, issues like test anxiety are real phenomena, and we need to make sure these tests are as harmless as possible. But with the changes made in the state budget deal as a start, we can make testing a meaningful diagnostic exercise for students, teachers, and schools. And no one should opt out from that.

Chris Meyer is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and political science. He is a former deputy news editor for Spectator. Outside the Bubble runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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