The Harvard Graduate School of Education recently posted an eye-opening interview with Professor Daniel Korenz, author of The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. His main point: “excessive high-stakes testing undermines the goals of instruction and meaningful learning.”
From Korenz’s point of view, today’s K-12 education system has become overrun by a “naive” devotion to standardized testing. He points out the ripple effects of this devotion, such as the impulse to “game” the system and double down on “boring test prep” in order to toe the testing line. Korenz’s insights will ring familiar to many who have been sounding this same alarm for years.
Korenz also discussed what parents or teachers can do when they realize—as many have—that “testing often degrades instruction rather than improving it.” He advised a “ground level” approach to change by recommending that concerned parents approach their child’s classroom teacher or administrator to ask what “wiggle room” the school may have for getting around onerous federal, state or local testing policies. But nowhere in the interview does Korenz mention that parents can opt their children out of any and all standardized testing, as well as test prep.
This may be because, as states get ready to implement the new federal education policy known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), opt outs are again becoming a contentious and federally frowned upon issue—even though the ESSA was supposed to return policy making decisions to local departments of education. (The ESSA required every state to submit an accountability plan; those plans are now in the process of being either approved or denied by the federal education department.)
Instead, the ESSA brings more pressure on parents, students, teachers and state legislators to bend to high-stakes standardized testing—despite the cost. Minnesota offers a clear example of this. As the 2017-2018 school year got underway, many teachers and parents were surprised to discover a newly revised “Parent Refusal” form provided by the Minnesota Department of Education. This form is intended to guide opt outs across the state, which have risen dramatically in some districts, including Minneapolis.
The initial pages provide boilerplate information for parents about federally required testing and its ties to Minnesota’s notoriously rigorous and independent academic standards. (Minnesota is only one of a handful of states, for example, that require all high school students to take Algebra 2 in order to graduate.) But on the last page of the form, a paragraph all in bold type pulls out every scare tactic in the book:
“I understand that by signing this form, my student will receive a score of ‘not proficient’ and waives the opportunity to receive a college-ready score that could save him/her time and money by not having to take remedial, non-credit courses at a Minnesota State college or university.”
Any parents still resisting are then served a final dose of guilt. Those who choose to opt out, the form warns, may deprive not only themselves but their whole school district of “valuable information” that could cause a potential drag on any local or state attempts to “equitably distribute resources.”
The new Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to return power to local departments of education. Instead, it pressures parents, students, teachers and state legislators to bend to high-stakes standardized testing—despite the cost.
According to a Minnesota Department of Education employee, who was not authorized to speak publicly about this, the form was updated in 2017 for two main reasons. First, during the 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers on the Education Policy Committee passed a law requiring the department to clearly spell out the “consequences” of opting out of testing. Second, the form was amended in order to encourage more compliance with the ESSA law. The ESSA, like its much-derided predecessor, the No Child Left Behind law, requires that states test “at least 95 percent of all eligible students.”
In late 2015, the federal government, in promoting the ESSA, sent a letter to states urging them to “sanction” local schools or education departments that fall below this 95 percent threshold. To force compliance with standardized testing (and test prep, as Korenz points out), federal officials recommended that states threaten to withhold funding, for example, or label students who opt out as “non-proficient,” as the Minnesota form promises to do.
Labeling students as non-proficient has not gone over well with the public, according to the Minnesota department of education employee I spoke with. “People have expressed concern” over the wording on the Parent Refusal Form, the staffer admitted. The employee clearly conceded, however, that—no matter the implied consequences—parents and students still have the right to opt out of the testing.
What might be hardest to opt out of, though, is the nation’s long-standing insistence on using standardized test scores as a gatekeeper to higher education. In an October letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, University of Minnesota library employee Robert Katz wrote that, last year, 670 African-American students applied to the university’s highly regarded business school, but that “the U rejected 94 percent of them.” Why were so many African-Americans rejected? Katz argues that it is due in large part to the “administration’s use of standardized test scores.” The university, he says, has a new policy that requires incoming freshman to have an ACT score of 28—a score he says is “achieved by only 10 percent of test-takers nationwide.”
Black students tend to score lower on the ACT than their white and Asian-American peers, Katz writes, but not because they are less intelligent or capable. The ACT is a “flawed test,” he claims, and does not accurately reflect merit, intelligence, or a student’s likely college GPA. Using the university’s own data, Katz points out that students who come in with a 28 on the ACT tend to achieve first-year GPAs in the same range (B+ to A-) as those who come in with lower ACT scores.
The University of Minnesota’s new call for higher ACT scores means “African-American students are being turned away at a higher rate than 10 years ago,” Katz concludes. Rather than creating steps toward more equitable forms of assessment, federal education policy encourages states like Minnesota to punish those in K-12 and higher education who might want to resist the dominance of high-stakes standardized testing.
Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in The Progressive and other local and national publications.