Work with educators before opting out of tests

Opinions vary on value of standardized exams


Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

Should parents have their children opt out of local or statewide testing? Some anti-testing advocates are suggesting this. Recently more than 30 district, charter and union officials responded when I asked them about this. Their responses reflected a mixture of respect, responsibility and frustration.

Most educators offered considerable respect for parents and a willingness to work with them. They urged parents with concerns about testing to contact their youngsters’ teachers or principals. In some cases of extreme “test anxiety,” educators agreed that opting out might be appropriate.

“Education Minnesota hasn’t taken a formal position on this, but I can say what I would do if a parent approached me about opting out,” said Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president. “I would explain that some standardized tests are more valuable to educators than others. I would also explain that some students handle the stress and loss of learning time associated with those tests better than others. Then I would leave it up to the parent to make an informed decision about what’s best for that individual student.”

Educators also noted the school’s responsibilities to participate in testing programs. They pointed to federal and state legislation that makes them responsible for testing. These educators also say testing can be valuable both for the students and the system.

“If a parent refuses to allow a child to participate, we cannot see the student’s growth and a refusal is automatically counted as a ’no pass‘ for the school/district,” said Julia Espe, Princeton superintendent. “If a parent should refuse in our district, we will be meeting with them to find out what the root cause for their concern might be. Currently, we are not seeing refusals.”

Milaca Superintendent Jerry Hanson said only two students have chosen to not take the tests.

“To qualify for a Minnesota diploma, as I understand it from Minnesota Department of Education, all students must take college and career readiness exams,” Ray Queener, Cambridge-Isanti superintendent, wrote via email. “So, that does require testing for a diploma. … While we would support a parent making an informed decision to ’opt-out,’ we do want to make sure they know the ramifications of such a decision.”

Finally, some educators agreed that tests are imperfect, they don’t measure everything that’s important and there have been and are problems with statewide testing programs.

“In the public’s eye, school test scores are held as the sole measure of a school’s success or failure,” Cam Hedlund, director of Lakes International in Forest Lake, responded. “For this reason, it’s difficult for a school to choose an alternate path or recommend to individual families to opt out, as it results in inaccurate measures of the school’s educational program. … If we as a society care about having children who can think, learn, communicate and work together as contributing members of our society, we need to expand our measure of school success. We need to measure what we treasure, no longer measuring only one of the simplest aspects of human development – a knowledge of facts.”

As a parent and educator, I found that in-classroom, teacher-designed tests helped show how much progress students were making. Standardized tests showed how well students were doing compared to others around the state and country. Moreover, students planning to enter most colleges will find “test-taking skills” help them show what they know.

However, traditional standardized tests don’t assess many important areas of knowledge and skill. And both in Minnesota and other parts of the country, there have been many problems with tests. The best path for parents is to learn what tests do and don’t measure and monitor how their youngsters respond to testing. If you have concerns, meet with your student’s teacher or principal to determine what makes the most sense.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at [email protected]