No one will deny that nationally there is an organized campaign to convince parents they should have their children “opt out” of standardized testing in public schools. We are divided on the nature of that “movement,” its aims, colors and contours. Is it white? Is it an effort to sidestep accountability? Is it best for kids?

Enter two intelligent men, Charles Coleman, Jr. and Jesse Hagopian, to discuss the issue.

They have at least two things in common: First, they both have written recently about “opt out.” Second, both men have been successful passing a few important tests to make it into the professional ranks of the middle class.

Coleman is a civil rights attorney with degrees from Howard University.

Hagopian is a Seattle teacher with degrees from Macalaster College and Washington University.

From there, they part company.

In a widely circulated piece by Coleman called “Opt out is the wrong choice for our kids” that set off discussion in social media. Coleman is black. When he says “our kids,” he means opting out is bad for black children specifically.

Hagopian fired back with a union-sponsored missive in The Progressive called “Six reasons why the opt out movement is good for parents and students of color.” I am uncertain about his racial background, but his point is that “opt out” is good for kids that are of color.

Coleman’s argument is that “[b]oycotting standardized tests…hurts black learners most” by obscuring information the public uses to know black children are falling behind in school. He says momentum around opting out appears to be in very white communities where schools are generally assumed to be doing well, but in communities where black students attend schools that fall short year after year, annual student assessments inform community members and leaders about disparities.

Hagopian responds with a list of six reasons why testing is bad for kids of color.

He says there is over-testing in poor schools; that “opt out” is catching on in non-white communities as evidenced by efforts led by the Chicago Teachers’ Union president Karen Lewis and a few spots in the country where hundreds of students ditched tests; that the Federal government has never punished school districts for low participation in testing; that test scores are used to “label” kids of color as “failures” and shutter schools; that standardized tests were invented by racists; and that there are other ways to assess children than using standardized tests.

I address many of those arguments in an annotated version of his article you can find here.

The bad example

Hagopian points to Seattle as an example “opt out” being driven by non-white people. Last April he joined two members of the NAACP, and several other community members, for a press conference to denounce Washington State’s new “Smarter Balance” testing scheme. But if this was to be a show of the black community’s distaste for testing, it failed. Besides Gerald Hankerson, president of the local NAACP, and his education chair Rita Green, there were no other black people at the press conference. A series of mostly white speakers – parents and teachers – dominated the lights, camera, and mic.

Watch the video. I think it disproves the thrust of his argument.

If you skip to (1:10:21) in the video you find Meg Richman, a white teacher who – perhaps unintentionally – admits opt out is currently most suited for white families who are “privileged.”

She goes on to say “I opted my own 11th grader out of the test, um, I don’t feel that under-privileged kids, it might not be the best choice for them to opt-out of the 10th grade test because their parents don’t have the power yet to get them to graduate from high school, to get them into college without a high school degree. So, it’s an equity issue…only the privileged can afford that kind of move [opting out].”

Eyes on the prize

As we get lost in debate about testing, we forget the bottom line: student achievement.

Dr. Michael Lomax, President of the UNCF, refocuses us on the longstanding need to prepare black students for college.

He says:

Today, nearly half of all African-American children who begin kindergarten do not graduate from high school. Of those who enrolled in college, only 5% are ready for the demands of five for-credit college courses. When it comes to earning a bachelor’s degree by age 29, 60% of Asian-American students will do it compared to about 40% of white students, 20% of African-American students and 12% of Hispanic students.

I’m neither a teacher like Hagopian, nor a civil rights attorney like Coleman. Both are accomplished, educated men who got what they need to be successful.

I’m a parent with a shoddy education, not unlike many people in our community. My concerns are about the racism, inefficiencies, and scandals of public education systems past and present. That leads me to side with Coleman and the national civil rights community (including the NAACP and the National Urban League) in supporting annual statewide student assessments as a means of holding public school systems to account for making progress with marginalized kids.

You simply can’t convince me that we’re at a point in time when black people should blindly trust any state institution, especially not public school systems.

Because of his legal work Coleman knows what it takes to sue for civil rights, and his view is in line with the 25 civil rights groups that laid out a framework for education law last year, which included annual testing. They called for “[a]nnual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards.”

Most of our black leadership agree.

Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, wrote “Before the federal law required statewide assessments, some schools would too often opt out vulnerable students from taking assessments to hide achievement gaps and associated resource inequities−despite receiving public money to serve all students well.”

Hagopian, the readers of The Progressive, and radical white teachers’ unions are clearly out of sync with black people and are struggling mightily to forcefully implant an inauthentic, self-destructive, paleoliberal ideology in our black grassroots.

For me, that’s far worse than lead in our water.

The gated middle class

The middle class is an economic gated community. Pathways from poverty to self-sufficiency are demarcated by academic fencing, standardized tests, and professional credentials.

Before entering dental school, you’ll take the Dental Admission Test (DAT). Want to attend graduate school? Take the Graduate Management Admission Test or Graduate Record Examination. Medical school? The Medical College Admission Test.

If you want to be an attorney like Coleman, pass the Law School Admission Test and the state bar examination.

You want to be a teacher like Hagopian and his colleagues who convinced their students to opt out of standardized tests, you’ll have to pass the PRAXIS for Teacher certification.

That’s one of the ironies of opt out advocacy.

Of all people, Hagopian should know the value of passing tests. He attended Macalester, an elite private college in Minnesota with only 3% black students. You don’t get in that college by opting out of tests, in fact, their admissions website lists “standardized testing’ as “important.”

Historically marginalized understand more than anyone. In a poll by the Associated Press parents expressed more support for student testing as their household income went down.

For example:

Eighty-five percent of parents earning less than $50,000 a year say regular assessment of their child is very important or extremely important, significantly more than the 73 percent earning $50,000– $100,000 and the 63 percent earning over $100,000 a year. Significantly more parents earning less than $50,000 a year—79 percent—say that standardized tests measure the quality of education at a school somewhat well or very well. Only 66 percent of parents earning $50,000–$100,000 and 65 percent earning over $100,000 feel that way.

It seems only middle class, college educated people – many who work for the systems we need to hold accountable – have the luxury of arguing about the need to pass tests and obtain degrees.

Black people should continue to beware. Opt out is an attempt to cover our concerns with white-out.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here