It was supposed to be a thunderclap. Anti-testing zealots hyped. They would like nothing more than to see a cathartic moment where their backlash against assessments in public schools reaches a curved wave they could cyber-surf on.
Instead, the Twitter “protest” was a bust. I guess white people had better things to do.
Yes, supporters of Opt-Out are getting in the news. I think it’s probably out of proportion with their importance, but angry parents make great copy. Opt-out has all the elements: Conflict. Conspiracies. Big Money. What else do you need?
On the whole, a silent majority of parents support student assessments. They clearly don’t like over-testing (who does?), but at the same time, they don’t support parental opting out of testing either. And, support is weakest among people of color.
Those nuances get drowned out by an active group of mostly white, mostly non-poor parent activists who have become an ornament for teachers’ unions. The parents have an ideological fundamentalism about testing, and the unions need an escape hatch from accountability or any evidence-based indictment of educator mediocrity. It’s a perfect marriage of interests.
Sometimes we treat the “sides” of the testing argument as equals, as if proportionally speaking opt-out parents are a counterbalancing to pro-assessment parents.
It’s not true, but activist journalists sometimes portray it that way. Others actually earn their journalist keep by digging beneath the talking points and headlines.
Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post and Kate Taylor from the New York Times have dueling headlines that illustrate this ying-yanging.
Strauss’ column is titled “Diane Ravitch: Why all parents should opt their kids out of high-stakes standardized tests,” and it acts mainly as a press release for Ravitch’s Network for Public Education. The NPE has released a video that starts with America’s best-selling education polemicist announcing “I’m Diane Ravitch, and it’s testing time, and I want to tell you why you should opt your child out of the test.”
We’ll get to her argument shortly, but first, a side note.
Nowhere in the piece does Strauss mention her own ties to the opt-out campaign. She doesn’t disclose her ties to Hart Research Associates, or how that firms’ clients include the American Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, and the United Federation of Teachers – all key players in the campaign against standardized testing.
Still, Strauss gives voice to FairTest, United Opt Out, and NPE, three labor-funded anti-testing campaigns.
Her piece wants you to believe the scope and momentum these anti-testing campaigns are having a bandwagon effect:
Last year, the opt-out movement was strongest in New York state, where about 20 percent of students refused to take the state’s “accountability” test, but tens of thousands of students in other states did the same thing. In fact, the U.S. Education Department issued more than a dozen letters to states where opt-outs were reported, warning them of possible sanctions if at least 95 percent of all students are not tested. The 95 percent threshold is set in federal K-12 education law, first in No Child Left Behind and then in its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Reality is a little different. In truth, the campaigns are struggling to push beyond their bubble and to gain new adherents.
I’ll admit that it sounds impressive to say 1 in 5 parents in New York State chose to opt-out of testing last year. I’ll also remind you that 1 in 5 people believe President Obama is a Muslim, that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and that lottery tickets are a sound financial planning investment.
In short, 1 in 5 Americans are stupid. I’m being kind.
Taylor’s NYT piece thankfully offers a rare contrast to Strauss’.
Twenty percent of the eligible students in the state sat out the tests last year, but the share in New York City was much smaller — less than two percent. The opt-outs were concentrated in a small number of schools, several of them in wealthy neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In a vast majority of city schools, all, or almost all, children took the tests.
Now, back to Dr. Ravitch’s video. In it she looks you squarely in the eyes with the intimacy of an old trusted friend who comes to your door with a pound cake during tough times. She cares about your child and wants to help you with a difficult decision.
If you are wavering about whether you should spare your child the indignities of being assessed by their school, Ravitch offers her four strongest reasons to abort testing:
- Tests provide no useful information.
- Tests take a huge amount of time.
- Test scores are used to rate teachers and schools.
- Teachers should do the assessing of students (you should trust them).
I won’t pretend she believes these things to be true. That insults her intelligence and mine. Let’s be adults and admit these messages are political, cynical, and that they are designed to prey upon the emotions and ignorance of a public perceived to be intellectually feeble, morally pliable, and eternally self-centered. It’s business, not personal.
In fact, Ravitch’s arguments are suspect and honest people should say so.
Tests have value. They provide education officials with invaluable information about the nature and location of America’s unacceptable racial and economic gaps in student progress. They annual testing used to get this crucial information takes less than 3% of a student’s learning time (and, be real, the other 97% of school time isn’t pure instructional magic – thus the need for testing). Further, there is no place in the United States where a teacher’s fate hangs solely on the outcomes of student assessments. There are no “high-stakes” because low performing schools and teachers are typically immortal. If they weren’t, there would be no school reform movement or testing.
And, finally, no one who cares about children of color should ever suggest our communities blindly trust a mostly white, mostly female occupation that is made suspect by nearly daily research studies suggesting the expectations, punishments, and grading of our students is impacted by the negative beliefs held by our teachers.
There are two beliefs at battle in the opt-out drama. On the anti-reform side the main idea is that we should stop measuring achievement, stop attending obsessively to gaps, and basically, just let our education freak flag fly as if there are no consequences for this negligence.
On the reform side there are people fighting intensively to create a winning culture where kids don’t have to hide from tests because they can pass them.
Taylor gives an example of the latter by pointing out high-performing charter schools have outstandingly small opt-out numbers:
The city’s high-performing charter schools have also had very few students opt out. Throughout KIPP NYC, a network of charter schools, just four of some 2,200 students eligible to take the exams opted out last year. Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, has not had a single student opt out in its existence, Eva S. Moskowitz, Success’s founder, said on Friday at the network’s pretest pep rally, which was held in a gymnasium at the City College of New York in Upper Manhattan.
In this way reformers are realistic about the fact that black and brown students will not have the convenience of opting out of life’s biggest tests. The gates to the middle class are full of tests that they will need to pass to be successful in life. Pretending we can wave away the obvious barriers to family economic security will hurt more people than help.
That means we need to be real when approached by opt-out activists who want our endorsement. We need to see them for who they are. Not the elites like Strauss’ and Ravitch who are wealthy private school parents now attempting to remake public schooling in their own image, but the foot soldiers who they have Trumpian sway over.
Politico identifies that group this way: “the students who opted out were more likely to be white, more likely to be from a low- or average-need district, and slightly more likely to have scored at low levels a year earlier, state figures show.”
It’s the low performers in white affluent – and succeeding – school districts who want to opt out. Because they are losing. Because even in losing they can rely on the whiteness premium to mitigate their losing.
This “movement” isn’t doing so well with white winners, so they are desperately seeking black and brown friends.
As God-fearing people we should love them and wish them well. As survivors of four centuries of state-sanctioned invisibility we should never contribute to our own erasure by joining a loser’s revolution.