I love standardized tests. As a teacher, I loved the information they provided about my students progress. As a parent, I love the statistics that tell me how my child is doing relative to others. As a researcher, I love the data that allow me to conduct research projects.
But as someone who believes in individual liberty, I love freedom more, and that includes the freedom to opt out of state standardized tests.
There has been an opt-out undercurrent for some time, led mostly by individuals and organizations such as The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), which questions the validity of standardized tests. With the advance of the Common Core State Standards and Common Core aligned tests, however, this small chorus of voices has been joined by an ever-increasing number of conservative parents concerned with the tests. From coast to coast there have been stories about parents choosing to opt their children out of state tests.
So I became immediately interested when a parent contacted me and asked whether it was possible to opt out of Missouri’s state standardized tests. I set out to find the answer. First, I contacted my local school district. They pointed me to the district policy, which states: ”All students will participate in statewide assessments” (emphasis mine). A district official informed me that if a child was not present for the testing day, but returned during the testing window, which is nearly seven weeks, they would be compelled to make-up the missed test.
According to the school district official, the district was handcuffed by state law. Therefore, I contacted the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Communications Coordinator informed me that there was no state policy to opt out, but pointed me to a state statute. The statutes say nothing about requiring students to take tests, but instead refer to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Desiring to get to the bottom of the issue, I contacted the U.S. Department of Education. Their reply offered little clarity:
“The issue of whether a state assessment is mandatory for students is not addressed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESE). This is up to your state. The ESEA requirements are directed at the state, district and school, not the individual student. The statute requires schools to be able to demonstrate at least 95% participation rates on the assessments in order to make adequate yearly progress (AYP).”
The school district says their hands are tied by the state, the state says their hands are tied by the federal government, and the federal government says it is up to the state. Technically, all are correct. The federal government requires 95 percent of students to be tested. States could develop opt out policies, but they have every incentive to make sure kids take tests. Therefore, states push the 95 percent testing burden onto local school districts. This leads school districts to develop policies that make no exceptions for individuals and require all to take state exams.
While I was on this fact finding mission, the parent who had contacted me was having more meaningful discussions with his school district. They were able to work out an agreement and he will be allowed to opt his child out of the state tests.
Some might say this is not good and that there should be no option for parents to opt their children out. Indeed, Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, recently argued that opting out is not a legitimate form of civil disobedience. In his mind, public school students are receiving a public good with the support of public dollars. Therefore, the public has the right to know how well students are doing. If you dont like it, Finn says, put your money where your mouth is and stop asking taxpayers to educate your children. In other words, if you dont like it, you can get out!
(Of course, you can’t get out with a voucher or other form of state supported private school choice, because Finn and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute would like to mandate state testing for those private school choice programs as well.)
I probably love testing data about as much as Chester Finn, but unlike him, I’m not willing to sacrifice the freedom of individuals for the cause of public information. Kudos to the parents that hold to their convictions and opt their children out and kudos to the school districts that dont choose to cop out by saying their hands are tied.
James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is the director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. Follow on Twitter @Shulsie