Let Parents Opt Out (Even If It's a Bad Idea)

Once again, school testing season is upon us—and with it, the discussion of whether parents should refuse to allow their children to take the tests. “Opt out” proponents argue that testing does nothing good for kids or teachers, but rather is a mindless data-gathering exercise that needlessly puts kids through the ringer and wastes learning time.

Here’s my view: If parents feel strongly that the tests aren’t educationally valuable for their kids, no one should force them to participate or punish them for opting out. Testing is not like vaccinations, where one parent’s choice can cause another child to get sick, and overly rigid testing policies have only angered families and encouraged more of them to opt-out in protest. Families bear the ultimate consequence of the educational process. This should be their call.

But that doesn’t mean families should opt out. For most families, it’s a terrible idea. State tests aren’t perfect, but they are the best annual opportunity to find out, with a reasonable degree of objectivity, how each student is progressing toward important learning benchmarks.

Yes, schools give assessments all the time and make their own judgments about student progress. But the quality of those assessments varies wildly from classroom to classroom and the messages parents receive about students based on classwork can be misleading. Students who follow directions and do all their work generally get good grades regardless of their actual mastery of important skills.

Students whose parents opt out may not get help they need because, according to the school’s judgment, they don’t need it. My doctor will still give me a physical if I opt out of having my blood pressure checked, but he’s not going to tell me that’s a smart idea.

There’s also a difference between making a personal choice for your own child and being pressured to opt out of testing by other parents, teachers or school officials. There have been news reports about teachers and administrators proactively communicating their own views against testing directly to parents. How is that appropriate or ethical, given the huge conflicts of interest in play? Some schools and teachers believe that if enough families stay home, the school won’t be held accountable for its performance. Families have a right to know how well their schools are helping students learn. If they choose to forego testing for their own child, that’s their business. School employees should recuse themselves from the process.

Finally, we should all consider how the opt out campaign might affect schools and systems down the road, especially in places where refusal rates are high. The underlying principle of opting out is that parents should pick and choose which elements of the school program their children do and which elements they skip. Some would call that personalization; others would call it an educational buffet that erodes the shared experiences that form the foundation of what we consider well-rounded schooling.

What if a family doesn’t believe in evolution and refuses to have their child sit through lessons about it?

What if a family dislikes the texts selected for class reading and opts their child out of reading a particular novel? Or all novels?

What will we say to a family whose racial beliefs lead them to ask for a blanket exemption from Black History Month?

Opting out isn’t just about testing. It can be about anything. Based on our individual beliefs about those things, we may support or oppose the right to opt out. It gets complicated quickly.

My advice to families is to participate in the tests. No, they aren’t perfect. But they provide very useful information. You want the educators serving your child to have the most complete picture possible about your child’s development—and you deserve that information yourself.

My advice to school systems is to think carefully before jumping on the opt out bandwagon, especially if the motivation is to avoid accountability for your test results. It might not be as easy as you think to stuff that genie back in the bottle later, and once it’s out, you won’t know what the genie will do next.

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