Opt Out Movement’s Influence on Decisions in Education Marketplace

Written by: Rachel White

Primary Source: Green & Write

As states adopt new standardized assessments that align with newly adopted college- and career-ready standards (e.g., Common Core and state-supplemented iterations thereof), parents are refusing to let their children partake in the test. At one high school in Seattle, Washington, not a single 11th grade student showed up to take the SBAC test last week. In New York City, several districts in the suburbs reported between 25 and 50 percent of students refused to take the state test. Michigan school districts, too, are currently facing with an increasing number of students and parents (choosing for their children) opting out of the new M-STEP assessment. These efforts have received an increasing amount of media attention both locally and nationally.

Photo Courtesy of Fort Worth Squatch

Photo Courtesy of Fort Worth Squatch

One issue with the growing opt-out movement is that it will have significant effects on school accountability ratings and may ultimately result in an increase in schools receiving state sanctions and interventions. Moreover, in a state where school choice is exercised quite frequently, the skewed picture of school-wide academic achievement that results from students opting out may create an inaccurate picture for parents choosing to vote with their feet (i.e., selecting another school district when they are dissatisfied with their child’s current district) when they may not fully understand what they are voting for.

Current Governance of State Standardized Assessment

Federal law, particularly No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is silent as to whether parents or students can or cannot opt out of state assessments. However, NCLB’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) requirement incentivizes schools and districts to prevent opting opt. Currently, NCLB mandates that a school or district with less than 95 percent participation on the state standardized test (based on 3-year rolling averages) be ineligible to make AYP.

Opt Out Movement’s Influence on Public Perceptions of School Achievement

The participation threshold is not the only issue that schools face as a result of the growing opt-out movement. In states, such as Michigan, where school public accountability systems are weighted heavily by state standardized test results, the opt out movement may heavily skew the image of some schools as high- or low-achieving. Depending on who is opting out, refusing to take the state standardized test may influence public perceptions of schools when the publically available data from which to draw these perceptions prioritizes state assessment achievement. If those students opting out of state tests are previously high-achievers, schools run the risk of a dramatic decrease in their school-wide achievement compared to previous years. If those opting out are made up of previously low-achievers, schools may be seen as making huge gains in achievement when this may not be the case.

We know that housing markets and neighborhood demographics are profoundly influenced by the public’s perception of schools (see here, here and here). As more students opt out of state standardized tests that inform these perceptions, some schools will have higher average standardized test scores while others will be lowered but this will have little to do with whether these schools are getting “better” or “worse.” Instead, it will be directly related to sample bias – those taking the test may make up a non-random sample of the school population and, as a result, results can be erroneously attributed to the school quality rather than the subsample of students who actually take the assessment. If the public fails to understand this, however, it may drive many private choices to leave schools that appear to be low achieving and attend schools that appear to be high achieving using surface-level information.

Deeper Revelations

The purpose of this blog is not to say that the opt out movement is “right” or “wrong” in any sense. On the surface, the opt out movement has shown that parents and schools are unhappy with the increasing amount of time being spent on standardized testing. However, at a deeper level, the opt-out movement has revealed the inherent flaws in state accountability systems that rely heavily on state standardized assessment scores with little deference to the characteristics of those partaking in the assessment.

Contact Rachel White – whitera3@msu.edu

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Rachel White
Rachel is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in how political processes impact the ability of school districts — especially those serving traditionally underserved and disadvantaged students — to ensure equitable outcomes for all students. Rachel’s current work focuses on the ways in which states have responded to federal education policy requirements through legislative, bureaucratic, and administrative actions, as well as how local districts understand, interpret, and implement state mandates. Rachel holds a BA in public policy from the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and an MA in education policy and leadership from The Ohio State University.