When stumping for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, George W. Bush framed his push for test-based accountability as empowering parents: “There’s nothing better to get parents involved in schools than to measure and report the results… There’s nothing like getting a mother fired up when she sees the fact that her school may not be performing quite like she thought it was going to be.”
His words still hold sway today. Test data and school report cards, the thinking goes, help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children to school and demand change when poor performance merits it. In this way, test-based accountability is as much a public information service as an educational reform endeavor, and it is this linkage with transparency and parent empowerment that has made test-based accountability such an enduring part of our educational landscape.
The U.S. Department of Education
Last December, NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provided states with some flexibility under NCLB’s accountability mandates but also retained many of the central elements of NCLB – namely, the requirement that states test all students, publicly report the results, and use the data to hold low-performing schools accountable. After the law was passed, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) began working on the draft rules for the legislation, which were released in May and received public comments over the summer. Unsurprisingly, parents were once again at the forefront of the ED’s mind. The 192-page draft rules made a total of 120 references to parents. The ED not only harped on the informational value of school report cards for parents, but also indicated that parents should take an active role in constructing accountability systems. It called for parents to be part of local teams tasked with creating school report cards and school improvement plans.
The Opt Out Movement
In the quest to engage and empower parents, however, the ED is in something of a bind. In order to fulfill its duties to inform parents of school performance, it must also determine how to respond to a growing and increasingly vocal minority of parents who have protested standardized tests by keeping their students at home on test day. This past spring represented yet another year of growth for the so-called “Opt Out Movement.” Over the past two years, the movement has exploded, particularly in New York and Colorado. In New York, a full 22% of students did not take the annual standardized tests this past spring, and in some districts opt out rates were as high as 89%. In Colorado, 10% of all students stayed home on test day. The exact cause of the opt out protests is not entirely clear, but they appear to be driven by some combination of fears about federal overreach in education, anxieties about the corporatization of schooling, and concerns about the unintended consequences of standardized testing.
NCLB originally required that schools test 95% of their students or be labeled a failure – in large part because school quality data becomes increasingly imprecise and error-prone with less than 95% participation. And while initial appraisals of the ESSA suggested that the new law might provide greater leniency for states and districts with high opt out rates, the ED’s draft rules instead aim to quash the movement. They insist that states curb opt outs by punishing schools and districts with high opt out rates by lowering their ratings or labeling them in need of improvement. Individual schools with high opt out rates would also have to develop plans to encourage higher rates of participation in the future.
The Opt Out Movement highlights a dilemma about parent rights and representation, and in particular, which parents should have final say over testing policy. On the one hand, it only seems natural that a parent should have the right to keep her child at home on test day. After all, parents are the preeminent stakeholders of American education, and education policies should reflect their wishes as much as constitutionally possible. But at the same time, does the right of one parent to keep her child at home on test day trump another parent’s right to have access to high-quality school data? And looking at the issue from yet another angle, is it fair for one parent’s school to be punished because someone else’s parent kept their child at home? The decision to opt out is a private one, but the punishment for high opt out rates could pose a collective burden that harms those who never participated in the movement.
There are no easy answers to these questions – questions which perhaps have more to do with normative values and notions of justice than issues of educational effectiveness. The ED’s rather blunt response to the issue doesn’t come close to matching the complexity and delicacy of this issue.
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