June 18, 2019
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Standardized testing is the problem, not the right to opt out

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Jennifer Dorman’s March 2 BDN OpEd in response to recent suggestions that parents be apprised about their right to “opt out” of the Smarter Balanced assessment paints a broad criticism of any opposition to standardized testing as scare tactics. The preponderance of opponents are her own educational peers, who are far above using scare tactics. Instead, they understand the fact that this testing inherently is flawed.

Her OpEd extols the virtues of the assessment as though there is nothing wrong with it. She has forsaken her peers.

There are two closely related issues here: that parents have the right to opt out of the assessments and that the assessments are flawed.

The former is simple, but the BDN is not helping. On March 6, the BDN asked a poll question: “ Should Maine make it easier for parents to opt their children out of standardized tests?” (Seventy-four percent voted yes.) But that is the wrong question to ask. Parents always have been able to do this with no consequence. The problem is that guidance officers and principals are afraid to be forthcoming about this because it is the school that will be punished, not the parents. The guidance officers’ and the principals’ job performance will be questioned, not the parents.

The fact that the government can force schools to be less than honest with parents is unacceptable. But the Maine Legislature is considering ways to reduce this pressure and should get our support.

The latter requires more work. Going online to view concerns expressed about standardized testing is not helpful because they tend to be so generalized that they do not lead to meaningful justification. It is necessary to go deep into specifics for an understanding. Let’s look at the following specifics. The crux for parents is this: How does standardized testing benefit my child?

I recently took a sample test of the Smarter Balanced language arts portion of the assessment at the sixth-grade level. Its resemblance to the Specific Skills Series is uncanny.

This educational product published by McGraw-Hill decades ago helps students develop skills in drawing conclusions, identifying inferences, getting the facts and getting the main idea from reading passages. There is a pretest for students that determines the appropriate reading level for the individual student.

An added quality was the fascinating stories and amazing facts contained in the text, which was highly engaging, even for the most reluctant reader. I kept folders on each student that accurately accounted reading progress. Once a week, we would read a passage at the average reading level in a group, then discuss discrepancies in our answers — we were justifying our thinking in collaboration.

The Smarter Balanced tests, which test for the same skills, do not take into consideration the individual’s reading level. The test assumed a high-level, sixth-grade reading ability and comprehension for all who take the test. At the sixth-grade level, there is a very wide discrepancy in reading and cognitive abilities not accounted for in this kind of testing.

The text was dull and boring. Testing students for these essential skills at a level beyond their verbal and cognitive abilities with dull and boring text cannot yield useful information about an individual. If the student struggles with the reading and cognition, as many will, the test cannot reliably account for an individual’s ability to draw a conclusion from the text and justify the response, for an example. Standardized testing cannot even approximate the accuracy I — or any other teacher — was able to obtain given the freedom from distractions.

Parents who consider opting out need no justification beyond simply taking their child out of an annoying and personally meaningless situation. That parents are opting out is not the real issue. Instead, the question becomes, why would any parent actually want to “opt in” their child to government-controlled standardized testing in the first place?

Keith Dunson has worked with at-risk students in Waldo County for 35 years and has presented papers on motivation at international conferences and is writing about intellectual dishonesty in public education. He lives in Belfast.



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