The Unfortunate Trend Toward Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Multiple Choice: The normal schedule at your child’s school will be disrupted for several days while the school administers a standardized test to all students. You think the test is a pointless waste of time that could be better spent on classroom instruction. You listen with interest when another parent urges that you opt your child out of taking the standardized test. What is your best course of action if you want to support your child’s school

a.     Keep your child home from school during testing days.

b.     Opt your child out of taking the test and write a letter to the school’s principal explaining your action.

c.     Discuss the issue with your child and jointly decide on a course of action.

d.     Send your child to school to take the test.

Surprise! The correct answer is d. Read on to find out why.

This month public school students in Madison are for the first time taking the Badger Exam, the Common Core-aligned standardized test that has replaced the WKCE. But not all students. A relatively small but growing number of parents have opted their children out of taking the exam. It’s becoming a thing. While most of the opt-outers are just taking a pass on the Badger Exam, some of the more gung-ho parents are opting out of all of the standardized tests that Madison students take.

Opting out has been described as an act of civil disobedience to protest schools’ over-reliance on high-stakes standardized tests. The more enthusiastic opt-outers see the tests as a cash-cow for big corporate interests like Pearson, who are happy to drain the budgets of strapped school districts with bloated testing charges. The also contend that the tests deliberately judge students by unrealistically high standards as part of a scheme to label public schools as “failing” and so advance the interest of charter school operators, privatizers and other enemies of public education.

For opt-outers holding these views, there’s really no middle ground. The logic of their position compels that they reject the very notion of standardized tests and that they advocate for banishing the tests from our schools entirely. They may not be able to stop the tests on their own but they can stop their children from taking the tests. And so they do.

From my perspective as a School Board member in Madison, I have a different view. I think opting out of standardized tests is, generally speaking, a lousy idea. This puts me quite at odds with the engaged, pro-public schools families who are choosing the opt-out route. So I will try to explain my views.

The next part of this post describes the principal standardized tests administered in the Madison school district. I then explain the ways in which the results of standardized tests can be valuable. My take on the principal pro-opt-out arguments comes next, followed by some concluding thoughts.

STANDARDIZED TESTS IN MADISON 

The principal standardized tests given in Madison are the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and the WKCE, which has been supplanted this year by the new Badger Exam. (There are other standardized tests that are given less universally, but this post is already long enough so I won’t discuss the others here.) The school district administers the MAP test because we choose to and the WKCE and Badger Exam because we have to.

Measures of Academic Progress (MAP)

MAP consists of reading, language usage and math assessments that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The computer-based tests are taken by our students in third through eighth grade. Each part of the test typically takes a little less than an hour, though the tests are not timed.

Our students take the MAP three times each year, in fall, winter and spring. The tests measure a student’s academic progress compared to the average student at that grade level. By comparing a student’s results from the fall and spring, we can estimate how much the student has learned over the course of the school year.

The school district looks at MAP results to get a sense of how individual schools and the district as a whole are doing on our goal that every student be on track to graduate. Our 2013-14 Annual Report included a number of progress indicators that were based on MAP results. School Improvement Plans for elementary and middle schools typically identify improvement goals expressed in terms of MAP performance.

 WKCE/Badger Exam

Prior to this year, the state-mandated standardized test was the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE). Students from third through eighth grade, plus tenth grade took the test in English, language arts and math each fall. Students in fourth, eighth and tenth grade took WKCE tests in science and social studies as well. The school and school district report cards issued by DPI are based primarily on WKCE results.

This is the first year for the Badger Exam, which is the Wisconsin version of the Smarter Balanced assessment, a new standardized test in English language arts and math for grades three through eight that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The goals of the computer-based test are said to be to challenge students with multiple choice questions, extended response, technology-enhanced items, and performance tasks intended to test students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills in both English language arts and math.

The Badger Exam roll-out has been rocky. The delivery of the test was delayed and then on March 10, DPI announced that it was eliminating the English Language Arts Classroom Activity and the Performance Task for this year. Bills are working their way through the state legislature to cancel DPI’s school and school district report cards for this year, because of uncertainty about the reliability of the Badger Exam results upon which the reports would be based.

MMSD has stated that it will deemphasize this year’s Badger Exam results as well. According to a FAQ on the test:

The Madison Metropolitan School District believes that any results from the first year of implementing an assessment should not be used for high stakes decisions. The first year of an assessment often has challenges with implementation and understanding the nuances of administration that may cause data that is not truly reflective of student achievement. These results will not be used for decisions about students, staff, programs or schools.

THE CASE FOR THE TESTS

Monitoring Progress Systemwide

A key goal of the school district is that all students have access to a consistent, standards-based core instructional program that systematically and seamlessly provides them with the knowledge and skills necessary for full participation in college, the workplace and the community. This goal, which spans the 14 years a student can spend in our schools from pre-K through high school, requires the identification of the knowledge and skills that our students are expected to master at each grade and in each class. The Common Core State Standards anchor this work.

We need to be able to monitor how well this strategy is working by checking on the knowledge and skills acquisition of students in every grade, because students won’t be able to flourish in fifth grade if they didn’t master what we expect them to learn in fourth grade.

In large part, we rely on MAP test results to check our students’ progress. This illustrates an important point. It is the aggregate results on standardized tests, rather than the scores of individual students, that are most useful. We want to see how our students – and identified subgroups of students – are doing overall, how they are doing in particular grades, and how they are doing in particular schools.

If the test results show problem areas, then those become areas of focus. If some schools are showing particularly positive results, then we want to identify what they are doing right so that their success can be replicated in other schools.

For this sort of system-wide analysis to be possible, we have to have some common basis for measurement and comparison. That is the role of the standardized test. Without this kind of common calibration, it becomes much harder to measure, monitor and compare the progress made by students.

Test scores are not the be-all and end-all of school performance, of course. We also need to look closely at school climate and at the extent to which our students are receiving a well-rounded education. But MAP results are a critical component of how we assess our performance as a school district.

Identifying Gaps

In addition, aggregate test results can identify disparities in performance among student groups and help us identify what groups of students we are not serving well. In large part, our achievement gaps are measured by differences in aggregate performance on tests like the WKCE. Heightened public awareness of our achievement gap was kick-started when Kaleem Caire started requesting that MMSD provide the Urban League with detailed data on student performance back in 2008. Much of the data was derived from the results of standardized tests. Half of the education measures identified in the Race to Equity report are based on standardized tests.

The simple fact is that abandoning standardized tests would be a major disservice to those students that the school district is not serving well, because it would make it easier to explain things away and paper things over. I have never heard anyone suggest that a solution to our achievement gap is to stop measuring it.

Reporting to the Community 

Finally, and I understand that this is more controversial, I think there is value in having all students in the state take a standardized test like (though preferably better than) the WKCE. The results play a key role in the school and school district report cards prepared by DPI.

I have issues with the ways in which the report card scores are tabulated – which you can read about here – but I think there is value in having a way to compare the performance of schools and school districts. Most folks agree. According to the most recent Marquette Law School poll, “Voters strongly support continuing federally required testing in math and English, by 80 percent to 17 percent.”

Here it is particularly important to distinguish between the test results themselves and the pernicious uses to which they can be put.   Republican legislators want to label as “failing” schools that earn unimpressive report card scores and some seek to impose penalties on schools with low grades. This is misguided. It may also be part of a broader strategy to undermine public education in the state, a strategy that seems to explain much of the Republican agenda on education.

But the fact remains that it is useful to have some consistent set of assessments by which some aspects of school performance can be measured and compared in a reasonably objective manner. I think school districts owe it to the public that supplies their funding to provide this basic sort of accountability measure.

RESPONDING TO OPT-OUT ARGUMENTS

What about the arguments against standardized tests?  Here is how I think they stack up from a Madison perspective.

1.         The stakes are too high. School funding and teacher evaluations should not be based exclusively on the results of standardized tests. Agreed. But that’s not how things work in Madison. Generally low test results are one of the factors that go into identifying our more high-needs schools, but they tend to get more attention and resources rather than less. Unexpectedly low test results for a particular class should prompt the teacher and principal to think about the effectiveness of the teaching strategies that are being employed, but they do not affect the teacher’s pay or by themselves result in any sort of adverse employment action. Right now in Madison there simply aren’t any high-stakes consequences attached to standardized test results.

 2.        An inordinate emphasis on standardized test results leads to narrowing the school curriculum to only those subjects that are tested. I am sure that there are school districts where this is the case. Madison is not one of them. One of our principal Strategic Framework goals is a well-rounded curriculum, measured by enrollment in music, art, foreign language and other classes that are not WKCE subjects. This goal is specifically intended as a counterweight to our goal of high academic achievement, which unavoidably relies on standardized test results.

3.        Standardized tests do not measure the whole child.  Nope, they don’t.  The tests are oblivious to a child’s creativity, resiliency, kindness, emotional maturity, perseverance, courage, and other qualities that we seek to nurture in all our children. But that isn’t a shortcoming of the tests; it is a reason to avoid judging and labeling children exclusively on the basis of test results. It is just as misguided to criticize a math test for not measuring, say, resiliency as it is consider it a shortcoming of a lawn mower that it won’t roast a chicken. That’s not what it’s designed to do.

4.        The tests are racially biased. The makers of the tests will argue that they’re not, and will back up their claims with a whole host of studies. But there is no question that, as a group, students of color tend to score lower than white students and students in poverty tend to score lower than students who are not economically disadvantaged. What is the significance to draw from this? As I write above, it doesn’t do the low-performing groups of students any favors to do away with the tests. That’s like attacking obesity by eliminating scales. It is up to the school district to investigate possible causes of the disparities and implement smart strategies to reduce them.

5.        The tests take too much time away from classroom instruction. Well, yes, this is a valid point. Time spent administering standardized tests is time taken away from instruction. And because things don’t always work out as smoothly as we’d like, there will be times when some students’ learning will be compromised because other students are taking tests. It’s a trade-off. We have to think that the benefits we derive from our students taking a standardized test are worth the price we pay in lost instructional time. From what I can tell, the trade-off is worth it for the MAP. We don’t have a choice as far as the WKCE and Badger Exam are concerned. But when we do have a choice, we should always keep in mind this genuine cost and demand that clear and tangible benefits of any standardized test outweigh this and any other costs.

6.        Businesses make money on the tests they sell us. Some have criticized test-making juggernaut Pearson and other companies for making lots of money on the tests they sell to school districts. This doesn’t seem persuasive to me. Standardized tests are either worth their cost or they are not. If they are, then it is not a concern to me that some corporation may profit from selling them to us.

SO, WHAT’S A PARENT TO DO?

There have been a lot of problems with the Badger Exam, which may prompt some parents to think about opting their kids out of it. But don’t think that this will strike a blow against high-stakes tests. This initial Badger Exam is looking like it will be about as low-stakes as a test can get. The legislature is likely to pass a law precluding DPI from issuing school report cards incorporating the test results and MMSD has announced that the district won’t use results from the test for any decisions about students, staff, programs or schools.

Opting out of this particular test won’t come at much cost but it is also not likely to provide much benefit. Taking a pass on the test won’t keep it from being administered or somehow restore more time for classroom instruction. It will mean one fewer student’s learning will be measured and will make whatever information the test provides that much less reliable.

In future years the stakes will increase for the Badger Exam or whatever may take its place, since DPI will be back to issuing school report cards based primarily on the test results. Opting out may have more consequences as well.

The most tangible consequence is that if too many students in any demographic category fail to take the test, DPI deducts five points from the school’s report card. East High got docked five points for insufficient test participation and another five points for excessive absenteeism on its 2013-14 report card. This knocked the school down from the “meets expectations” to “meets few expectations” category.

This matters, whether we want it to or not. Families considering a move to Madison will research the schools and will shy away from neighborhoods that are served by a high school that “meets few expectations.” Go ahead and try to explain to them that a school’s low report card score was simply a consequence of engaged parents opting out of the state-mandated standardized test in order to register their opposition to the flawed political narrative that public schools are failing.

Opting out of the Badger Exam is currently getting all the attention, but the more gung-ho opt-outers urge parents to take a pass on MAP tests as well.   Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College and perhaps the most uninhibited of the opt-out advocates, has written: “And the MAP is not a good test either. It’s still high stakes. It still is racially biased. And it still takes assessment away from the teacher. There is no better assessment than the assessment done by teachers (authentically) and without stakes. SCRAP THE MAP.”

Ignore this. Parents should not opt their children out of the MAP test. That won’t accomplish anything but frustrate the school district’s assessment of our own performance and blur our vision of where we should be focusing our improvement efforts.  There are plenty of ways to support our public schools but this isn’t one of them.

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16 Responses to The Unfortunate Trend Toward Opting Out of Standardized Tests

  1. Kristen says:

    Well written. Thanks Ed. I would add an “option E” – send your kids in to take the test, but spend your time contacting WI state legislatures (Thiesfeldt et al) and your local school board to object to using test scores for any individual teacher/school “accountability” measurement schemes. (Although I had some of the least productive conversations in my live with Theisfeldt’s staff….ugh.)

    I don’t have a problem with the test as much as I have a problem with some of the proposed ways to use the data. I DON’T want a teacher’s performance measurement attached to test scores. There are just too many variables out of their control to do that. Madison is not moving in that direction, but many other districts are. I also get nervous when I see plans to assign a grade and punish schools with low test scores. Those are the schools that need MORE resources….not less.

    • Thanks, Kristen. Good points. I too have written to Thiesfeldt, et al. but it looks like its internal Republican disagreements rather than our advocacy that’s slowing down the push for an “accountability” bill.

  2. Cindy says:

    No middle ground? Sounds like you’re not up for an open and honest conversation.

    • Not up for an open and honest conversation? I just went on and on (and on and on) describing the issue, providing some background, spelling out my take on it and responding to opposing points. If you think I got something wrong or disagree with what I say, please feel free to share your thoughts.

      • Cindy says:

        Ed – writing a blog is not a conversation. What I find frustrating is that you state that those of us who opt out hold no middle ground. Have you reached out to those of us who opt out and had a conversation? Your opinions seem pretty firm, however, you depict those of us who don’t agree with you as being inflexible.

        I’m not opposed to standardized testing and data can be useful. However, the amount of data that the district compiles year after year, is out of control. If we can’t start making progress with the data we have been collecting, we never will. There is no need to assess this many times a year for grades 3 – 8. Where is the research to back this up? In good conscious, how can we participate in these expensive measurements time and time again while suffering crippling budget cuts? How can we participate in high stakes testing when accountability means punitive measures? I understand that the district states it won’t use test scores in this manner (this year) but it’s not solely up to the district how this data is used, is it? Why would I want to hand over control of our schools to those who appear to have no interest in funding public schools or have no formal education in teaching?

        Lastly, I believe your kids are done with K-12 education. Your’s and their’s experience is nothing like what our children are experiencing. I would appreciate that instead of reading talking points about opt out that you sat down with those of us who opt out and talk to teachers about the impact of testing on their classrooms.

        • Cindy —

          Thanks for your thoughts. I have had conversations with opt-out advocates and have followed the issue. I believe I understand the arguments advanced by those who are anti-test.

          As I wrote, it seems to me that the logic of the opt-out argument doesn’t allow for being in favor of some standardized tests while opposed to others, but I’d be happy to be corrected on that if I am wrong.

          The standardized tests administered to third through eighth graders in Madison are the MAP and now the Badger Exam, with social science and science WKCE for fourth and eighth graders. In addition, English Language Learners take the ACCESS test, fifth graders take a 30-minute COGAT screener to help identify advanced learners, and sixth graders take the CBITS test, which is not an academic test but instead measures for trauma. More information on the assessment calendar is available here: https://accountability.madison.k12.wi.us/family-friendly-assessment-calendars.

          As I wrote, we don’t have a choice on the Badger Exam, WKCE (and ACCESS) tests and I think the benefits we derive from the MAP tests are worth the price we pay in classroom disruption. Others can certainly disagree.

          As a practical matter, in Madison there currently are no punitive consequences attached to standardized testing results, so at the moment it doesn’t make sense to me to choose to opt out of standardized testing as a protest against punitive measures.

          • Kristen says:

            Ed, has the district ever considered just doing the MAP 2x a year? (removing winter). (Full disclosure: I’ve “opted-out” of winter MAP). Thanks for the link to the testing calendars. Hadn’t seen that.

            I think that one thing that would help is more classroom support for schools with high ELL populations during the testing windows. (I know there is no money for this right now, but I do see teachers spending lots of time on testing logistics, especially in our most diverse classrooms.)

            I thought this was interesting:
            http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2015/04/24/a-big-legislative-win-on-education/

  3. Cindy says:

    I agree with the Winter MAP. Aside from the MAP not being perfect, the winter one has issues with the shorter instructional time leading up to it. I know it’s not uncommon for scores to drop on winter. I don’t know if it’s a trend. We opted out of winter as well.

  4. Good question about the winter MAP. That does warrant some more looking into, I think. I had the impression that the winter MAP was just reading and language usage and not math, but I may be wrong about that.

  5. Cindy says:

    For some reason , my other post isn’t showing up.

    Ed, I understand that MMSD doesn’t have a plan in place to deal with low test scores. What do you think their thinking will be down the line? What would you support? How would you recommend test scores be used and/or raised?

    • If you’re talking about test scores per se, as distinct from the student learning that the scores are intended to reflect, I don’t think anything should be done. We certainly shouldn’t let a concern about test scores prompt us to narrow the curriculum to focus more on language arts and math, and we shouldn’t reduce instructional time in order to work on test-taking skills (beyond the time necessary to familiarize students with the tests they’ll be taking). As I wrote, test scores in the aggregate should be part of the evidence we – meaning school district administrators, principals and teachers – look at to assess how well our instructional strategies are working.

  6. Dorothy Conniff says:

    HI Ed, Thank you for taking on this controversial issue. I took a look at the schedule and have witnessed the test-taking in my grandchildren. I agree that we need some way to assess how well students are doing, if we are able to take action to improve things. But this is a punishing schedule of tests, and I think you pass over the negative effects on students and school alike of so much time and focus on these things.

    I am concerned that there is so little information about what positive results come from all this testing. I have not heard any practical discussion of how teaching or learning has improved as a result of the tests, but I hear the kids comparing their results with others, and talking about poor scores as if they were written in stone. Did we find some group needing more basic instruction and provide it? Did we find stellar students and do more to stimulate them? Could we use the money and time devoted to these things to make things better?

    We may not be making punitive decisions now about the test results, but we are definitely setting ourselves up for that.

    • Cindy says:

      Thanks, Donna! I couldn’t agree with you more.

    • Dorothy –

      Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts. I figured I wasn’t the best person to answer your question about how the schools use test results to inform instruction, so I asked Jay Affeldt, the principal at Memorial, if he could shed some light on how a high school uses the tests. Here is how he responded:

      “While high schools do not administer MAP testing for their 9th-12th grade students, we do heavily utilize the 8th grade MAP results to help us determine which levels of additional challenge or support our incoming 9th graders will need. We use MAP percentile scores and 8th grade teacher recommendations to decide which students would benefit from additional literacy or math interventions, which are then built into their schedule to help them be successful immediately in 9th grade. We also use this data to help identify students who should be encouraged to enroll in our 9th grade honors classes. In the past, our 9th grade content teams have looked at strand data to identify skill deficits in our incoming 9th graders, so they can adjust curriculum to specifically teach those skills. In high school, for example, we’ve used the MAP data to notice that all incoming students have struggled with the geometry and statistics questions, which allowed our teachers to focus their instruction on the basics in those areas before moving on. The strand data is the piece that is incredibly beneficial to classroom teachers. After each test, middle school teachers get feedback about how each of their student scored in each skill area, so they can work to develop those specific skills through more targeted and individualized instruction. As a school, we would love to have a high school equivalent to the MAP test that provide immediate, explicit feedback about student skills.

      “In the past, high schools have been able to use longitudinal and cohort-based EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT scores in a similar fashion. It is not as focused on individual student skill development, but item analysis of large group data helps us identify where we need to improve our instruction. ASPIRE has presented some new challenges for us, because the assessment scale is different as are the reports that are given to schools about their data. This will take time for us to sort through to find the pieces that can inform our instruction, but in preparation all teachers at our school have taken sample portions of the ASPIRE test to better understand how it works, and have begun to build in explicit skill instruction, primarily reading and writing skills, to help students best demonstrate their knowledge in this new format. We will continue to use ASPIRE to seek out students who should be encouraged to enroll in honors and AP classes as well, particularly students of color and other underrepresented groups. In addition, simply because taking the ACT is part of the college admissions process for many, simply by having their students reflect on their future goals, how tests like this might play an important role in meeting those future goals, and setting an improvement goal for themselves has been a powerful motivator. It creates a relevance and buy-in like nothing else.

      “There are two areas where I don’t feel like we have focused enough of our energy, and that is helping both parents and students understand these tests, in knowing how teachers use the results and how they themselves can use the results. There is a lot of useful information for parents and students in both the MAP and the ACT set of tests. Most importantly, it can give information about the kinds of skills families can work to enhance. As the parent of a two kids in MMSD who take MAP tests regularly, it has helped us identify our kids’ relative strengths and weaknesses, so we have a better sense of how we can support them at home.”

      I am confident that our elementary and middle school principals could provide similar explanations for how the test results can be useful.

      Are we setting ourselves up for making punitive decisions based on test results? I believe that the answer is no for Madison. That would be counterproductive since it would undermine development of the kind of trust throughout the organization that is a prerequisite for genuine improvement. Who knows what will happen at the state level. If in its wisdom the legislature decides to adopt a punitive regime, then I expect I may have to re-examine my views.

  7. Cindy says:

    Thought this might be of interest. “Rather than centering performance problems on students and teachers, policymakers should take into consideration the systemic inequities and larger sociopolitical contexts in which schools operate” Amen to that!
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150512140852.htm

  8. Cindy says:

    Thought this might be of interest. “Rather than centering performance problems on students and teachers, policymakers should take into consideration the systemic inequities and larger sociopolitical contexts in which schools operate” Amen to that!
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150512140852.htm

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