A mere four years ago, and for decades prior, one could not find any substantial evidence of students opting-out of standardized testing. At first glance, the current, heated, conflict over state testing and the “opt-out” movement appears to be a dispute between those who believe in and those who dispute the value of state tests. But this conflict goes deeper. It is a conflict about what is good for children and adolescents, about how children learn and thrive, and about how to raise young people to enter into and contribute to their communities as mature members of a democratic society.
Those who support testing contend that facing tests, and the concomitant adversity that one might experience (even if the test is developmentally inappropriate) are a part of life. To do otherwise is considered weak, and represents a failure to develop the “grit” necessary to fully engage in life’s challenges. For these people, it is inconceivable that locally developed assessments — perhaps even more purposeful and useful assessments — could accomplish that very same goal. Living in a culture of fear as we do, many people believe that it is necessary to impose carefully guarded secret tests from above to make sure that we hold incompetent adults — untrustworthy teachers and administrators — accountable for the abject failure of some children who graduate from our public schools.
Self-appointed education reformers, including the governor, believe that public education ought to train young people to read, write and do mathematical analysis and computation sufficient to pass first-year college English and Math courses. They believe that in order to accomplish this limited goal, children must improve their reading, writing, and math skills at a certain annual rate. They believe that in order for this sort of public education to flourish, teachers must be trained to teach reading, writing and mathematics according to a well-defined series of instructional offerings. And they believe that annual tests of students must be used to judge whether teachers are fit for this work.
While not discarding other learning — the arts, science, history and other subjects — outright, self-appointed education reformers believe teachers and administrators must attend to the English and mathematics tasks above all else. They believe that education is about getting children ready for the world of work, few questions asked. To these reformers, children who go to public schools “live to work” as the saying goes, and ought to be educated to do so.
Broad learning in the arts as well as in the sciences, in literature as well as in history, economics, psychology, plus athletics, independent study and community service, is a notion that seems to be beyond the scope of this version of school improvement. Indeed, to reformers, failure to create a “live to work” system of public education will mean that the next generation will not be able to “compete” with young people in other countries for good jobs. In particular, these education reformers believe that African-American, Hispanic, and poor children generally are most at risk if these reforms are not adopted immediately — despite the cruel fact that these tests have increased the “performance gap” between poor and middle class children. People who believe in this “reform” conception of public education insist that current state tests are absolutely necessary to help children learn what they need to know.
Many defenders of current state tests also find it morally reprehensible to break the rules, even if the rules support a broken system. To be an agent of change, and seek to be in favor of a better system is considered wrong and virtually un-American to these people. The system is what it is, and everyone should be quiet and obey the rules. Our founding fathers, who were patriots, would have had a hard time understanding why they risked their lives to establish our democracy if they believed that adherence to the official way of doing things could not be challenged. We would suspect that the likes of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson would do far more than simply opt-out of tests.
People who reject these ideas believe they have no other way to express their dislike of this conception of public education than to deny reformers the “data” needed to keep education reforms moving ahead, by refusing to have their children take these tests. The governor and the Legislature have ignored the deeply felt beliefs of hundreds of thousands of parents who believe that public education is too complex, and too important to the future of their children, to be characterized adequately by a wooden, mechanical conception of childhood development.
They believe that education must be more than the crimped enterprise of getting young people ready for future jobs that may well not even materialize. People who “opt” their children out of these tests believe that public education should not deny young people broad exposure to the deep intellectual and moral heritage of modern democratic society; it should not dismiss local traditions of providing community service; it should not ignore the immense variety among young people’s interests, abilities and needs. Underlying the “opt-out” movement is the belief that there are many highly successful school systems around the state that have taught children to read, write and learn mathematics at the highest levels for decades, while also providing these children with serious exposure to science, history, various arts, athletics and a host of meaningful community experiences. Underlying the “opt-out” movement is recognition of the reality that helping poor children cannot be done by testing them. Underlying the “opt-out” movement is the belief that teachers by and large have contributed greatly to the high-level achievements of countless public school students. Underlying the “opt-out” movement is the belief that a simplistic and suffocating approach to improving education is bad for children — all of them. People who reject these “reform” ideas wonder why the reformers themselves send their children to private schools that work more or less the way hundreds of successful public schools work.
Heated conflict over whether state tests ought to be taken is a proxy conflict for another, deeper, conflict over the best way to raise children, and over the kind of society we want children to live in. Until SED, the Legislature and the governor are ready to have a serious discussion about how to support families and communities in raising children to thrive in a democratic and prosperous future, parents who object vehemently to current ideas about the best way to “reform” public education will have little choice but to deny the reformers’ education “machine” the fuel it needs to function — test scores.
Steven Cohen (left) is the superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River School District. David Gamberg is the superintendent of the Greenport and Southold School Districts.