High Opt-Out Rates, Accountability, and Choice

It’s been a while since we’ve had to talk about testing and/or opt outs. I bet you’ve enjoyed that break as much as I have. Sadly, though, the break’s over. I saw an article this morning that I feel compelled to pontificate about, and so pontificate I shall. If the thought of another testing-related blog post makes you feel physically ill, I won’t judge you for excusing yourself now.

I opened my email this morning (yes, five-year-olds have email) to discover a story from Chalkbeat Colorado about how low state test participation rates have called school and district ratings into question. From that article:

State education department officials putting together the latest annual school quality ratings have flagged more than half of the state’s districts and one-third of its schools for test participation below the federally required minimum of 95 percent. The ratings are preliminary, and districts and schools may appeal before they are finalized this winter.

While districts that fell below that participation mark will not face negative consequences under Colorado law, state officials are urging the public to proceed with caution in considering ratings in places with high testing opt-out rates.

Some school leaders and advocates are crying foul, however, arguing that it’s irresponsible to rate schools based on incomplete data. Meanwhile, longtime critics of the ratings are seizing on the development to renew calls to reform the system.

In other words, low participation on state tests—largely driven by the opt-out movement—are making it difficult to see how, exactly, some public schools and districts in Colorado are performing. That situation raises a number of problems, the largest of which is the fact that it either calls into question or completely obscures what some parts of a $10.5 billion government enterprise that soaks up more than 20 percent of the state’s overall budget and nearly 40 percent of the state’s general fund are actually producing. It also negatively affects parental choice; it’s tough to pick the right school for your child when you either can’t see or can’t trust the academic information about that school. And, of course, there are peripheral consequences. School and district quality play a big role in determining property values, attracting people to an area, and growing local economies.

In fairness, I’m fully supportive of parents being able to opt their students out of standardized testing if they really want to do that. It’s not government’s job to force parents to do things they strongly disagree with. But what worries me is that, as I’ve written before, the opt-out movement is no longer really about parental freedom. In point of fact, I’m not completely sure it ever has been.

I wrote a post back in April—right in the middle of standardized testing season—wondering aloud what the opt-out movement actually is. Sadly, I think the obvious conclusion at this stage is that it is an openly anti-reform movement first, with parental freedom and sovereignty taking a very distant second-place position. From my previous post:

After the passage of ESSA, and major reductions in Colorado testing last year both legislatively and on the provider side of the equation, the opt-out movement should be declaring victory, patting backs, and moving on. But that isn’t what’s happening. Instead, the movement is shifting its messaging, attempting to build even more momentum, and preparing for another round of battle. That begs the question: What are we opting out of, exactly?

Many people’s gut reaction will probably be “PARCC.” Fair enough. I’ve been pretty open about my general dislike for the test, especially given the logistical headaches it has caused, the apparent inability of the test to produce useful information in a timely fashion, and the fact that it has become the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb. My policy friends Ben DeGrow and Ross Izard have publicly advocated for the state to move away from this particular instrument, and I think that’s probably a good idea….

… But that’s an entirely different argument than the one being made by major opt-out groups like United Opt Out, which now bills itself as “The Movement to End Corporate Education Reform.” That mission is an awful lot broader than testing, and covers unspeakable evils like charter schools, school ratings, private school choice, tenure reform, and pay for performance.

More and more, it seems that the organized opt-out movement is becoming an outright anti-reform movement. It’s not really about opting out of tests anymore. It’s about opting out of reform entirely.

Of course, somewhere behind all of that nastiness stand the teachers unions. Sensing an opportunity to undermine things they hate—stronger teacher evaluations, school ratings, performance-based personnel decisions, etc.—both NEA and AFT have voiced some level of support for opt outs. NEA even offers a field guide for opt-outers (neologism?) that includes model policies and advocacy tips.  Here in Colorado, the Colorado Education Association likes to remind us that teachers and students are “more than a score.” You know, in case we forgot.

I still believe PARCC—not the idea of standardizing testing itself—is a big part of the problem here. Americans overwhelmingly still support the idea of regular standardized testing, and this level of anti-testing angst didn’t exist back in the TCAP era. Don’t believe me? Check out the CDE graph from the last ESSA Hub Committee meeting below. Further, the heaviest concentration of opt outs is in older grades, with most lower grades meeting or nearly meeting the magical 95 percent participation threshold. One would expect to see a more even distribution of opt outs across grade levels if we were looking at a true cultural shift among parents overall. One might even expect opt outs to be higher among younger children whose parents are worried about “subjecting” them to standardized testing.

But the fact that everyone hates PARCC (and, really, anything attached to Common Core) can’t fully explain what’s going on. To do that, you’ve got to take into account the motivations underlying the opt-out movement.

I want to be clear here. When I refer to the “opt-out movement,” I am not referring to every parent who decided to opt his or her children out of state testing. As I’ve already said, those parents get to make their own choices based on what they feel is best for their children, and I fully support their right to make those choices even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. Rather, I am referring to the folks and organizations driving this whole endeavor, the people who designed it and guided it to fruition. I believe that the very deliberate core goal of these folks has always been to blow up reform, accountability systems, and educational choice. Yet those who oppose the notion of holding schools accountable, reporting results, and facilitating informed choice are smart enough to know that a full-on frontal assault on these popular notions would be unwise. So they took another path. They set about dismantling them piece by piece from within. They attacked nuts and bolts, focusing their fire at the ankles rather than the necks of these ideas.

Sadly, the Chalkbeat article this morning reminded me that this strategy has worked to some extent. We now have a situation where at least some parents will have to select schools in the absence of valid, reliable information on how those schools are performing. When these parents go online to look up the schools near them, they may well get a big ol’ internet question mark in place of actionable information that could help them make the best choices for their children. Even if they can find the data they’re looking for, they won’t be sure if they can trust it.

Meanwhile, school board members, parents, taxpayers, and other interested parties will find it difficult to meaningfully gauge the impact of various policies or point out areas that need attention. Taxpayers in affected areas will have to simply take schools’ and districts’ word for how they are performing and whether they are leveraging their resources to produce results and do right by students—a dubious proposition in many instances. No doubt many schools and districts will do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. But—and forgive me for my cynicism here—I strongly suspect that a good many others will not. That is, after all, how we wound up in this particular Gordian knot to begin with.

But maybe I’m being unfair. Perhaps all of this disruption is really designed to “force a change” in the way Colorado handles accountability. Maybe it is the case that opt-out leaders really just want us to design a better, smarter way of empowering parents and holding schools accountable for their use of taxpayer money in the future. Maybe this mess is really, truly designed to help us better measure what goes on in schools beyond reading, writing, and math. If so, count me in. I’d love to have those conversations.

What I would not love, however, is the notion of handing government a blank check to do as it pleases with many billions of our dollars or stripping parents of the information they need to make informed educational choices for their children. So as we try to unravel how to handle the situation caused by the opt-out movement, let’s make sure we’re having the right conversations and not inadvertently allowing anti-reform forces to hijack our state’s public education system for their own purposes.