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Another Voice: Parents opting out of testing know something that their politicians don’t

By Mark Pelham

The opt-out movement that has blossomed in recent months is fascinating. It is a superb example of citizens understanding something better than the politicians that are supposed to lead education policy. I have spent the last two years studying education policy and I have come to sincerely believe that public policy should not be built on a pedestal of technocratic theory, but rather a humble soapbox of popular opinion.

It is fair to argue that testing itself has been demonized. All sorts of complicated factors go into test preparation and design, but the basic notion of giving a test to measure performance is not that controversial. Teachers administer exams all of the time without any sort of hullabaloo. Testing is a (relatively) objective means to an end, with a desire of understanding where an individual student sits in comparison with a population of peers. Where the failure in contemporary policy and politics can be identified is what we do with the tests.

Testing has been around for many decades, but what we do with the results has fundamentally changed. For most of the 20th century, tests were diagnostic tools; a way for teachers to understand where a student is succeeding and struggling, and even providing a view for collegiate admissions officers to consider. This notion, though, has fallen to the side in favor of the perverse market objective of accountability; politicians have taken the desire for introducing accountability into the teaching profession and attached testing to these ends.

Certainly there are meaningful changes to be made with teacher evaluations, but we have turned to a solution with various flaws. When looking through the research in relation to high-stakes testing and related other models, you certainly do not find any sort of wholesale consensus for making high-stakes standardized tests the primary means of teacher and school accountability. Even for the most adamant of supporters, you will find an argument to make the tests worth about 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations.

All of this dovetails into a more philosophical argument in support of democratic and decentralized control of education. New York is taking away the power of locally elected school boards. What one may argue is an “objective measure” of teachers and schools can also be understood as technocratic and undemocratic control. In a desire to objectively measure and compare – with the altruistic goal of helping struggling schools – we are robbing communities of their local agency. This is why the opt-out movement is a just example of civil disobedience; the citizenry has realized the folly of leaders and is organizing accordingly.

Mark Pelham is a native of Western New York and graduate student in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at the Teachers College of Columbia University.