When my first child got to third grade, our state’s standardized tests drove me a little mad. I hated that their abilities were reduced to data points and that the numbers could be used against our public school teachers, their principal, and our district. I hated the stress that EOG (end-of-grade) tests caused, and how preparing for them took over the academic calendar.
I joined my state’s opt-out group on Facebook. (It’s still active.) As fourth grade rolled along, I encouraged my parent friends to opt out. If enough of us did, the data would be meaningless and the state would have to give up. This all made sense in my mind, so I was thrown when one mom said that she respected testing, knew that her son would do well, and would be upset if the state discontinued it.
Still convinced that testing was poison for my own kiddos, I opted my kid out in fourth and fifth grade. (And I sent them to school in an anti-testing T-shirt — what a pill I was!) Then I opted out my second-born when he hit third grade. But something happened: My youngest got furious. It turned out, he liked testing (and still does, at age 17). Meanwhile, my eldest entered a middle school full of striving minority families hell-bent on testing into our city’s best high schools. Testing, for them, was a lifeline to a brighter future.
I was forced to take a step back from my “testing = bad” mindset and consider other opinions.
The Case for Opting Out
If testing causes your child undue stress, or your child has an issue such as dyslexia that makes a timed test a living nightmare, then putting your child through testing feels like cold, hard punishment that they don’t deserve. My feeling? Opt them out. How you do it might vary from state to state and there is a lot of misinformation, including principals who will tell you “you can’t opt out of these tests,” which is rarely true but an easy line for them to say. (Here is some general advice for how to opt out.)
The argument that “learning to take tests young” is important for the high-school years no longer holds water. Colleges and universities increasingly recognize that standardized tests are biased. Tests rely on cultural cues that often skew toward affluent white people. In addition, it’s the privileged who can afford expensive test prep, the cost of taking multiple SAT and ACT tests, and private tutors. Many top institutions are now test-optional including Stanford and Harvard. An increasing number of colleges are even test-blind, meaning they refuse to look at test scores at all — and that includes every school in the University of California (UC) system.
The Case for Embracing Testing
Leave it to parenting to show you another side. Along came my second child, who tackles tests the way my husband embraces the New York Times Crossword. He’s a painful perfectionist who will often not turn in an essay rather than risk turning in something he deems subpar. But he can answer multiple-choice questions very accurately. You can, as they say, “measure his potential” through standardized testing, which made him attractive to middle schools, got him his choice of high schools, and which may be the reason he’s gotten into four colleges even though his pandemic grades are kinda trash. His AP scores and SAT look good. Standardized tests have saved him.
He’s also a white kid, his school administers the SAT to every junior through PTA funds, and he’s had access to test prep and tutoring. In my mind, he exemplifies why testing is so biased. Yet in his school’s Facebook group, there are many minority parents, primarily Asian-Americans, rallying to keep testing in place, at every level of education. Their kids have had to learn English as a second language, the parents argue, and instead of spending weekends on screens they’ve taken supplemental math courses. The kids’ hard-won test scores give them vital access to merit scholarships and more.
Ten years ago I thought that preaching anti-test rhetoric was only going to help minorities. But now I see that for some, testing is a ticket. It’s proof that their kids have worked hard. It’s a number that shows that even though they live toward the poverty line, their kids deserve a chance. You bet those families will be showing colleges their SAT scores, and I don’t blame them.
We Hate Tests, and Then We Quote Tests
Though I hate tests, I am a journalist who points to them when reporting on education. How would we have known how far math scores dropped during the pandemic if not for standardized tests? Or that there’s an alarming reading crisis after two years of remote learning?
It would be hypocritical of me to say that standardized testing should be banned, and then to demand that the government have a way to measure the effects of something like COVID on our schools. Clearly, such tests help the country pinpoint where we are and where we need to be.
What Experts Say
Beth Sneyd, assessment and data coordinator at Compass Charter Schools in Thousand Oaks, California, says parents should realize that “standardized tests” don’t necessarily look today like they did in the past.
“We are many years beyond the static tests — the paper booklets and Scantron bubble sheets — when every student in the same grade took the same test. Now, we have computer-adaptive assessments that shift and adapt based on whether the student answers the question correctly. These are not standardized tests. Two students in the same grade could sit next to each other and never see the same question in the same order. Every student will have a unique order of questions individually suited to them,” she explains. “In fact, the only standardized part of state assessments in today’s schools are the directions and scoring.”
These tests aren’t used for “high-stakes decisions, such as grade-level promotion (matriculation) or course grades,” at least not at her school. Rather, they’re used as an “aggregated indicator” to help determine if the curriculum needs to be adjusted and if the student needs more support.
So, what happens when parents opt their kids out?
Says Sneyd, “First, we don’t procure that data, which doesn’t allow us to have multiple data points to measure progress and growth. When the data points are reduced, the data isn’t as reliable and random errors are more prevalent. Second, we lose the ability to respond to and support the student because we don’t have the indicator (assessment score) that they are struggling. Third and most importantly, the student loses out on the opportunity to accomplish a difficult task. We must stop removing surmountable barriers from our children. They can do difficult things! This is how they build resilience. This is how they learn test-taking strategies.”
Chris Ajemian, founder and CEO of the private education consultancy group CATES, agrees that standardized testing helps students develop critical skills.
“Over the past few years, the public conversation has tended to focus on the negatives of standardized testing. There’s no denying that standardized tests can be nerve-wracking for kids. But provided that they have the right support from parents and educators, this is a good thing. It’s all about mindset,” he says. “Whether we’re talking about the state tests that many kids take in elementary and middle school or college exams like the SAT and ACT, if you look at the tests as an unhelpful or unfair impediment to your kids’ success, that’s exactly what they will become.”
As an educator, Ajemian encourages his students to look at testing as a challenge that will help them grow. And, as a parent, he’s seen firsthand how the testing can be beneficial. “The additional data points provided by the tests have been invaluable in supporting their learning and personal growth — both when the results are positive and negative.”
If I had written an essay about kids and standardized tests ten years ago, I would have had one strong point of view. Twenty years and one pandemic into parenting, my mind is muddled. Or perhaps I am more clear-headed. I don’t even know anymore!
I would never want to see “mandatory” testing. But I am grateful for how testing has helped many students, one of my own included, and for how it’s helped give us a big picture of how American kids are doing.