The Intersection

Opting Out of Tests? More to it Than Meets the Eye

April 24, 2017


It’s testing season. As we gear up for another round of pushback from the opt-out movement, here’s a story of a parent (me) who almost joined that movement, and why I launched a project supporting standardized tests as a result.

Two years ago, my 5-year-old was preparing for kindergarten. My biggest worries? The smallest things: Would he like his teacher? Find the bus? Finish his lunch? Because of where we lived and his preschool prep, worrying about academics was not on my list.

A few weeks before school started, I googled a local parent listserv and encountered a phrase I’d never heard of – “opt out.” The fervor of the online conversation scared me.  Was something insidious threatening to strip away the carefree existence I envisioned for my son in his early years of school? Tests, stress, no recess, no art classes? I became so  concerned that I researched whether my state allowed me to opt out of tests. I was on the opt-out bandwagon before my kid’s chubby little legs had a chance to climb the school bus steps for the first time.

Fast-forward a few months. I did what all parents do: I asked what experience my fellow moms and dads had with tests. I was met with puzzled looks or a collective shrug. “It’s a fact of life,” they said. “Deal with it. Put a good face on it and treat it as a life lesson.” So I let the opt-out thing go.

But I was still troubled by a few questions: How had I had so easily believed that tests were going to ruin my kid? What was the value of standardized tests? Didn’t this all boil down to simply another way to know how our kids are doing?

To answer these questions, I launched “How is My Kid Doing?”, a project that captures the voices of real-life parents who offer a much-needed counter perspective to the online opt-out narrative. There is a loud, vocal minority of parents talking about why you should opt-out. But where is the silent majority who asks what is at stake if you do?

I hired a filmmaker and put him on a plane to travel across the country to talk to parents and find out more. And here’s where things got interesting. The narrative that emerged was a powerful conversation about the effects of opt-out on communities of color.

As you probably know, civil rights organizations were early backers of standardized tests (if you want to know more, look here, here, and here). Why? One reason—echoed by virtually every family of color we interviewed—is that parents want to know how their kids are doing and, just as important, how well their schools and teachers are teaching their kids.

In these communities, following decades of unequal education, a legacy of skepticism leads parents to continue to question whether the education system will do right by their kids. Being able to compare their school against those in different neighborhoods, districts, or states allows parents to truly know how their kids are doing. And standardized tests, for all their flaws and challenges, are key to comparing the proverbial apples to apples.

We learned two things: First, standardized testing is inextricably linked to broader issues of poverty and inequality; parents bring up fears about everything from their child’s literal survival to broader concerns about inequity. Second, it’s possible—indeed, common—for parents to acknowledge obstacles to their child’s learning and yet to support standardized tests. (Watch a 2-minute conversation that took place a few months ago in Buffalo, New York.)

What How is My Kid Doing teaches me is that no one—not a single parent that we spoke with—wants to talk solely about standardized testing. It is hard to get a parent to focus on the value of standardized tests without first acknowledging (and letting them talk about) the inequities that exist in the education system, and in life. But if you can do that, and have a meaningful dialogue, all parents want to know how their kids are doing. And many acknowledge the light that testing can shine—if done right—on the inequities they face in schools.

On May 1, we’re releasing a 20-minute film that captures some of the places and families that we’ve visited around the country. If you’re interested in hearing how they view education, testing, and opportunity, visit on May 1 to view the video, or sign up for our newsletter here to get occasional updates.

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