How Superintendents Can Handle Opt-Outs for Standardized Tests

Thu June 9, 2016


Opt-outs. In the past few years, they’ve made headlines in states like New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Louisiana, and New Mexico. And for many superintendents across the country, they’re becoming an increasingly pressing question. While there are numerous articles that weigh in on the opt-out movement itself, our goal is to suggest practical approaches for superintendents navigating this issue in any state or school district. For more information on both sides of the opt-out issue and specific state policies on the practice, please see the “Additional Resources” section.

1.       Enlist the help of principals and teachers, if possible

Many parents who choose to opt their children out of standardized tests believe that their child’s teacher is a better judge of his or her success than any test, and will often take their concerns about testing directly to these teachers or the child’s principal. However, many teachers and principals may themselves be frustrated with the amount of standardized testing going on. Inform them of the policy your district will be adopting well in advance — not only so they will know what to do when they start getting opt-out requests from parents, but also so they understand why.

Ask them to share this knowledge when they speak with parents. Consider providing professional development sessions for your teachers so they’re up to date on the content of the test and what they can learn from the results. Be sure they understand and can communicate why your region uses the tests it does, how teachers use their students’ results to inform instruction, and to what extent student scores are used to make grade promotion or graduation decisions.

Above all, make sure your teachers and principals know they can be invaluable in addressing parents’ concerns, but they’ll also always have your support if they need to refer a frustrated parent to someone with more knowledge or authority.

2.       Focus on clear communication with parents

Whether your district is offering an opt-out option or not, providing parents with clear information in advance is key. If your state does not permit opt-outs, be prepared to direct frustrated parents to the proper outlets for making their objections known, such as your state’s Department of Education or Association of School Boards. Even if your district will be permitting opt-outs, you should be prepared to make the case to parents on the importance of participation in testing. You can see the “Arguments Against the Opt-Out Movement” section below for ideas. If opted-out students are at school on test day, consider having them read quietly, work on independent research projects, or take part in some other supervised activity if you want to avoid backlash from requiring them to “sit-and-stare” for hours in the testing room.

Consider attending parent meetings on testing at individual schools to stay informed about parents’ biggest concerns. If you have made an effort to become a familiar face and know the questions they’re likely to have well before testing begins, communicating with parents about opting out will be much easier.

3.       Step back and evaluate

If many parents want to opt their children out in your district, it will likely spark examination of the uses and benefits of standardized testing. Take part in it. Depending on your district, there may not be much flexibility about which tests are used, but as a superintendent you do have some influence over how testing is used as part of the curriculum.

Take this opportunity to examine what happens before and after test day. Do schools in your district offer test preparation courses or build preparation into the curriculum of certain classes? If so, is the focus more on strategies for the particular test or reviewing content that will likely appear? How do the tests correlate to what students learn the rest of the year? Do they align to the College Readiness Standards or other aspects of the curriculum? When teachers receive their students’ results, do they know how to use them to pinpoint areas in which their students might need additional instruction, or is the data simply reported to the state and then tossed in a filing cabinet? When students and their families receive their results, are they aware of how teachers can use them to better target the child’s needs?

If you feel testing isn’t truly supporting instruction in your district, you have some power to change that, and to ease the concerns of families and educators alike. Informational sessions for families on how tests can provide information on college readiness and students’ instructional needs to develop core language, math, and writing skills can go a long way in the short-term. In the long run, you can ensure your district uses this information to inform instruction at the classroom level by training teachers on how test data can support the lesson-planning process, and by emphasizing skill-based test preparation that ties in with the regular curriculum, rather than teaching specifically to the mechanics of a test.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog: an in-depth look at how superintendents can explain the importance of standardized testing to parents.

Additional Resources

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