Thursday, March 19, 2015

Why Not Opt In? - by David Torrence, Assistant Principal of Greenville Senior High School

There is a small but noisy movement trying to convince parents and students to “opt-out” of, or in other words, refuse to participate in Ohio’s new testing program for Ohio elementary, middle school, and high school students. As a high school administrator, I am hoping that every student in the state will opt IN, and do the best they can on every test they have the opportunity to take.

The primary reason students should take the various tests being given over the next four weeks is that these tests will help to improve the public education system in Ohio. With the data to be gathered from these tests, high school administrators like me will be able to see just what kind of learning is happening in not only our building but across our district on a yearly basis. We will be able to identify strong students, and those who might need extra help. We will be able to identify teachers who seem to do an above-average job with some concepts, and those who may need assistance teaching others. Families who ask their children to not take these tests will be working to prevent the data from helping their own children, and those of every parent in the District.

There are those who say that these kinds of tests are an unfair measure of a students’ ability. They claim that any “one time” test is bound to be unfair to some number of students, possibly all students. I would suggest that, by and large, this argument is an empty one. People undertake any number of “one-time tests” every day. These tests range from the mundane (“Did I make sure the change I received was correct?”) to demanding (“Did I earn my license to practice medicine?”). Most people pass their tests with flying colors, and we generally tie their success to their ability to learn and use information. That is why people are tested – to prove that they have learned some valued set of tools and information, and that they can use them successfully. But yes, some people do fail their tests. And while a small percentage of those who fail vow never to be tested again, the vast majority of people resolve to work harder, prepare better, and to succeed the next time they are tested.

There is no place where people face more “one-time” tests than public school. From the “Chapter One Exam” to the Semester Exam to the Final Exam at the end of the course, schools give test after test after test. As I said, it’s how we determine if our students have learned the information we’ve given them, and how we learn if our students can use that information. NOT testing if students have learned these things would be an injustice to students, because we would not know if our students had truly learned what we asked them to learn.

Are there concerns about the system? Of course there are. There are very good reasons to oppose not allowing a student more than one chance to demonstrate their understanding of and ability to use information. There are valid concerns that the questions being asked, or the answers being expected, or the rubrics used to grade writing on these tests do not accurately reflect either the standards being instructed or a student’s understanding of the material. There are legitimate concerns about how the data resulting from these tests could be interpreted wrongly to punish students, teachers, or entire school districts. These are not “problems with the test”, however – they are problems having to do with the transparency surrounding how the tests are created, administered, and scored, as well as how the data is to be interpreted and evaluated. To address these concerns, however, the tests have to be administered and taken in good faith by all schools.

“Opting out” of the tests will not provide any basis for improving the testing system, nor will it help educators learn about the strengths and weaknesses of their teaching styles or strategies. “Opting out” will not help educators determine if the manner in which the tests are administered has a negative effect on student performance. “Opting out” will not cause legislators to consider changing or eliminating the testing system. But “opting out” could be held against students when they try to graduate. “Opting out” might prevent a District, or a building, or a teacher from learning something about how they are working with students. And “opting out” could lead to the State Legislature or the Federal Government to punish a district as a whole by withholding financial support which would be used to help all students in a District.

The better course is to “opt IN”, and encourage students to not only take the tests being given, but to do the best they can. This should be followed by demands that the State Legislature make available everything having to do with the test – from test questions to answer keys to grading rubrics. Let there be conversation about the way questions are asked, the material covered, and the manner in which answers were interpreted. Let the process evolve and grow and develop over time into one that we can all believe is a fair and accurate measure of student achievement. This way, every community can know what is being done to help educate students – and what needs yet to be done to do so with the highest degrees of quality and success

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