Standardized testing becomes a gnarly topic for parents and educators.

In March, Gov. Jack Markell announced an initiative aimed at addressing testing in Delaware schools. Prior to the announcement, he visited classrooms at William Penn High School to highlight work being done by educators as they implement the Common Core standards, including by integrating technology into lessons.

Opting in, or opting out?

Few tests are popular, but state standardized testing has recently pushed some Kent Countians over the edge. More and more parents are deciding their kids can “opt out” and decline to participate in them.

Supporters of the opt-out movement say the tests are ineffective assessment tools and detract from other forms of learning. Its critics, meanwhile, say the tests are well-vetted and are a vital tool in assessing areas of greatest need.

Whatever the case, the debate has now made it to the legislative floor in Dover in the form of HB50, commonly known as the “opt-out bill”, which would secure parents’ right to opt their kids out of testing.

Sponsored by Rep. John Kowalko and Sen. David Lawson, the bill passed the House on May 7 and is up for a Senate vote on June 3.

With the bill midway through the legislative process, Kent County SUNDAY has spoken with local parents, teachers and state administrators to hear their arguments for and against opting out.

Sen. David Lawson
HB50 and a parent’s right to opt out

Common Core comes with a plethora of concerning components, the biggest one being the Smarter Balance assessment. This system was put in place before the legislature even voted to fund it and now it is being forced upon students at a critical time in their education. Smarter Balance is a test created by a for-profit company that makes money on every test that is given. The assessment places unnecessary stress on students and takes the place of meaningful instruction time in the classroom for an entire week. Within the last two months of a student’s junior year, they take the Component V Post Test, AP tests, in-school SATs, Smarter Balance exams, the US History DCAS exam, and finals.

If the SATs are supposed to determine whether a student is college or career ready, then what does the Smarter Balance assessment reveal that the SATs do not? How are students supposed to study for AP exams (which can lead to college credits), the SATs (which can determine acceptance into colleges and universities), and finals (which determine a student’s final grade and GPA for the year) all at the same time? During such a critical time in a student’s education, a parent/guardian should have the right to determine whether or not the Smarter Balance assessment would be beneficial or detrimental to their child’s future.

House Bill 50 would give parents/guardians the legal right to make this decision. Currently, there is nothing in the regulation that states a parent/guardian cannot opt out their student from taking this assessment. However, many parents/guardians fear retribution by the district or Department of Education should they choose to do so. This is where House Bill 50 comes in. This bill codifies parental/guardian rights and forbids any retribution against the student. This bill encourages family involvement in a child’s education by giving parents/guardians the opportunity to discuss with their child whether or not taking the Smarter Balance assessment is the best choice for them.

The government does not know what is right for each individual student. The view from 30,000 feet up is much different than the view from the ground. Each student’s situation is different and should be treated as such. This is a time where the government needs to take a step back and let the decision be in the hands of those who it affects the most. - David Lawson represents Marydel in the state senate

Sec. Mark Murphy
Opting out fails the test

Measuring the progress our children make in school is essential for providing teachers, parents, taxpayers, and leaders throughout the state with honest, objective information about whether they are learning the skills and gaining the knowledge they need to be successful now and in the future – not just in their classroom, or in their school, but also relative to their peers across the state and the country. 

These assessment results tell us whether students, particularly our students with the most challenges and needs, are falling behind, and whether they need extra resources and support to succeed.

That is the main reason why I oppose HB 50, the so-called “opt out” bill. The fewer students who take the assessments, the less accurate the information they provide about our schools and our districts.

This is also a civil rights issue. That’s why civil rights groups in Delaware and across the country, including the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund, La Raza, the National Urban League, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, all support annual assessments for all children. That is because assessments show the learning needs of students from low income backgrounds, students of color and students with disabilities. Assessments of their progress show that these students often need more resources and support. Without the assessment information, that support could disappear.

I understand that some parents and teachers think there is too much unnecessary testing in our schools at all grade levels.  That’s why we are conducting an inventory of all school, district, and state tests, so we can eliminate those assessments we don’t need to help our children. 

But taking tests is an essential part of school. No matter what we are learning, we want to know if we’re making progress and where we need to work harder. 

The Smarter Balanced assessments in English language arts and mathematics, in particular, measure what’s worth learning: how well students understand what they read, how well they can communicate what they know and their ability to use what they know in mathematics to solve problems. These are the skills our students will need as they go onto college or into the careers of the 21st century.

That’s why our great Delaware teachers are emphasizing these skills in their classrooms and that’s why we replaced the one we gave previously with one that respects the current efforts of our teachers and students.

These are not bubble-in tests that require students to memorize information that they forget as soon as the test is over. The “smarter” assessments have been designed, tested and validated according to the highest standards, including a national field test with more than 4.2 million students.

Additionally, state assessments unlock benefits for our students at our colleges and universities, as well as at nearly 200 others around the country.  Our higher education leaders are accepting proficient performance on the state assessment as another way that students can show they are ready for  college, fast tracking them into credit bearing coursework, and saving them – and their parents – and our taxpayers – significant amounts of money

Opting out of assessments, or allowing opting out, is not good for students, their teachers, or their schools. - Mark Murphy is Delaware Secretary of Education

Yvonne Johnson
The Truth about Parent Opt Out and HB50

The increased momentum of the parent opt out movement in Delaware has resulted in an increase of misinformation regarding the purpose, intent and implications of HB 50. Delaware PTA supports HB 50 and a parent’s right to choose. This was a decision that was voted on and supported by our Board of Managers after months of research and community outreach among various stakeholders throughout the state.

Delaware PTA is not encouraging any family to opt out of the state assessment. We do not believe it is our place to make such an important decision on behalf of thousands of Delaware families. We believe that this fundamental right is reserved for the family. Our goal in advocating for HB 50 and the parent opt out is to ensure that every family has the ability to make that decision, free of coercion, intimidation and fear of reprisal from their district and the state of Delaware. Current state code does not contain any language that prohibits the parent/guardians from opting their student out of the state assessment. Many school and district officials have already confirmed that they cannot and will not force a student to participate in the assessment. HB 50 simply codifies this.

Delaware PTA is not, and never has been anti-assessment. We support standardized tests, if they are limited, developmentally appropriate and provide useful instructional feedback. The Smarter Balanced Assessment does none of this. Assessments, regardless of which one is used, have to be judged against their intended uses. The SBAC was not designed to meet the needs of students and teachers; it was designed to meet the needs of the state, to allow state level and inter-consortia comparisons of student performance.

We all want to see reductions in the achievement gap. For years, Delaware PTA and other stakeholders have worked tirelessly to advocate for an increase in supports and services for at risk students. We know that the solution to this problem is not more testing. Our public schools are being destroyed by the negative effects from annual high-stakes testing, which include less creative and engaging schooling; the de-professionalization of teachers and teaching; the reduction of teaching of the arts, music, social studies, and science; and the continued intimidation of our parents and teachers.

Parents are not opting out because the test is “too hard”. Parents are opting out because this overly subjective assessment provides no value to the student or teacher. The test results are not available until after the academic year has ended and students are losing valuable instruction time. Parents want meaningful assessments that produce accurate and valid data on how their student is performing. They want feedback that allows them to work with the teachers to support student learning and growth. Parents support HB 50 because they want teachers to teach and students to learn. - Yvonne Johnson is the Delaware PTA VP of Advocacy

Alissa Schubert
There is no opt out in life

As a parent, I am responsible for the well-being of my children. I am—and will continue to be—their strongest supporter and fiercest defender when it comes to their educational needs.

And while I respect the rights of other parents to make different decisions for their children, I disagree with the spirit of the “opt-out movement.”

I understand some of the criticisms lobbed at the Smarter Balanced assessment. The test is tough, and the new standards are hard. My children’s schoolwork already reflects the higher standards.

But what kind of message are we sending to our children if we tell them that it’s okay to skip over life’s challenges? Aren’t we as parents supposed to build our kids’ confidence and prepare them for the real world by encouraging them to meet challenges head-on with hard work and determination?

The opt-out crowd might say that’s fine—that I’m free to opt my child in to standardized testing just as they’re free to opt out. But where does opting out ultimately get us? I fail to see the value in scores of kids refusing to take a test. Are we trying to dismantle testing altogether? To usher in a new test? To protest the current administration? And how are the students taking the test supposed to feel when half of their classmates decide to skip it?

Tests not only show how our kids are doing, they also provide valuable information to teachers and administrators that can inform their decisions. They show us which schools need more help and resources. Are we trying to deny the data that shows if a school is meeting expectations and providing a quality education to our kids? Or trying to hide those schools which are failing?

Parents anywhere can already prevent their children from participating in any school activity. So why pass a bill that adds another layer of disruption into the picture? To me, the crusade against Smarter Balanced and Common Core seems more like a political protest disguised as a grassroots “parents’ rights” movement. All of the bickering between union leaders and lawmakers has trapped parents and kids in the middle. And it’s getting louder and more aggressive each day.

If there are problems with the tests, then let’s work together to fix them. If parents are upset, I urge them to research both sides of the issue.

Call me crazy, but I want to know how well my kid is doing in compared to their peers in Delaware and throughout the country. I want to know that they can meet challenges like these tests present. I want to know well our school is preparing its students.

In life, we must be up for the challenge— we don’t get to opt out.

Alissa Schubert works in media relations with the Delaware Charter Schools Network