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Six thoughts about the opt-out movement


True story:

Last week, the 16-year-old daughter of friends came home from a Minneapolis public school with a form that would allow her to opt out of the upcoming state standardized test.

According to the girl, her 10th-grade English teacher had handed out the forms to everyone in class and had urged them to get their parents to sign it. The teacher said that if enough students opted out of the Minnesota Comprehensive Exams, eventually the state would stop giving them. He also said he’d conduct regular classes for everyone opting out, leaving the impression that those who took the test would fall behind.

“Please,” the girl pleaded, “Everyone else is opting out.”

My friend said no. He thinks the state should annually assess how students are doing. So his daughter appealed to his wife, who also said no. Three hours of high drama, tears and anxiety ensued, after which the mom caved in and signed.

So that’s the little tale behind one opt-out family. Six quick points:

1)I don’t blame the 16-year-old. Who wouldn’t want to opt out of a long standardized test — especially when your own teacher urges you to skip it and implies that you’ll fall behind in class if you don’t?

2)I don’t blame the mom, either, because honestly, unless you’ve been besieged for hours by a teenage daughter, you really can’t judge. Teens in full meltdown make Guantanamo interrogators look like amateurs. I’m surprised this mom held out for three full hours.

3)I do blame this teacher and others who urge their students to opt out. Can we be real here? Much of this recent movement has been organized and funded by the teachers unions, who seem to have a clear goal in mind. Namely, dumping the evidence.

Ever since passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, the feds and the state have required annual testing in grades three through eight and then once during high school. The results show how our schools are horribly failing black and brown children who now make up the majority in many of our cities. Alas, Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.

Granted, poverty plays a huge role and we need to end it. But there are two more ways of getting rid of the gap.

Option No. 1:We can change our schools to better fit the needs of students in the 21st century.

Option No. 2:We can stop collecting the incriminating data. No evidence. No gap. No need to change a thing.

I can see why the teachers unions like Option No. 2, since this group is notoriously resistant to change. So let’s stop pretending this is all about the terrors of testing and the loss of childhood and creativity, etc., because —

4)Historically, teachers have never had a problem with so-called “high-stakes” or “high-stress” testing. Hell, this is the profession that invented the dreaded final exam and surprise pop-quiz. Nor is standardized testing something new. The SAT exams were introduced in 1926. The Iowa Basic Skills Test, which even I, an ancient crone, took back in my elementary days, was first administered in 1935.

So why the new fuss? I think the real catalyst is the recent Minnesota law that requires 35 percent of a teacher’s job evaluation to be based on students’ academic growth, some of which can be measured by standardized test scores. The law went into effect last fall and — surprise, surprise — come spring we have teachers organizing students to opt out of testing.

5)There’s something really off about a teacher urging his students to opt out of the very exam the state uses to measure the teacher’s job performance. I mean, if the guy is so worried about his students being stressed by tests, he could dump one of his own exams. Or he could urge his students to opt out of a different standardized test. But, no, he chose the one test the state uses to measure both teacher and school performance. It’s sort of like a doctor urging his patients to forgo blood pressure tests because he doesn’t want to be evaluated on their health outcomes.

6)The state currently pays about $14,000 per pupil per year for students to attend Minneapolis Public Schools. All three of my kids went to MPS, so thank you, fellow taxpayers. But we’re talking no small chunk of change here. Statewide, K-12 spending takes up 42 percent of the state’s general fund. So I think the state, i.e., We The People, have both a right and a responsibility to assess how students — and their schools and their teachers — are doing.

Why not skip the bubble tests and simply trust a teacher’s own assessments, as some teachers have urged? Because too many kids have received straight A’s only to flunk college entrance exams. Others have been tracked to low-ability groups only to ace standardized tests. We use standardized tests for a reason.

Do I support overtesting, endless test prep, and getting rid of art, music or gym? Nope. I’m happy to stand with teachers and parents and fight all of those things. But if that 10th-grade English teacher doesn’t want his students to take a state standardized test, he should stop taking state money. Go work for a private school. Ditto for parents who are opting out.

—-Lynnell Mickelsen

This piece also appeared as commentary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on March 24

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8 thoughts on “Six thoughts about the opt-out movement

    Mark says: March 24, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Well said.

    Scott Werdahl says: March 24, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    If you want to be taken seriously as an education advocate, you ought to go straight to the source to base your commentary you proclaim as a “true story” as well as provide your readers with credible premises so that they can come to some logical conclusions. Your commentary titled “Six Thoughts About the Opt-Out Movement” criticizes a teacher, teacher unions, and apparently an unnamed Minneapolis public high school.

    Instead, you rely wholly on what a 10th grade English teacher told a class, which included a16 year old girl student, who then told her parents what the teacher said and did, who subsequently then told you because they are friends of yours. We all know that sometimes when things are told to people, especially to teenagers, what was actually said in context produces variances in what was actually heard. This is called hearsay.

    Nowhere in your commentary do you mention that you ever spoke to the teacher. Have you ever met the teacher or directly approached the school administrators to get more of the story? We don’t know, but that could have been germane to your commentary. Researching your background readers should know that you are not a certified teacher. You’re a professional reporter and have a Masters degree in journalism, which is surprising. Surprising because getting the facts and sourcing the truth is one of the first lessons taught in 10th grade Journalism. Unfortunately your commentary doesn’t promote constructive education advocacy at all, nor does it do your professional credibility any favors.

      Lynnell Mickelsen says: March 26, 2015 at 9:46 am

      Hi Scott: If it was just one anecdote, I would have followed up. But lots and lots of parents were reporting the same story from their kids. The school is promoting opt-out forms in its weekly email home to parents. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has an opt-out form on its website. No one from the school has contacted me and said, “Wait. This didn’t happen.” So in this case, I feel pretty confident about the material. In general, though, I agree with you about contacting both sides and representing both arguments.

    Alan says: March 31, 2015 at 12:37 am

    Nuance. Digging into the details. Thoughtful analysis. Please pick one before casting stones. It is so easy to point fingers and speak in easy generalities (we need to “fix” poverty, standardized test scores reflect a teacher’s quality, unions want to “dump the evidence” . . .), but this lazy approach doesn’t actually advance anything. You may make the other armchair “reformers” nod their heads in righteous agreement, but you alienate the people who actually do the work every day. There are perfectly valid reasons to question the efficacy, or morality, or practicality of the MCAs, but you didn’t bother to ask.

    Bill Soderholm says: April 1, 2015 at 8:54 am

    The tests we are using are useless.
    The test regularly changes and the way data is used would cause a 7th Grade Science student to fail in my class.
    I have seen data used comparing scores with two differently scaled graphs and other statistical nightmares.
    The only test that has remained consistent over time is the NAEP test. It is statistically more valid as we don’t practice it. We are not manipulating it constantly.
    In spite of the myth that our schools are failing, NAEP scores have gone up steadily for many, many, many years.
    Do yourselves a favor and look it up.
    NAEP scores are: “Advanced”, “Proficient”, “Basic”, and “Below Basic”.
    A couple of facts:
    In 2011 2/3 of
    American 4th grade students were reading at or above “Basic”.
    34% were “Proficient” which is equivalent to an “A”
    3/4 of American 8th graders were above basic.
    I could go on but those who want to see failure will do so, those who care to already know.

    Alan says: April 1, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    My previous response is apparently “still awaiting moderation.” That’s okay — go ahead and delete it.

    Simply put:
    1. After 25 years with middle-schoolers, I sometimes find myself in despair when I’m trying to lead an in-depth discussion but discover that students don’t yet understand the basics. I sigh, summon my patience, and go back to the beginning.

    2. I don’t like having that feeling when I read the newspaper. Nothing personal, I’m just disappointed that the depth of the discussion is still at this elementary stage. (Specifically, 1. blame the union; 2. blithely blow off poverty as a side issue to be “fixed;” 3. assume that opposition to MCAs is based on craven self-interest.)

    3. Many of us in the business regularly have in-depth, serious, passionate conversations about these issues. We are beyond the basics, though, so if you want to join in, you’ll have to do some catching up. We’d love to have you.

    4. Nothing is accomplished when we flippantly assume the worst about each other (except that you get your essay published in the newspaper).

    Whydad says: April 6, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    In NY, we’ve noticed parents advocating for teachers to speak directly with students and parents about opting out tests. In fact we ran several articles describing the emerging movement (they called it a gag order in NY) and how wrong it would be. It is odd that you didn’t identify what we suggested would happen should it be allowed – a strong possibility of fear and intimidation being introduced. Your story seems to confirm the problem.

    Alan Husby says: April 13, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    I’m disappointed that you decided to delete my comments instead of responding. If you were offended by my critique, please consider that’s the same effect your op-ed piece had on me. This is my passion and my livelihood. Why are you in this?


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