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The good and bad of all that testing

THE MOST prominent form of civil disobedience these days isn’t lying down on a highway or flying a helicopter to the Capitol. It’s refusing to take a test.

Technically, it’s letting your kids refuse to take a test: the standardized exam tied to the new Common Core curriculum standards. The “opt-out” movement, small but growing, might be America’s last bipartisan cause: hard-core progressives and die-hard conservatives, urban and suburban, rich and poor, united in common hatred.

In Massachusetts, resistance has been a minority affair — a handful of students, here and there. But opt-out rates have soared to more than 50 percent in some upscale districts in New Jersey and New York. At Rhode Island’s grittier East Providence High School, some 400 students this year boycotted PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Rhode Island State Representative Gregg Amore, who teaches social studies at the school, has introduced a bill that would give Rhode Island residents an easy path toward opting out: a letter sent home with a check-off box.

On a national level, this grass-roots pressure seems to be working. PARCC officials recently told Ohio lawmakers that they might change their testing schedule, consolidating “performance based assessments” — a set of tests given, over the span of days, in early spring — with the “end of year reviews” that are given, over the span of days, in . . . late spring.


That’s nice. But did it really occur to no one, in advance, that the schedule was absurd? Or that overzealous testing could undermine the whole ed-reform enterprise? If the opt-out movement helps impose some sanity here, it might save education officials from themselves.

The feeling that we over-test is more than just a hunch. Last fall, the Massachusetts Department of Education commissioned a study of testing practices statewide. Preliminary results are in from 35 sample districts: On average, they give two to four different assessment tests per grade level, per year — each one of them administered two or three times.


Not all of those tests look as intimidating as PARCC, which is delivered by computer, to great fanfare, in 13 states, including Massachusetts. But it’s reasonable to worry about what tests are crowding out — and where. Poorer districts tend to spend the most time on test prep, which makes sense: Low scores have big consequences for principals and teachers.

That pressure gets passed to students. That’s why Ricardo Rosa, a UMass Dartmouth education professor who leads the Massachusetts opt-out movement, came to the resistance three years ago. Rosa said his son, a sixth-grader, was coming down with the flu on an MCAS day, but felt the test was so important that he went to school anyway. When he wound up in the nurse’s office, he was told he couldn’t go home, because he had already opened his test booklet.

“The testing itself is one thing, but then you have the culture that comes along with it,” Rosa told me.

That’s what fuels the conspiracy theories, and the pitchforks aimed at the Common Core: widespread fear that this new system will harm the students it’s meant to serve. But the premature death of the Core would be a shame. The standards definitely need some tweaking — and likely, so do the tests — but they’re at heart a good idea. They encourage critical thinking. They make sure kids in every state are learning the same skills. And they’re tough: My daughter and her fifth-grade classmates generally thought PARCC was harder than MCAS.


There’s no reason to expect that if we set high goals, kids won’t reach them. Massachusetts is proof of that. In 1998, the first year that passing MCAS was required for graduation, only 38 percent of 10th graders passed the English exam on their first try, and 24 percent passed the math test. Remediation followed. Schools grew more familiar with the goals. In 2014, 90 percent of 10th graders passed the English MCAS, and 79 percent passed math.

The rest, ideally, will get the help they need before they graduate. This is what testing can do right. “My child is not a number” is the mantra of some in the opt-out crowd, but the real problem isn’t that your child is occasionally represented by a test score. The problem comes when your child has to register one score, and then another, over and over again.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.


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