State Testing: Opting Out or Improving the Practice


States have been testing students for a long time without issue. When large numbers of students opted out of state testing, its purpose was radically diminished. Historically, state testing served many purposes from informing teaching practices to getting certain students the services and resources they needed. Both local curriculum and instruction are affected when teachers have access to limited state testing results or when those results may be specious. Because learning is cumulative, student results are analyzed against learner expectations from year to year along a learning arc. Therefore, when educator access to state testing results is hindered, they are unable to do their work effectively. While parents love their schools, there is still the need to know how well they are doing. Living in a credentialing society tends to support the idea that exposure to testing may not be a bad thing.

Force-Field Analysis

Using a Kurt Lewin force-field analysis, it may prove helpful to identify those forces supporting state testing and those not supporting it. Supporting forces are those which have typically been identified as important while the opposing forces are based on a New York State United Teachers Fact Sheet, as well as concerns from other persons and associations.

Testing does create a certain level of anxiety. This notion is old and may not stand the test of time, due to the institutionalization of testing within our society. If those opposing the testing believe that the tests are inappropriate, invalid, and misused, we have a big problem. A loss of learning time needs to be addressed in terms of any possible advantages that may accrue from testing. All of the opposing factors may only be resolved by the entity of government with the responsibility of leading the program. In the case of NYS, it would be the State Education Department (NYSED). To some extent changes in standardized testing have already been made. How much more is needed is the question.

Background on the Issue

Many states are experiencing student and parent resistance to state testing referred to as an Opt-Out which is now being referred to as a Refusal. This is a rather new phenomenon in that New York State and just about every other state in the nation has been testing its students for many years. Of course, the important areas for which the reporting of testing results are: SES (student in poverty), racial makeup, SPED (students with special educational needs) and gender. And, in some cases, a state may require other types of information. All this reporting has a great deal to do with state funding and the targeting of other types of resources to help those in need. In addition, the results may affect the nature and quantity of local support for education.

The Movement and Its Effect

In the case of New York State, the basis for the genesis of the Opt-Out phenomenon was the passing of an education accountability law (Education Law §3012-d APPR) requiring an Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) to assist educators to improve the quality of instruction in schools to improve students’ performance and readiness for colleges and careers. To meet the intent of the law, each BOCES and school district must develop a plan to meet the requirements of the law. In essence, the law initially based a teacher’s or principal’s performance on a single State test for which the testing results would represent 20% of an educator’s performance rating. The problem arose when the governor raised the 20% to 50%. Making such an absurd requirement opened a major can of worms. Teachers openly talked about the potential impact on their careers in such a manner that students felt that their teachers’ jobs were in jeopardy. In an effort to help, students were able to convince their parents that not taking the State tests was a way to help their teachers retain their jobs. Approximately 20% of students statewide are opting out of the testing. Supporting the opting out came quickly from teacher associations and groups that have objected to standardized testing.

It would appear that the purpose of the OPT-OUT movement (note, now it is a movement) is to stop state standardized testing. The NYSED made changes in the law and brought about a hiatus in its implementation as a step to remove its “meanness.”.In addition, students would be free from any adverse effects. It is fair to predict that changes in the accountability law will result in meaningful advances that are intended to improve the current situation. The Opt-Out impact has had a devastating effect on the purpose of the State testing program. What do the results mean when 20% of the state’s student population does not take the test? How serious are students whose parents do would not let them opt out of the State testing? When students are experiencing the effect of the testing, it is no wonder why they would see participation as a serious matter. What then do the results mean? Are they reliable?

NYSED Actions

The influence of the Opt-Out movement has effectively created a big problem for standardized State testing. To move on many of the concerns of parents, the State Education Department (SED) has acted to address some of them. For one thing, the testing period was changed from three (3) to two (2) days. In addition, testing was untimed to give all students adequate opportunity to show what they could do. Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS), an object that went politically viral, were dumped for NYS Next Generation Learning Standards. Actually, the new State standards were based on Common Core with modifications made, for the most part, on those standards affecting early and elementary school education. State testing results would not adversely affect students who took the tests. These are significant changes in the State’s testing program; however, time will tell if they will amount enough to cause parents to return to the testing arena.

Purpose of State Testing

When examining the State learning standards and nature of the assessments that are based on them, it becomes clear that schools are implementing the new standards to strengthen curricula. The importance of preparing students to learn at a deeper level of understanding in reading and math is, indeed, noble and difficult to oppose. Teachers know this and are working diligently to build powerful learning systems with the guidance of the standards. While many of their students may not take the tests, teachers are working with whoever is left in the way of reported results. In fact, testing in regular school programs conforms pretty much to the nature and structure of State tests based on Common Core. When opting out makes it impossible for a school district to have accountability data or to acquire a gauge regarding the nature and level of learning, districts are creating their own end-of-year assessments for that purpose. They know that the only way to understand where their students are from a district and school perspective is to test them. What is quite remarkable is that these local tests are modelled on those their student refuses to take.

What is tested in grade 3 relates incredibly close to the nature of the English Regents Test taken in grade 11. In fact, there is a performance arc beginning at grade 3 that follows a student from grade-to-grade in preparation for the testing challenge at grade 11. Testing at each grade is similar in structure and nature as it spirals through the grades to prepare students for the Regents testing. Successful completion of the English Regents Test is a requirement for graduation; you cannot opt out. NYS is proud of its more than 150 years of Regents testing and should be. Other states marvel at its value and acceptance.

Possible Deleterious Effects and a Challenge

 A concern voiced by educators today is a possible deleterious effect that opting out may have on students’ attitude and habits of mind. When students are brought to the point where they see testing as being worthless, we have a problem and that problem is interfering with teaching and learning. Students should be comfortable in a learning environment in which testing is seen for its value to help improve learning. There is work for the NYSED to help make this happen. In addition, it needs to be understood that teaching, learning, and assessment exist within an integrated web and serve as the basis for curriculum. Testing is not merely something teachers do to their students on Friday; it is a pervasive practice that has the power to make all aspects of education better.

It may take a lot longer than anyone can imagine bringing students back into the State testing system. Keep in mind that the reason for students to opt out was to help their teachers. They were successful, as seen in the improvements to APPR. The only possible way to bring students back into the State testing program rests squarely on the shoulders of their teachers. Their students defended them when the need arose; it is time for teachers to embrace the challenge of bringing them back to where they were before the disastrous decision which brought us to where we are today. There are so many reasons why this must happen to benefit from the value-add that testing provides.

Dr. Bruce H. Crowder is a senior researcher for Educational Vistas, Inc. His work is primarily focused on creating pathways for deeper learning for all students through student performance and a dynamic curriculum replete with strategic teaching. Dr. Crowder may be reached at