Why the ‘opt-out’ is not a cop-out

Back in the spring, I floated the idea that states should allow a small group of schools to opt out of regular testing and accountability requirements and let these schools use an alternative set of metrics instead. This proposal was the subject of last Thursday’s “Opt-out or Cop-out?” debate held at Fordham and co-sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform. Here was my pitch.

Let me make it clear from the beginning that I, like everyone else here on the panel, am a strong supporter of standards-based reform and a strong supporter of accountability in education.

I’m also a strong supporter of the Common Core standards. (If you don’t know that then you’ve been living under a rock.) And I firmly believe that it makes sense to try to figure out what students need to know and be able to do in order to succeed at the next level of education. In the K–12 system that means: What do kids need to know and be able to do to go on and do well in college or to get a good paying job? The Common Core standards do exactly that.

I also think that for the vast majority of our schools, it makes a lot of sense to use the Common Core as the standards and Common Core–aligned assessments as the measures of whether or not schools are getting kids where they need to be. This approach is based on a hypothesis: If students do well against the Common Core standards and do well on the Common Core–aligned tests, then those students will be able to go on and do well in college or go on and get a good-paying job.

I think the hypothesis makes sense. And for 90 percent of the schools, I think this approach works fine.

But I would also argue that there might be, say, 10 percent of the schools for whom the Common Core, or any state standards, may not be a good fit, and states should be open to allowing them to opt out of the regular accountability system.

Which schools belong in this 10 percent? First, some schools of choice (including charter schools and magnet schools)—particularly those on the far progressive end of the spectrum—fundamentally don’t believe in testing as a great measure of what kids need to know and be able to do. Their educational approach that is not a good fit with standards-based reform.

A good example is High Tech High in California. These are very successful charter schools, though their scores on state tests aren’t great. However, their college going rates and college graduation rates are through the roof, particularly for first-generation college students. High Tech High could argue, then, that the California tests don’t really measure what the school considers to be the most essential skills to help kids get ready for college.

My argument is that we should allow schools like High Tech High to be held accountable against an alternative set of measures—rigorous, outcomes-based measures to substitute for the state testing, especially college-going and college-graduation rates.

Another group of schools that should be eligible for the opt-out are uniformly high-achieving schools—those where virtually all the kids are high achieving and for whom the Common Core standards (or any other state standards) are actually well below where they’re already achieving. These are largely going to be schools in our affluent suburbs or exam schools in our big cities.

If schools such as these can demonstrate to the state that their students are passing the rigorous Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, then who cares how they do on the lower-level state or Common Core tests?

I see three main arguments for experimenting with this sort of opt-out.

First, we can more accurately measure the effectiveness of a handful of schools if we use these sorts of alternative metrics.

Second, the limited use of an opt-out will release some steam from the political backlash to standards and testing. On the political right, this backlash is coming from supporters of school choice who are worried that accountability provisions linked to the Common Core or other state standards will force charter schools (and tax-dollar-receiving private schools) into a prescribed mold. And on the political left, it’s coming from affluent suburban moms who think there’s too much testing and pressure in their public schools and don’t see what value it’s adding (at least close to home), as well as progressive educators.

Finally, an opt-out will allow us reformers to call the bluff of accountability critics. We can say to these folks, “OK, you hate testing, and we all know testing isn’t perfect, so show me other measures that you’re willing to be held accountable for that have to do with real outcomes for kids. Let’s say for high schools: Are you willing to be held accountable for getting more kids into credit-bearing courses as college freshmen or graduating with some kind of degree or certification? Or, over the long term, getting more of your students employed in decent paying jobs? What are you willing to be held accountable for?”

And maybe some educators will say, “Yes, sign me up.”

But many others will say, “Well, you have to understand that these kids are so far behind, and they are coming from poverty, or their families are dysfunctional and there’s not much we can do to help them.”

And then we’ll have called their bluff. We’ll demonstrate that in fact it’s not testing that’s the problem, it’s being willing to be held accountable for any outcomes.

That would be a useful conversation for us to have.

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