Instructional Leadership in Action

The Problem With Opt-outs (And How to Move Forward)

by Stephen Fink on Sep 24, 2015

This year, one in five New York state students in grades three through eight did not take the state’s standardized test. In Washington state 53 percent of 11th-graders opted out of the new Smarter Balanced Common Core exams. If this trend continues — and the coming election year will certainly fuel the fire around Common Core and testing — the future of recent school reforms will be called into question.

As much as I can understand some of the motivations behind opting out of standardized tests, I think it complicates the goal of helping all students to achieve at higher levels and close long standing academic achievement gaps.

So how did we get here and what can we do to lower the pressure around the issue and focus on improving student learning?

Regrettable but understandable

In my last blog post about the impact of heavy-handed accountability on teaching and learning, I laid out some of the driving forces behind the emerging “opt-out movement.” Too much focus on testing and test prep, narrowing of the curriculum, stressed students, concerned parents, exasperated teachers ­— taken together it makes for a combustible mix of anger and frustration that leads many to the regrettable but understandable conclusion that taking a standardized test designed to measure student learning is not in the interest of student learning.

Many teachers, parents and students think that taking a standardized test designed to measure student learning is not in the interest of student learning.

It’s a disappointing conclusion because it lumps all standardized tests into one group. In fact, the new Smarter Balanced/PARCC tests finally seem to offer a better, more reliable way to measure higher academic standards. It’s wrong to assume these new generation tests are like all previous standardized tests.

If we want to prepare our students for a “knowledge economy” we need to establish and teach for higher standards and have tests ready to measure our progress. Mass opt-outs on the new, more rigorous assessments clearly set us back on this goal.

Why now?

For everybody interested in helping all students achieve higher academic standards, increasing opt-out rates are a disturbing development. So it’s worth taking a closer look at the reasons behind it and why this is happening right now.

The frustration bubbling around “overtesting” and the high-stakes culture surrounding is not new. But two things have brought this issue to a boiling point.

First and foremost is the mounting drive to connect individual student test scores to teacher evaluation. Driven partly by the Federal “Race to the Top” program that required states to adopt new teacher evaluation systems, how well students perform on the standardized test has in many states a direct influence on a teacher’s performance evaluation.

Teachers do of course affect student performance and it makes intuitive sense that we should be able to measure it. Unfortunately, there are many unanswered questions about the use of what is now known as value-added assessment. Given these unresolved questions, to implement it in a widespread way and tying it to high-stakes testing is — at this point — counterproductive.

The unfortunate reality is that from what we know, many students have not been exposed to the kind of learning opportunities that would enable them to achieve at higher levels.

A second important factor driving the upsurge in opt-outs is the fear of the expected results. Initial Smarter Balanced field tests showed dramatic drops in English and math proficiency rates and first results — while in many states better than expected — still paint a grim picture.

It is difficult to say how many students, parents and educators pushed for not taking the test for fear of a poor result. But it might be enlightening to ask the reverse question: would there be the same outcry if we expected our kids to do really well?

The unfortunate reality is that from what we know, many students have not been exposed to the kind of learning opportunities that would enable them to achieve at higher levels.

What if we do nothing?

If we continue on the path we are on and see even higher numbers of opt-outs next spring, we’ll go back to the system we know, with every state running its own test. In fact, several states have already left the Smarter Balanced or PARCC testing consortia. At current count only 21 states will administer either the Smarter Balanced or PARCC assessment in 2015-16, down from 30 in 2014-15.  

This trend is worrying because we are quickly reverting back to having each state enact its own testing policy. Experience tells us that this creates great unevenness in terms of expectations and results. That is bad news for students and a lost opportunity for creating cross-state equity by raising standards across the nation.  

The end of Common Core-aligned standardized tests doesn’t necessarily mean the forces behind the opt-out movement would simply disappear. Teachers will still chafe under the yoke of evaluation driven by student test results. Parents will likely still complain about too many tests, especially if some of them become a high school graduation requirement.

High-stakes testing moratorium

In this highly charged climate, there is not one solution that can diffuse all pressures driving opt-outs. But if we want to lower the temperature around the issue immediately, I think an important first step would be to implement a two-part, high-stakes testing moratorium for the next three years.

Under part one of this moratorium, tests could still be required but the results could not be used as a part of teacher evaluation. This would give teachers time to learn the instructional shifts required to teach for higher academic standards while some of the issues around measuring student performance are worked out.

55 percent of parents oppose linking teacher evaluations to their students' test scores

By taking pressure off teachers, we would also ease the pressure on students and their concerned parents. Parents know about the demands on teachers and the harmful effects of “teaching to the test.” In a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent opposed linking teacher evaluations to their students' test scores.

Part two of the moratorium would ensure that test scores are not tied to student graduation requirements. Of course the immediate question is how to ensure that students would take these new tests seriously without the threat of graduation hanging over their heads.  No doubt it would require some creative incentives as we rebuild a new test-taking culture. 

And then there is the question about what to do with the current tests while these new tests are being phased in.  One possibility is to use a sampling strategy so that we can generate reliable results to inform practice without requiring every student in every grade to take the test.


There are a number of reasons why students and their parents decide not to take the new tests aligned to higher academic standards. Many are perfectly understandable. In the end, though, we need to recognize that if we want our students to reach higher we also need the instruments in place to measure it.

Reverting back to the old system of “every state on its own” does not serve students and would be a colossal waste of reform effort and resources. Instead, let’s for the next few years support teachers in teaching for higher standards without fear of career-threatening test reports and continue on a path that helps all students perform at high levels.

Photo credit: Photo by the Prentice School / CC BY 2.0

Topics: Educational Leadership

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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