“School choice” apparently now refers to the decision by parents whether to allow their child to be tested or not tested, at least in regard to state-mandated standardized tests. The St. Louis Post Dispatch (September 9, 2013) ran a story with the headline “More Parents Opting Out of Standardized Tests,” noting that “they are opposed to the practice for myriad reasons, including the stress they believe it brings on young students, discomfort with tests being used to gauge teacher performance, fear that corporate influence is overriding education and concern that test prep is narrowing curricula to the minimum needed to pass an exam.”
All of these motives may be at work, but another, unmentioned one is the fear that the bar may be too high and your kid may flunk the exam. Indeed, based on early returns from Kentucky, New York, and other states that have joined the testing movement associated with the “Common Core” standards — which have thus far reported dismal results — it would seem the problem is not the dumbing down nature of tests but the opposite. Many of these test-resistant parents are well-meaning and are serious about quality K-12 education. But many no doubt are the same ones who applauded the showing of the “Race to Nowhere” documentary film, so popular the past couple years among suburban school district PTOs, that depicted children overworked in school with homework, exams, and other burdens, never mind, as the “Two Million Minutes” movie showed, Chinese and Indian kids far outwork their American counterparts. These also include the parents who want nothing more out of schools than being able to put a “My Kid Is An Honors Student” bumper sticker on their car, never mind whether their child actually has done academically challenging work or not. They, with teachers, are also often the ones who prefer more “authentic assessments” that tap “collaboration, imagination, and critical thinking skills,” never mind that the latter are almost impossible to measure in any objective, reliable, efficient, economical way and that such assessments fail to assess what children actually know.
It is true that in recent decades most school reform efforts, tied to new standardized tests, have proven to be a disaster. The Common Core standards and the new assessments may be just the latest disaster waiting to happen. Still, the alternative to standardized testing is simply to trust school system officials to do the right thing, that is, to assume that the latest faddish pedagogies (whole language, fuzzy math, etc.) they tout as “best practices” can be accepted as such without real accountability mechanisms. No Child Left Behind, problematical as it was in terms of promoting test-mania, a narrower curriculum, and a focus on the bottom achievers rather than the top students, at least provided a reality check against the wild claims made by professional development gurus and other school officials that their curricula and instructional strategies were working for “all” children. Among the major dilemmas facing K-12 education is how, on the one hand, to insure greater accountability of schools, while at the same time, on the other hand, to give our best teachers (and students as well) the space they need to be creative and “do their thing.” Surely, one should be able to design a system, including tests, that serves both interests, if enough people are serious about finally getting K-12 education right.
Of course, there is one other “option” that we should contemplate: Rather than “school choice” taking the form of opting out of standardized tests, it might take the form of its original meaning, namely giving parents a choice as to what kinds of schools they want in terms of whether they want schools that challenge their children as opposed to reducing stress, schools that teach hard knowledge as opposed to more airy “skills,” and schools that are not afraid to measure learning as opposed to those that are afraid to be subjected to empirical validation.