Responding to the Opt-Out Movement

Focus on R&D

Issue 4

January 2017

By: Hans Sandberg

How should policymakers and assessment organizations respond to the protests against state-mandated assessments? "We need to help policymakers understand that the sanctions-and-rewards approach to education reform promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) resulted in uses of tests that often were highly problematic. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), policymakers have an opportunity to reorient assessment toward supporting teaching and learning more directly," said Randy E. Bennett in an interview for Focus on ETS R&D. Bennett holds the Norman O. Frederiksen Chair in Assessment Innovation in ETS's R&D division.

Most parents and students are not opting out of state-mandated assessments. Why should we be concerned if students in some places refuse to take the tests?

Randy Bennett: Although most students are participating in state assessment, significant numbers of students are not participating. Just as importantly, the extent of nonparticipation varies by location and by such student characteristics as race and socioeconomic status. When students refuse to take tests in significant numbers and do so on a nonrandom basis, it becomes difficult, sometimes impossible, to know how successful schools have been at educating students. Those judgments become tenuous at the overall system level and at the level of the school. When we can't judge the extent to which individual schools are successful at helping specific demographic groups achieve state content standards, we have difficulty knowing which schools, and which student groups in those schools, need supplemental help.

Judging by mass media, it looks like the Opt-Out movement is driving the debate.

Randy Bennett: The movement is driving the debate and the media is often presenting their case positively. Some of the concerns of the movement are legitimate, in particular the objection to depending too heavily on test scores for making consequential career decisions about teachers — decisions of compensation, promotion, tenure and dismissal. Attaching stakes of those kinds to tests understandably drove teachers to focus too much of instruction on the content and format represented in those tests, which was often too narrow a segment of state content standards. In response, teachers and their unions encouraged parents to take action. There were also parents taking action on their own. To reframe the debate, we need to convince policymakers to continue to tamp down on some of the highly consequential uses of tests that were promoted during the NCLB era, and move toward uses of summative assessment that support teaching and learning directly. And, just as importantly, we as an assessment organization need to create summative tests (coupled with formative assessments) that, in fact, are capable of providing that support.

Do students take too many tests?

Randy Bennett: That perception is in large part due to the following. In the NCLB era, the U.S. Education Department promoted an approach to education reform based on sanctions and rewards for schools and educators. Those sanctions and rewards were based in significant part on test scores and often on student growth in those scores. Because NCLB required annual testing in grades 3–8 and once in high school for English language arts and mathematics, and once in each of three grade bands for science, there were a lot of teachers who had no test scores. To fix that problem, many local districts instituted tests in the non-tested grades and subjects, resulting in a significant increase in testing. Further, many localities use interim assessments to check on student progress during the year. That said, even with all of that testing, studies suggest that the percentage of instructional time devoted directly to assessment is only about 2%, so not as much as many people might think. More consequential would be the time given to test preparation which, when directed toward improving performance on tests that represent only a narrow portion of the standards, becomes very problematic.

What should we ask of our education policymakers and teachers when it comes to the testing issue?

Randy Bennett: First and foremost, we should ask them to reframe the approach to education reform so that it promotes the use of tests as aids to learning and teaching. We should also ask them to limit the use of tests for sanctioning and rewarding schools and educators. ESSA gives states the license to do this limiting. Second, the public has the right to demand of test providers that they create tests that can help educators teach, and students learn, more effectively. That may well mean assessments that are somewhat more expensive and that take more class time than do our current tests. But, if that investment results in higher levels of achievement and greater levels of student and educator satisfaction, it should be worth the cost.

What does a good test look like?

Randy Bennett: We've learned quite a bit about how to build high-quality assessments over the past decade. In our Cognitively Based Assessment of, for and as Learning (CBAL®) research initiative, we focused on creating measures that attempt to have a positive impact by modeling good teaching and learning practice. In English language arts, for example, we give students criteria for what constitutes a quality product — for example, a summary. We then ask them to use those criteria in evaluating faulty summaries we provide. Finally, we ask them to write their own summary of given reading materials using the same criteria. By repeatedly presenting those same criteria in summative and formative assessments, the hope is that students internalize them so that the criteria become a standard part of their learning practice, and teachers incorporate them into their instructional routine.

We also take great pains to include in our assessments the types of tasks that exemplify what it is we want students to know and be able to do in the real world — and teachers to instruct in class. We give students problems that they might actually encounter outside of school, ask them to read given materials about those problems, push them to think critically, and call upon them to formulate and articulate their own positions. If we manage to build tests that better represent the depth and breadth of the educational standards, then we're coming much closer to giving students and teachers tests that are worth taking and worth preparing for.

Randy E. Bennett holds the Norman O. Frederiksen Chair in Assessment Innovation in ETS's R&D division. Read more

Learn more:

Opt Out: An Examination of Issues (ETS Research Report No. 16-13, April 2016)

Opt Out: Fixing it is a Shared Obligation (ETS Newsroom, August 11, 2016)

Bennett, R. E. (2015). The Changing Nature of Educational Assessment. Review of Research in Education, 39, 370–407.

Watch the July 12, 2016 Research Forum video: Opt Out: An Examination of Issues. Read the transcript.