You’d Never Convince My Mom to ‘Opt-Out’ of Testing

Opting out.

In Chicago and across the country there is a movement that is taking hold that encourages parents, students, teachers and community leaders to “opt out” of standardized tests.

Many of the arguments used to promote the idea of opting out (while often exaggerated) are founded. By and large we probably administer too many standardized tests in our public schools. Sometimes we ignore other aspects of a holistic evaluation framework and some of the tests have inherent cultural biases that disadvantage black and brown children.

But, the tactical response of the “opt out” movement simply doesn’t seem to match the values of underserved communities of color like the one where I grew up. Maybe that’s why the movement seems to be catching on a lot more quickly among middle class and white.

One of the things I’ve always done as an education organizer when considering an issue is to ask myself: How would I convince my mom to support this?

My mom had five kids, no college degree and very little money. But, she has a strong belief in her children and she is serious about school. Mom wasn’t (and still isn’t) particularly political or ideological. She likes to think things out issue by issue. She’s the perfect prototype for any education organizer and I think the opt-out folks would have a hard time convincing her.

Opt-out wouldn’t work for mom because opt-out is the passive resistance of the privileged.

First of all, “opt-out” does not make anything work. It just disengages. Poor black and brown families don’t have time or resources to waste, and whenever people resist there’s always a lot at stake. That’s why resistance always needs to be focused on specific changes. Mom would need to know why we’re doing this and how to know when we’ve won. We weren’t raised to be afraid of protests, but we could never afford to protest for protest’s sake.

Whatever this movement puts on the table will need to have some teeth to it if wants to have any chance at convincing my mother. Right now, opt out doesn’t provide a holistic framework for the evaluation of student achievement or teacher performance. It simply assumes that students are progressing and teachers are performing.

But my mom really feels that a quality education is the one great opportunity for us to climb out of poverty. When it comes to academic standards, you’d have to give my mom more to work with than just an “honor system.”

Opt-out proponents like to say that the best private schools—the Francis Parkers and Labs of the world—don’t use standardized tests. But, mom is no fool. We went to public schools, and mom needed a way of knowing how the teachers are teaching and what her children are learning. She would say to this argument, “Let my kids go to Parker or Lab or another school that has a long tradition of delivering the very best education, and then we’ll opt out.”

Finally, if opt-out really takes hold and massive numbers of families refuse to allow their children to take tests, the school district could lose valuable state and federal dollars. My mom isn’t an educator or a bureaucrat, but she knows that “losing dollars” is something that Chicago Public Schools cannot afford to do. We are already dealing with the effects of underfunding.

Perhaps some families in wealthier communities make up the difference by hiring tutors, or paying for out-of-school programming or even “opting out” of public schools altogether. But not us.

Mom might remind an opt-out organizer that part of why Dr. King rallied people to boycott buses in Montgomery was to ensure that everybody who needed a ride to work had one.

Somebody would have to tell my mom how we were going to make up the gap in funding we create by opting out. She would use that little phrase I heard so many times when I wanted to do something that would ultimately harm me just to teach somebody a lesson, “You don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

As a kid, I’m sure I would have been all for skipping a test. But, I don’t think that mom could have been convinced to let me do it. In fact, if I were an opt-out organizer, I might not stir the pot with parents like my mom. Not only would she not opt-out, if she really looked into the potential consequences for all of the children in the district, she just might go to work making sure that nobody else opts out either.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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