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Ed Next: If Feds Allow Opt Out, “One Cannot Assess School Performance”

July 31, 2015

On July 28, 2015, Education Next editor-in-chief Paul Peterson and executive editor Martin West published an article entitled, “Public Supports Testing, Opposes Opt Out, Opposes Federal Intervention.”

In their article, Peterson and West discuss the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) reauthorization that will be heading into House and Senate conference committee in September so that the versions of the ESEA reauthorization that passed the House (the Student Success Act–SSA) and the Senate (the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015–ECAA) might be negotiated to become a single bill.

In SSA, the House includes a blanket opt-out provision. In ECAA, there is also the possibility of opt-out, but states must decide individually on their opt-out policies.

Peterson and West want the resulting ESEA compromise bill to ditch the federal opt-out provision. Here is their reasoning:

One cannot assess school performance accurately unless nearly all (or a representative sample of) students participate in the testing process.

In “nearly all,” Peterson and West are referring to the 95 percent of students that the federal government requires states to test under the current, defunct No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

However, 95 percent of students need not test in order for a state to “assess school performance accurately.”

Consider the research of Peterson and West.

In their article, Peterson and West report results of a survey that they plan to release in full sometime in the near future, and they base their survey results for what all of America wants regarding federal testing and federal opt-out upon the responses of 4,000 people.

They did not survey 95 percent of the entire American public in order to conduct their survey, nor did they need to if the participants were randomly selected. Even so, there were likely people who were randomly selected and who chose not to participate.

Survey research always deals with participants “opting out.”

As for interest in specific subpopluations: if they wanted to be sure to capture the responses of a given subpopulation, they could have stratified their sample to capture said subpopulation.

And if they were not able to capture that subpopulation, such would become a limitation of the survey– just as the fact that some randomly-selected participants could have chosen not to participate– but the survey itself could still be useful.

So, the idea that a federal opt out provision would interfere with the ability “to assess school performance accurately” is not even supported by the fact that Peterson and West use random sampling without guaranteed participation to report with confidence what the entire American public (and all teachers) believe regarding federal testing and federal opt-out.

Add to that their finding that only 32 percent of parents supported the idea of a federal-level, blanket opt-out provision, which they discount as “just 32%.”

Let’s go theoretical for a moment:

If one in three parents surveyed support the federal opt out, one might conclude that two out of three would allow their children to participate in federal tests. (If they have children that might be opted out. Peterson and West do not provide the details.)

If that were to happen, then the federally-sought 95 percent federal-test participation could drop to 66 percent.

A state does not need even 66 percent of all students to test for a state to randomly sample from those who choose to complete the test in order to create a test-based gauge of state performance. The 66 percent participation would be a limitation, but it would be workable. (Randomly sampling from within the theoretical 66 percent would allow for the state to randomly deselect overrepresented subgroups in order to balance subgroup sizes, if it wanted to.)

And if a subpopulation is underrepresented due to opting out, then that is simply reported as a limitation. Even now, many states have privacy requirements to meet to not report exact stats when a subgroup is comprised of too few individuals. And yet the world goes on.

But what of bias– of the resulting outcomes somehow being altered by those who purposely choose not to participate? Easy enough to gauge using the demographics of students who choose to opt out as compared to those who do not. Such should be reported with the findings. Including the limitations of a study with the study contributes to a fuller picture– to “accuracy.”

Even in surveys conducted using random sampling, issues of bias are often ignored when researchers do not account for the demographics (or other preferences) of those who purposely choose not to participate in the survey. Generally speaking, survey research has very low completion rates; a 66 percent response rate would be very good. (That is, 66 percent “opt” to complete the survey.) Even with a much lower response rate, researchers often report the results without any caveat regarding how those who chose not to participate might have biased the survey result.

Again, discussing limitations of research helps readers better interpret the result, which does contribute to accuracy.

There is yet another issue about the Peterson and West survey finding of “little public sympathy” for opt-out. In its opt-out provision in SSA, the House is not telling parents that they must opt out. It is simply allowing parents to make the decision for themselves. Though 52 percent of parents opposed allowing other parents to opt out, one might easily say that it is the parent’s decision, and if 32 percent of parents favor opting out, then 32 percent of parents should be able to choose to opt out. (Note: Not sure the exact number of “parents.”)

The 52 percent who opposed it could “opt in”– if they even have children who test. Again, not sure about this since Peterson and West do not clarify exactly how many parents this is or whether the parents in the study were even asked if they have children attending public school in the grades that are tested.

I also wonder how the survey result might have been influenced by Peterson and Wests’s wording the survey item to make it more personal: “Should you be able to opt your children out of federally-mandated tests?” Wording is important; using “parents” instead of “you” adds some distance between the respondent and the issue, and such distance could influence the result.

Here’s another possible item: “Under what conditions might you opt your child out of mandated tests?” This item could include several response options, including “no conditions” and “other” with a request to briefly explain.

I do not know if Peterson and West asked the two questions above because they include very little survey information in their article.

Another point worthy of note:

The SSA provision for opting out is not a case of the state telling kids to stay home on test day in order to manipulate state test score outcomes. It is the allowance for parents to decide to opt their own children out of federally-mandated testing without the state incurring a penalty for honoring the decisions of its parents.

Education Next promotes school choice, yet it would snuff a federal government possibility to honor parental choice in the form of opting out.

Think about it: Opting out might be the only “parental choice” not riddled with scandal. (And here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here. I’ll stop now.)

A final thought:

Even if the resulting ESEA compromise bill ditches the SSA’s federal opt-out provision, that does not mean that parents will not choose to opt out. It only means that the federal government would have chosen to make no blanket provision for it at the federal level.

Peterson and West reported it themselves: One in three parents supports a federal-level, blanket opt-out provision.

I consider that noteworthy. The House and Senate should, too.

one in three


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, newly published on June 12, 2015.

both books




  1. Reblogged this on stopcommoncorenys.

  2. confused permalink

    This summer I ran into the parents of a couple of my former 8th graders from last year. We talked briefly and then they brought up testing. One had “made” her child take the tests because she didn’t want him to get in trouble for not taking it. He told her he just answered a few of them for real and bubbled B for the rest. I assured her those who opted out weren’t punished. The second one said she just told her child to “just put anything down” since all the students got promoted anyway as long as their grades were okay. I just smiled and said have a good summer. I just bit my tongue while thinking how we were threatened with our jobs for any test abnormalities, threatened if we were not constantly walking around the room every second of the tests and have our evaluations depending on teenagers and parents behaviors in a situation like this! I will support the parents’ right to choose what is best for their child. HOWEVER: our state has lied to them for so long about their child’s actual knowledge mastery; has manipulated parents and students into thinking educators are all lazy freeloaders; has created unsustainable “choices” for parents that really aren’t choices; has cut the budgets for all levels of public education and has left teachers dependent on children for our jobs using a secret mathematical formula and secret calculations of scores the parents are not being given the accurate and honest information they need to make an informed decision! I am amazed that Louisiana’s education officials and most BESE members(except Dr. Beebe and Ms. Hill) are so ignorant! I can’t wait till October 24th! Even some of my peers pretend they can just ignore all this because it will pass! They do not realize the damage and destruction being done all around them is permanent!

    • Informed parent permalink

      You should have told the parents how it harms teachers. Parents need to know this. No more biting your tongue.

      • The ESEA revisions both remove the NCLB requirement to grade teachers using student tests.

        Tongue not bitten.

      • confused permalink

        We were told we can only advocate for students and cannot negatively comment on evaluations based on tests, common core or standardized tests. Not just our school but friends at many other schools were told the same. We can reassure parents their child will not be punished but we can’t tell them opting out could hurt teachers. I bite my tongue because I can’t lose my job or be harassed into quitting. Everyone here knows or is related to people. I don’t have family here anymore for support and I appreciate those who feel secure enough to speak out. Too many times here teachers who do speak up get run off.

      • informed parent permalink

        Teachers shouldn’t be silenced like that. This is America, Land of the Free! Someone should get video proof of administrators threatening teachers not to talk about it with parents. This is such a shame.

      • patriciahale permalink

        I thought the new law allowed states to stop grading teachers using the tests, however it’s optional for states to continue doing it.

    • informed parent permalink

      Oh, no, I wasn’t referring to you, Mercedes. Your tongue doesn’t need to be bitten. I was replying to Confused’s comment above. Confused ran into parents of former students and heard how their children blew off the tests by marking B or random answers. I wish Confused had told the parents that the scores on those tests likely hurt their children’s teachers, and could even have cost them their jobs. Parents need to know this.

      I’m glad that the ESEA revisions will remove the requirement for states. Evenso, some of us still have a battle in our state legislatures to get rid of VAM.

      • I see. I missed that your comment was in response to another.

        Thank you for clarifying.

  3. Old Teacher permalink

    The requirement may go, but many states will still evaluate us based on tests.

  4. It is an ongoing outrage that virtually no politicians in this country are prepared to address the points made in this post. Propaganda and sloganeering are what we get from the top officials in the land. Thank you for your ongoing, absolutely essential truth-telling and brilliant analyses of our nation’s floundering efforts to provide a decent education to all.

  5. Martin West is the fellow who did “blue sky” research on grit testing thousands of low income students in Boston; it went directly to NAEP to be included as part of their testing. Education Next is the “mouthpiece” newsletter for Fordham Institute and it is substantially funded by Gates. Peterson I call “schumpeter peterson” because he supports the destructive reforms of Viennese economicst Schumpeter. This two-some West and Peterson have one thought in mind –purposely destroy public education and put in voucher -only. These are phony “studies” just like the so-called study of “grit” that West gave to the NAEP board. When the students didn’t respond in the way they wanted West said “well they are just” not being truthful in their self-references. “Grit” is another disguise for white privilege that he defines as a trait that all our kids must have. Why don’t they study resilience? and why it is so difficult to develop resilience in poverty environments?

  6. Here in NM, our state Ed Dept. has produced 2 years of VAM evaluations (up to 50% based on test scores) that are riddled with faulty data, test scores that cannot be explained for students you never had or tests you never gave, etc. They also weaseled around IPRA records requests so that teachers cannot get the supporting data for their Evaluations. I support 100% opting out at the elementary and mid-school level to starve this testing machine regardless of the ESEA outcome. However, at least in our state, they’ll find a way to make up the data if enough real data does not exist.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider Fact-Checks EdNext Claim that Public Rejects Opt Outs | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Ed News, Tuesday, August 11, 2015 Edition | tigersteach

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