Over the past two weeks, there has been an explosion of commentary about the tiny yet extremely loud standardized test opt-out movement, in which parents prevent their kids from taking a new generation of tougher exams that supposedly send children’s cortisol levels through the roof.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized the opt-outers as “white suburban moms” afraid to learn the truth—that more than half of their little Einsteins are, according to new internationally benchmarked standards called the Common Core, intellectually mediocre. (He has since apologized for his loaded phrasing.) Frank Bruni asked, “Are American kids too coddled” by parents who protect them from measurement and competition? The conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, while not exactly supporting the new standards, beat back the growing Common Core critiques from the right, like Glenn Beck’s ridiculous claim that the government will scan children’s irises.
Hothouse parents are an easy and familiar media target, and great for New York Magazine sales. And though it’s hard to generalize about the demographics of the families involved in opting out, much of the anti-test activism has been concentrated in suburbs, like Long Island and Westchester County, and at more privileged urban schools, like Garfield High in Seattle. These educated parents and kids have some legitimate concerns about the new generation of tests. As I’ve reported here at Slate, in subjects like art, music, gym, and even kindergarten, many of these exams are experimental, and can be developmentally questionable. But in general, a more rigorous curriculum is a good thing for American students. There is a wealth of evidence that our children do too little writing, have no conceptual understanding of math, and read too many books with scant literary merit. One way to make sure local schools are correcting these problems is to require them to administer standardized tests.
So the truth is, I’m not too worried about the suburban New York elementary school boy whose father complained at an anti-testing forum that his son felt “dumb” because his math lessons were too challenging. Instead, we should all give a little more thought to how the new testing push is affecting people like Tiffany, a young woman from Queens who wants to be a nurse, but still lacks a high school diploma 18 months after the end of her senior year, because she has failed a global history exam 11 times. While global history is important, perhaps she doesn’t need to master it to become a great nurse. Twenty-year old Jessica is working three jobs while studying for the GED, because she failed to meet the mark of New York’s new, tougher graduation standards, which require scores of at least 65 on tests in history, English, math, and science. Previously, New York kids could earn a so-called “local” diploma if they scored at least 55 on those exams, and had passed their high school courses. Now that option is gone, thanks to the national school reform push that promotes a single “college and career-ready” standard for all teens, regardless of whether they want to attend nursing school or Harvard.
Other countries don’t work this way. They allow older teenagers to make decisions about their likely next steps, and to gear their last few years of high school accordingly. And they have much lower youth unemployment rates than we do. The opt-out movement won’t get us any closer to that model. What we need is a much richer, less panicked debate about the curriculum and the tests connected to it—one that acknowledges the need for rigor and relevancy, but defines rigor much more broadly, and lets older students make choices about their own future.