Opting Out Co-Opts Our Fight for Equity and Accountability

The other day I rode by a mansion in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania—one of the wealthiest districts in the state, if not the country—and I noticed a sign encouraging people to “opt out” of our state’s annual standardized test.

It struck me that this movement started in a very different community than the one in which I live and serve.

There is clamoring for families to opt out of testing—even some teachers encouraging students and their families to opt out of the test that measures the proficiency levels of our state’s third- through eighth-graders. However, I’ve noticed that most of those championing this strategy have not been neglected and oppressed by their states and districts for generations.

Don’t Talk to Me About Religion

I took exception when my seventh-grade daughter, one of the few Black children in her school, told me that last year she was encouraged to opt out of the test by a white teacher (a request denied by her father). Her teacher suggested, “Maybe you can opt out for religious reasons.”

As a Black Muslim, there is nothing about school and district accountability that contradicts my religion, nor does opting out support my fight for Black liberation. Many would say “opt-out” is not an issue of race, but the politics of education has always been about race and class. And there is no way that I am going to absolve her school of the responsibility to support her academic growth. An annual state test is not the only item on my dashboard, but it is one that I will certainly look to in order to determine my child’s growth.

Think Again

Throughout history many Black movements have been co-opted. And right now one of the most important issues in our communities is the improvement of our schools. Maintaining the transparency of our progress is vital for our communities. Opting out of state testing could lead to disastrous outcomes for our students and their families.

If you’re thinking of opting your child out of the test, here are some significant factors you should consider:

  1. We need to know how well we are educating the most vulnerable children. Historically, and even now, one would be hard-pressed to find districts and states that have educated their most vulnerable and oppressed students well. What we know has happened is that our most oppressed students receive inadequate schooling, and those responsible have failed to be transparent about the data to avoid allocating resources to support these students.While I had great angst about No Child Left Behind, the silver lining in this poorly-written law was that it forced states and districts not just to look at the average of how all students were doing, but to expose how different sub-groups performed based on their race, gender, income-level or disability. This information is essential because it allows schools to develop targeted strategies for groups of children who struggle the most. Without this data, schools are blind to the needs of students who most need our help.

    States and districts were forced to be honest about how well they were educating all students. Many boastful affluent districts that had previously hidden behind the successes of their majority wealthy and white students were actually masking how poorly they were educating Black, Latino and poor students.

    States, districts and schools should certainly audit the amount of testing their students endure. Too much testing does not benefit our community. However, not testing students on an annual basis is foolhardy and irresponsible.

  2. We have to advocate for our civil rights. There is a reason that civil rights groups are warning communities against opting out of annual assessments: They recognize that the level of responsibility for states to educate their citizens dissipates with every push to remove transparency and a common assessment.Civil rights groups know that a lack of data about how far the students in our communities have moved academically in relation to their peers fogs the windshield and blurs the roadmap.
  3. Statewide tests make the case for closing achievement gaps. Opting out of annual statewide assessments does not promote accountability nor does it further the cause for improving school or academic outcomes. And improving the educational experiences of children supports communities, schools and districts fighting for resource equity and supports for students which is intricately tied to the liberation of my people as well as other oppressed communities.Many will agree that the current state of testing is far from perfect. However, there are better ways to communicate the negative impact of state and district over-testing than choosing to opt out. Opting out of the federal testing requirements is short-sighted, ill-advised and detrimental to addressing stubborn achievement gaps that afflict our communities.

Look at the Source

States and districts have escaped accountability for teaching Black, Latino and poor students for generations.

Previously, schools would hide the gaps by not testing certain children. Now, in a new iteration, the opt-out movement, perhaps inadvertently, is calling for hiding the gap through not testing other children. As a community, we are not about to enable states and districts to escape their constitutional responsibility. Opting out of statewide assessments is not in the best interest of my community.

The fact that this opt-out movement was started by communities that were not oppressed in the typical ways that Black, Latino and poor communities are should also not escape us.

I would guess that many of the affluent families who are trying to convince us to opt out spend thousands of dollars on tutorial services, attend some of the highest performing schools and have a safety net for their children that, quite frankly, many of our kids don’t have.

We can’t afford to not know, with absolute certainty, how well our state, districts and schools are closing the plethora of academic gaps that are persisting. We can align on some issues with our white allies, but this is certainly not one of them.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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