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Parking the PARCC ‘Opt-Out’ in Colorado

When news broke last week that the Colorado State Board of Education narrowly passed a resolution that would give school districts the choice to opt out of PARCC—the new Common Core-aligned state tests—the superintendent of my school district had this unsettlingly gleeful and festooned reaction on Twitter. Um, don’t start passing out the party hats just yet, Liz. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office and Department of Education quickly warned the board that it likely does not have the authority to give school districts the ability to make the choice for all of their parents about something as important as getting an annual update on their kids’ academic progress. When the public officials here in Colorado sometimes get out over their skis on education issues like this, we can usually count on the Denver Post’s Alicia Caldwell to bring us safely down to terra firma. And she came through again. Here’s what she had to say on the issue of whether the state board has the ability to let districts opt out of state assessments:
The real discussion ought to be about whether it should [let districts opt out]. And any dispassionate examination of the facts surrounding the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) shows this would be a mistake. Yes, it's going to be a hard test, maybe harder than others many Colorado kids have taken. Yes, some people will try to gin up assertions that it's a federal takeover of schools. But the central truth about this test is that it will provide unblinking data on the progress that children are making toward acquiring the world-class education they all should have, regardless of where they started in life.
As the father of four Douglas County students, including a daughter who will be entering third grade in the fall, I want that “unblinking data” on how they’re doing. I won’t sit quietly by if my school district or our Congress, through reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, tells me that my daughter won’t be taking an annual standardized test from third-grade until high school that shows me how she’s doing and how her performance compares to other kids’. I want a school that uses tests, including the state’s standardized tests, as one way to measure my kids’ learning. I also want my children to have a well-rounded education—with plenty of creative learning, exploration, arts, music and sports programs. I have lots of schools to choose from that offer that full range of learning experiences. And as a big believer in school choice and accountability, I see annual standardized tests as giving communities critical and objective information on how their schools are performing and what they’re getting in return for their tax dollars. I also wholeheartedly agree with the coalition of civil rights groups and the council of state education chiefs, who both have recently urged Congress to keep annual testing and the spotlight that it shines on how all kids are being served by their schools. I do think it’s worth asking the question: Are there too many tests? Colorado has done that, and the state task force on testing—made up of parents and educators—just gave us their answer: yes, at 11th and 12th grade. The task force recommendation seems like a reasonable option to consider, as does the suggestion that there be stronger acknowledgement of and guidance about parents’ ability to opt out of state tests. That’s the ultimate “local control”—in the hands of parents. I think the move from bubble tests to better tests that measure deeper learning will solve a lot of the over-testing problems. But if a parent feels like devoting parts of three or four school days a year to a state standardized test is too much and is willing to sacrifice the comparable and valid data on the child’s yearly performance against college and career standards, that parent should be able to opt their child out. Just don’t take away my choice to opt my child in.
Michael Vaughn
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...

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