Opting Out: The Conversation about State Exams and the Effect on Students

Often I approach the vital decisions that come with being a principal from a few different perspectives.  The roles of principal, teacher, dad, and anxiety sufferer often overwhelm my mind when a decision is to be made.  When discussing homework I think about what research says, what it was like to assign and grade as a teacher, how hard it is to get my kids to do it, and the feeling I used to get when I knew my dad was coming home and my homework was incorrect.  The conversation of the moment in education is the right that parents have to “opt-out.”  The recent media frenzy circles around the highly debated Common Core standards and the accompanying testing changes.  Commercials, newspapers, and all forms of social media have exploded with opinions from everyone on the importance of opting out.  For the first time in a while, my many diverse perspectives are completely aligned.

Opting children out of state mandates is not a foreign concept.  Parents have been resisting exams, health mandates, and the 187 day schedule for decades in public education.  Recently, districts in New York State have seen an incredible rise in the number of families choosing to refrain from taking the exams.  In nearby Westchester County, the percentage of students opting out seems to be ranging between 15 and 55 percent.  Instead of engaging in the debate about whether or not schools should advise or counsel parents, I’d rather pivot the conversation to what should be the central focus—our students.

Rarely mentioned in the commercials with parent support groups or at the rallies held are the long term effects on the students.  Research has emphasized two important factors in the success of individuals.  The first being a belief that intelligence and/or talent is not something that is directly linked to genetics and instead something built over time with deliberate practice.  The second factor is the idea that successful people persevere through challenges at a higher rate than their peers.  At Inwood Academy, we spent a lot of time discussing these concepts.  In my opinion, you cannot serve all students if you do not believe these statements to be true.  Believing that a student’s ability is fixed or linked directly to genetics hinders my ability to help a student grow as a learner.  Learning is continuous and different for every person so the staff at IAL operates under the principle that practice with difficult concepts helps to build better learners.  Allowing students to opt out of state assessments is giving a different message.

Life is full of difficult challenges.  I want to graduate students who aren’t afraid to fail a class.  I want those students to fail and immediately sign up again the next semester.  I want to know that when faced with college rejection letters, the losing of a job, or difficult financial times, my students will persevere.  When I decided to become an educator it wasn’t because I loved teaching content, it was about helping children become better people.  The comfort that my students will look at challenges as a learning opportunities gets me excited each and every day.

The issue with the current testing system is that we transfer the accountability measures to the students, and take away this tremendous opportunity to teach grit.  When students believe (or are directly told) that their future, the future of their teacher, or the future of their school relies on their ability to reach proficiency, that learning opportunity is lost.  While extremely important for the school, the students should not view this exam as anything other than another opportunity to show progress towards a goal.  At Inwood Academy we don’t hide from the importance of the exam, but students are not judged solely on their performance for six days in April.  They understand that the portfolios in the back of each classroom contain the evidence of their performance and that the test is one more data point.  If they feel any sense of responsibility for the school’s performance it is due to previous schools or public perception.  Before students started the 2015 exam I reminded them of two important things: this is just another test, and, if you do your best, I will be proud of you.  I don’t need the official scores to understand how my student “did on the test.”  The conversations I had with students gave me the evidence that I needed.  I was told…

“I worked the entire time and finished with one minute left…”

“I didn’t finish but I know that I can finish tomorrow”

“I didn’t get to the end but I killed the first one”

These are the messages that tell me my students are ready for challenges.  They definitely didn’t get every question correct and many scored below the proficient level and frankly that is why my teachers come to work each day prepared with differentiated, data-driven lessons.  I am most proud that today at Inwood Academy, 478 students sat for an extended period of time and decided that difficult and impossible are not synonymous.

Anxiety is something that I personally struggle with.  There have been times in my life when college, or the search for a job, or money have been too much for me.  In those times I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to fail at difficult tasks and taught to learn from mistakes.  The high-stakes associated with these tests should be reserved for schools, and students should be given the reassurance that what they do on a class project or a unit exam matters just as much as the formal exam.  Part of growing into adulthood is the development of an understanding that persistence in difficult situations is an indicator for success.  Instead of conversations focusing on our current education system, I wish the energy went into reassuring students that failure is natural and that their character is so much more important than their proficiency level.  In the end, it’s only a test.

By Ryan McCabe, Middle School Principal

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