Op Ed: Opting Out of PARCC and Common Core Standards is a Dangerous Concept

James A. Crisfield | February 19, 2015 | Education, Opinion
Why stop with standardized tests or the curriculum? Why not let kids opt out of anything from algebra to zoology?

James A. Crisfield is superintendent of the Millburn Township public schools.
The recent grassroots movement to “opt out” of the upcoming PARCC standardized tests is leading us down a very dangerous path in New Jersey public education.

Districts are receiving PARCC opt-out letters from parents, and we’re all dealing with them as best we can, given the lack of cover or direction from Trenton (not to mention the recent missive from our governor on said topic).

But the letters don’t stop there. Most have been created in some centralized place, with form-letter language that “informs” us that the child will not be taking PARCC and will not be allowed by the parent to have anything to do with the Common Core. No tests “aligned with” the Common Core, no computer-based activity “aligned with” the Common Core, and so forth.

And then the letters demand that “alternate plans be made and/or alternate assignments be given” and that “no punitive consequences” be applied to the child as a result of all this opting out. And then there are various Supreme Court decisions and Constitution excerpts cited to support such demands.

I do understand the concerns people have with the PARCC tests, and I in fact share some of them. I feel the PARCC tests as currently configured take too much time to administer, and I strongly object to how they are used to compare districts (or schools) to one another. And worse yet, very few educators, anywhere, will agree with the notion that standardized test results are either a valid or a reliable way to evaluate teachers.

Having said that, assessment is a natural and necessary component of the education process. Great teachers deploy assessment techniques all the time to help shed light on both their students’ needs and the efficacy of their teaching. PARCC results, we are told and we hope, will provide us with valuable insights into our students’ needs and how we can meet them, so I am willing to give PARCC the benefit of the doubt to see if that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it’s not like we haven’t had standardized testing for, well, decades (if by a different name — Iowa, Early Warning Test, NJASK, and the like).

What distinguishes PARCC from these prior versions, among other things, is the highly charged political climate of 2015. It seems as if everything now needs to be viewed (and acted upon) through a political lens. PARCC is linked to the Common Core, which in turn elicits angry, visceral reactions from several different quarters. And we then start down the road of letting politics interfere with the educational process. Politics, especially the partisan variety, has no place in the classroom and can in fact be quite distracting.

Coming out of all this political hysteria is a fast-brewing notion that it is a right to opt out of things happening at school with which one doesn’t agree.

Herein lies the danger. True, there is precedent for telling the school that your child will not participate in things (“family life” and “sex education” classes are the most salient example, and probably the old fashioned way of dissecting things in biology class can be included as well, and of course there is also the vaccination requirement that has been an opt-out candidate for years).

Those topics (which often center on religious objections, by the way) notwithstanding, very few public school things have been candidates over the years for opting out. If a parent didn’t like the way the local public school was approaching a given topic, they could find another way to educate his or her child (private, parochial, or even home-schooling options).

But opting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this “opting out” or “refusing” (or whatever it’s called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools. Opting out of Common Core? There go all of the child’s language arts and math-class activities. Every. Single. One. Everything we do in language arts and math is aligned to the common core!

Further, what’s to stop a parent of a high school student in 2015 from opting out of a bunch of other things that school does, too. What’s the difference? Why not opt out of having one’s child take that nasty calculus exam that she didn’t study for because she was out of town over the weekend? Why not opt out of her having to go outside for PE during first period because she doesn’t like the cold, and then opt her out of having first lunch, because she is way too cranky in the afternoon if she eats lunch at 10:30 a.m.

For that matter, why not opt out of her having to start school at 7:30 a.m., since we all know her teenage sleep needs run counter to starting that early? And then demand alternative activities for all and demand, in writing, that she won’t be penalized in any way for her actions resulting from these opt-out demands.

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child’s best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

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