Why students are not opting out at my Catholic schools

Last week marked the beginning of the annual New York State English and math tests for grades 3–8. While Catholic schools (and their teachers’ unions) have largely stayed out of the political fray when it comes to standards and testing, we at the Partnership Schools—a network of six urban Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx—voluntarily participate in the New York Common Core assessments.

Catholic schools have long been unapologetic supporters of high standards for all children, and we at the Partnership use results from the New York tests both to ensure that we are keeping expectations high for our students and to benchmark our students’ academic growth.

In an age when some people are opting out, we are opting in.

Of course, we’re aware of the pushback against standards and tests, particularly in our home state of New York. But we believe that pushback is misguided and that the opt-out movement is misleading parents. In particular, it is using tests as a scapegoat for implementation decisions that are mostly within the power of educators and education leaders to change.

As choice schools, we’re fortunate. Our parents—many of whom come from the nation’s poorest congressional district—opt into our schools. And they make sacrifices to do so, paying on average about $250 per month in tuition. Our school leaders and teachers—who are pillars of their communities and who are deeply committed to the mission of Catholic education—have deep respect for the families and communities we serve, and they have built tremendous trust with parents and students.

That’s why we take seriously any parent’s decision to opt out. As Catholic educators, we understand that parents are a child’s first teachers. We are partners with parents in their children’s education, and we take that partnership very seriously. We also understand that when a parent comes to us asking to opt out of a test, it’s because they believe that decision serves their child’s best interests.

Unfortunately, when New York State’s public school teachers’ unions have spent the past two years actively supporting a misinformation campaign about testing, even Catholic school parents are at risk of being misled. And the irony is not lost on those of us who work in Empire State Catholic schools that those special interests fighting any effort to expand school choice are only comfortable with “parent choice” if those choices serve their interests.

While very few of our parents opted out of the test last week, we did receive at least one form letter similar to those that have been crafted and distributed by union-backed organizations that are hostile to standardized testing. The letter included the kind of heated and hyperbolic rhetoric that is now common in education debates. It explained that standardized testing “is consuming a child’s academic year” and that it “forces [teachers] to ‘teach to test’ and takes the joy out of learning.”

From our perspective, even one student opting out is too many. So it’s important to set the record straight: In New York State, the English and math tests take up less than 1 percent of the total time a student spends in school. That’s hardly excessive.

And to be clear, tests don’t “force” anything. They measure. Moves to scrap core content instruction in favor of test preparation are leadership decisions, not policy decisions. Worse still, exchanging core content instruction for test preparation isn’t very effective (in English particularly). While test preparation may give a modest short-term boost in scores, it does very little to improve student reading comprehension over the long term.

That’s why in our schools, we say—and believe—that the best “test prep” we can offer our students is knowledge-rich instruction in the core content areas. And that’s why choosing the right curriculum, ensuring that our teachers have the resources and support they need—and giving them the flexibility to innovate when they have to meet their students’ needs—is the foundation of our school model.

But most important, independently developed standardized tests are essential to the broader education system. Recently, a Johns Hopkins University study found that “when evaluating a black student, white teachers expect significantly less academic success than black teachers,” and that “this is especially true for black boys.”

Moreover, “for black students, particularly black boys, having a non-black teacher in a tenth-grade subject made them much less likely to pursue that subject by enrolling in similar classes. This suggests biased expectations by teachers have long-term effects on student outcomes.”

This isn’t the first study to demonstrate that teachers often have different expectations for students of color (see here for another), and together, this research suggests the very real need for independent measures to ensure that all students are being held to the same bar regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

Of course, the biases revealed by these studies are often unconscious and undoubtedly unintentional; but that doesn’t make them any less real. And if we ignore them and eliminate standardized benchmarks of student learning, or if we rely on a system informed only by teacher-created tests and teacher-conferred grades, we could be intentionally systematizing the kind of unconscious bias that holds our most vulnerable children back.

The special interests behind New York’s well-funded opt-out campaign are determined to ignore these inconvenient facts. And in doing so, they help perpetuate an unequal education system and condemn the best tool we have to expose those inequalities.

It’s time to opt out of the overblown accusations and get back to the work of educating our kids.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in a slightly different form at the Seventy Four.