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Karin Chenoweth

Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, a national education advocacy organization, and author of It’s Being Done and HOW It’s Being Done and co-author of Getting It Done, all published by Harvard Education Press.  Her columns originally appear on The Huffington Post.

Opting Your Kid Out? It Means Opting Out of Being a More Informed Parent

April 11, 2016

Some kids tell their parents everything that goes on in school.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard. My kids certainly never did. My older daughter, in particular, considered school to be her domain.

She established my outsider status her first day of nursery school, when I went to pick her up. Excited to hear about everything she had done, I asked her how her day went. Her response: “None of your business,” or something to that effect.

I remember being shocked — and sad — at being blocked from the little dramas and excitements of her life. But then I realized that she was carving out an independent existence for herself. That was the first day I realized that I wouldn’t always know what was going on with her and her schooling. I could meet with teachers, I could even volunteer in classrooms, but my children were separate people with their own lives.

Good for them, I think, now that they’re grown and have, indeed, carved out separate lives.

On the other hand, I was aware that parents are supposed to know how their kids are doing in school. And over time I learned that report cards and teacher conferences can only tell you so much. Mostly, they told me that my kids turned in their homework and were compliant with the rules. They really didn’t tell me if my kids were mastering the knowledge and skills they should be mastering.

I should say that back then I was pretty clueless about when kids should be writing the alphabet, when they should know their multiplication tables, and when they should be able to write an essay about a Supreme Court decision. I trusted that the teachers would know all that stuff.

But as my kids got older — and I got savvier — I realized that they weren’t always learning what they should be learning, and that I needed to keep on top of that. Looking back, I wish I had been more on top of it earlier.

For example, I now realize that my district’s curriculum had major holes. It included hardly any geography and had very little emphasis on measurement (gallons, quarts, liters, miles, yards, kilometers, etc.), to name just two of many topics that were missing.

I also came to realize that some teachers would be passionate about one particular aspect of the district’s curriculum but gloss over important pieces. Other teachers would lose track of the curriculum altogether. In middle school, for example, my older daughter had an English teacher who spent class time (honest-to-goodness) managing her Beanie Baby inventory and a social studies teacher who seemed to yell at the students most of the time. (The principal required that teacher to take an anger management class, but it didn’t seem to help.)

That is not to say those were my daughter’s only experiences — she had positive ones as well.

But I realized over time that if a class didn’t have some kind of common assessment at the end of it — either a district, state, or national assessment — whether teachers would actually teach what the students should be learning was a bit of a crap shoot. If there was an assessment at the end of the class, I knew that the teachers would at least try and teach the knowledge and skills that would be assessed.

Maybe this shouldn’t be. Maybe all teachers should be teaching everything students need to know, and students should be learning simply out of the sheer joy of it, without reference to any kind of outside assessment.

But in the real world of being a parent, I found it really useful to know how my children did on an assessment that other students in the district, state, or country were also taking.

That is why I am a little puzzled by the “opt out” movement, which in some states showed surprising strength last year. Parents, saying they didn’t want their children taking state tests, demanded that they be excused from taking them.

I hope they rethink that position this year.

In this column, I usually talk about how important common assessments are in providing information to teachers and principals to improve instruction. That is why I think it is important for all kids in a school to take common — or standardized — assessments.

But those assessments are also important to let parents know whether their kids are on track so that they can get them any help they may need and ask the school informed questions about curriculum and instruction.

If, for example, a third-grade student scores below standard in reading, that is a signal to parents to ask the teacher what additional help he or she is arranging. If all the students in a school do badly on a common algebra assessment, this suggests parents may need to ask what the school is doing to help the teachers deepen their knowledge and improve their instructional skills.

The thing to remember is that these are not intelligence tests. They merely provide a signal that can help parents and teachers know whether children need additional help or enrichment, and in what areas the knowledge and skills of the teachers need to be ramped up.

Not that any test is a final arbiter of anything. Kids have good days and bad days, and on any given day a kid can perform well or badly on a test — which is why an assessment is just one of many markers of what kids are learning. Similarly, not every question on a test is well-worded or a good indicator of mastery — which is why I believe that all assessment questions should be released to teachers, students, and parents, so they can evaluate their value.

But even with all the vagaries of kid moods and test questions that are not released, assessment results still provide important information. And most parents need all the information they can get — even if their children are more forthcoming than mine were.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943