Should You Opt Your Child Out of Standardized Testing?

Is opting out of standardized testing cowardly or brave?

Posted Oct 27, 2015

Stuart Miles/
Source: Stuart Miles/

Across the country, parents are fighting to excuse their children from state-mandated tests in English and math. Criticisms range from issues with the difficulty levels and the increasingly large role student scores play in evaluating teachers to the very notion that standardized tests are a meaningful way to measure student progress.

In 1983, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released a scathing report called “A Nation at Risk.” It spelled out how the public education system was failing its children. Among the shocking statistics, the report found that 23 million American adults and 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States were functionally illiterate.

While the report called for all sorts of reform—from longer school hours and more school days to better textbooks and higher teacher salaries—what policy makers latched onto (most) were the recommendations to raise academic standards and increase school and teacher accountability. The result? A tremendous increase in the hours students spend preparing for and taking standardized tests, many of which have very real, very high stakes for school funding, student advancement and, now, teacher performance.

In a letter to the editor at The New York Times Ursula Ann Kelly put it this way when explaining why she was leaving the classroom after 20 years as an elementary school teacher: “We are being forced to subject students to an inordinate number of tests that do not enhance their learning or childhood.”

More Test Prep, Modest Gains

According to a new survey from the Council of Great City Schools, the average student will take 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. Schedules vary around the country, but a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers of two geographically distinct, medium-sized districts found that students spent between 15 and 50 hours (two full weeks!) taking state-mandated tests, interim benchmarking tests and other district academic assessments. And that doesn’t include the 60 to 110 minimum hours (nearly a month of school!) spent preparing for the tests.

The big question is: Are kids actually learning more since we started testing them? Arguably, not a lot. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, long-term trend data show that 17-year-olds’ scores in reading and math were not statistically different in 2013 than in 1971, while 9 and 13-year-olds improved slightly in reading and more impressively in math.

Classrooms Become Toxic

Alongside those modest gains, some say standardized testing has created “toxic” environments in schools. Guidance counselors report a surge in stress and anxiety-related disorders among kids, which they attribute in part to pressure to excel in school. Teachers and parents complain that pressure to “teach to the test” has narrowed curricula and eliminated the creative kind of lessons that once inspired students to get excited about learning. And as a recent study in Texas suggests, education reform policies that penalize struggling schools with poor standardized test scores may hinder—not improve—students' college readiness when a school's instructional focus becomes improving its test scores.

With debatable benefits and a laundry list of downsides to so much standardized testing, a growing pool of parents is deciding to simply opt their children out of the exams. The first wave of the opt-out movement was scattered and small, but it is quickly catching on. Last spring in New York state at least 200,000 out of the 1.1 million eligible students opted out. That number was up from 60,000 students the previous year.

What does the opt-out movement mean for the future of kids and schools? If fewer than 95% of the students in a district take exams aligned with the Common Core, schools could have their funding revoked, resulting in a lower-quality education for all, though that hasn’t happened yet.

Source: 89studio/

But if enough kids opt out of the tests, maybe this would actually send a message to government that we’ve had ENOUGH already with standardized testing. It’s possible the opt-out movement is already shaping policy. Just recently President Obama and The Department of Education presented a Testing Action Plan that asks states to cut back on "unnecessary testing" that consumes "too much instructional time."

What do you think: Is opting out cowardly or brave? What will you do?


AFT report shows the high cost of overtesting.” The American Federation of Teachers press release, July 23, 2013.

Ansary, Tamim. “Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report” Edutopia, March 9, 2007. 

Cassidy, Christina Almeida “Opt-Out Movement Accelerates Amid Common Core Testing” The Huffington Post, April 17, 2015. 

Council of Great City Schools. “Student Assessments in Public Schools Not Strategic, Often Redundant.” Washington, D.C., October 24, 2015.

Graham, Edward. “‘A Nation at Risk’ Turns 30: Where Did It Take Us?” NEA Today magazine, April 25, 2013.

Kamenetz, Anya. “Obama Wants Students To Stop Taking Unnecessary Tests.” National Public Radio. October 24, 2015.

Kelly, Ursula Ann. Letters to the Editor. The New York Times, August 16, 2015, p. SR8.

Mathews, Jay. “Just Whose Idea Was All This Testing?The Washington Post, November 14, 2006. 

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

National Commission on Excellence in Education. “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” April 1983. 

Nelson, Howard. “Testing More, Teaching Less: What America’s Obsession with Student Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time” The American Federation of Teachers, July 2013.

Noguchi, Sharon. “Teen health: Depression, anxiety and social phobias rising in kids, educators saySan Jose Mercury News, February 5, 2014.  

Paulson, Amanda. "Standardized test backlash: More parents pull kids from exams as protest" The Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 2015. 

Southeastern Louisiana University. “Standardized testing creates 'toxic environment' in schools, professor says.” ScienceDaily, April 16, 2013.

U.S. Department of Education. “Fact Sheet: Testing Action Plan.” Washington, D.C., October 24, 2015. 

Copyright @2015, 2019 Susan Newman