Opt-Out Comments to Senate Education Committee

June 11th, 2015

Category: News

On June 10, 2015, Dr. Paul A. Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, made the following comments to Delaware’s Senate Education Committee regarding House Bill 50:

“Chairman Sokola and honorable members of the Senate Education Committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon.

As a parent of three children in Delaware’s public schools, an educator for seven years, a senior policy advisor to two governors in Massachusetts, and the head of an education nonprofit committed to helping improve Delaware’s public schools for the last 11 years, I come to you to share my strong opposition to HB50.
This issue of opting out is obviously a hot issue, so what I hope I can do with the comments that follow is 1) clarify the issue and 2) explain what I see as the unintended consequences of supporting it.

Clarifying the Issue. In thinking through this issue, I spoke to the leadership of both the PTA and the DSEA to explain my position and to listen to their perspectives. I’ve also tried to read the opinions of those that support this, particularly from Representatives Kowalko and Matthews, the sponsors of the bill.

Here’s my take on the underlying issues. Those that support HB50 seem to support it for different reasons. Some think this is simply a parents’ rights issue. They feel there is too much testing, and they want to be able to make the choice for their child. Others don’t like this particular test, Smarter Balanced. And some are less concerned with “what” then “how.” I would put Representative Matthews in this camp. He wrote this in a letter to the editor on February 22nd, “As a teacher, legislator, and a member of the House Education Committee, I encourage all parents to consider exercising their right to opt out your students from the Smarter Balanced Test.”

Then a week later he said in an article by Matthew Albright, that, “Representative Kowalko and I are hoping that enough parents are getting out of the test that the data becomes invalid…”

The impact of the test becoming invalid of course would be that any educator or school accountability would become invalid as well.

Let me say that I hear all of what has been said. I get it—there is too much testing, Smarter Balanced is not perfect, and we need to step back and re-evaluate how we use student performance to evaluate our teachers and schools. All fair.

So, why do I still oppose this legislation? The primary reason is because I believe the end game of encouraging parents to opt out with the hope of invalidating the test is fraught with very serious unintended consequences.

Now, I know there are some in this room who believe I am just hawkish about accountability. I do believe in accountability, but I have also spent the last 10 years of my life trying to help Delaware move a statewide agenda around public education that keeps the public and private sectors at the table. Both sides need one another. The private sector has to have a good education system and the schools need the private sector to pass referenda, to provide the tax base that keep the lights on, to build partnerships with their kids, to provide grants for new ideas.

For that to work, there needs to be some willingness to compromise and move forward. Senate Joint Resolution 2 creates that opportunity. By laying out what we are assessing and why, I think we create an opportunity to look holistically at the broader issue of accountability.

Passing a bill that has an end game of simply invalidating our primary accountability system with no path to improving it, is not responsible policy making.

So, the legislature passes this bill, parents opt out, and the test becomes invalid. What’s next? Is the hope is that we create a new test? When and how will that happen? It could cost millions of dollars and a lot of time to create a new test aligned to our state standards. Who is going to pay for that when we are facing a significant deficit?

Is the end game that we not have any measure of performance on how well our children can read or perform math?

HB50 is public policymaking without a net.

The question before you is not whether a given parent should have the right to not have their child participate in a given test, I would argue that they already do. The question is whether this legislative body wants to set us on a path that is designed to lead us to invalidating our primary measure of public accountability with no plan for addressing it.

Unintended Consequences. Here are three serious unintended consequences of opting out and invalidating the results:

1) It opens the door to major civil rights violations. Why does virtually every major civil rights group in Delaware and nationally, ranging from the Urban League and NAACP to the Latin American Community Center and the United Negro College Fund, oppose opting out? For one, if we invalidate the results for some kids, we invalidate them for all kids. If there is no good information, the arguments for policies to bring more support to high need children ring hollow because the data to justify the investments no longer exist. Further, if high school graduates do not have good information on whether they are on track for college or a career, we are lying to them when we give them a diploma when we know half of our graduates are currently not ready for college. If they had a test like this one in 11th grade, that virtually all of our local colleges accept as “college ready,” if they needed help, they could get it in 12th grade. If they were ready, they could start taking college level courses in 12th grade and get a head start on college.

2) It could undermine public trust in our schools. In addition to our civil rights community, why does virtually every major employer in Delaware and nationally oppose opting out? Because they believe accountability for results is a core issue. Given the fact that a full third of our state budget, or more than one billion dollars, goes to public education, passing legislation that would potentially undermine our primary student assessment would be fiscally irresponsible. More broadly, if the public loses trust in our public schools, referenda will be increasingly difficult to pass and some of our major employers may simply walk away, further weakening the tax base our schools need and the work experiences our kids need. As one business leader said to me yesterday, “we hire thousands of people every year and we want to hire locally, but we can draw from the best people in the world. If we lose confidence in public education here, it will hurt Delaware’s economy.”

3) It puts tens of millions of federal dollars for our most needy children at risk. Why does the State Board of Education, the Department of Education, and our governor oppose this bill? They likely have a range of reasons, but one of them is the concern of losing significant federal dollars for our most vulnerable children. Given our current revenue shortfall and the likelihood that the revenue picture going forward could be worse, this legislature needs to discern whether it is willing to risk losing upward of $90 million. Delaware has been given these resources with the agreement that we would determine whether those funds are having an impact. If this bill passes and the results are invalidated, those dollars will be at risk. Some have tried to dismiss this argument saying that this has not been done in the past. However, this is the first time opt out has been done at any scale and my read of the letter sent to Delaware from the USDOE is that this is not an idle concern.

Again, I empathize with the parents and teachers who are frustrated by the amount of testing and how the results of those tests are used, and I understand that this one bill has become a focal point for all of that frustration, but this is simply not the way to address those concerns. Again, the decision before you is not just about parent’s rights, this is in fact, a much bigger public policy decision with system wide implications for not only our most needy children but for the very foundational public and private support needed to keep our public schools vital.

Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration of this complex issue and I sincerely hope you vote no on HB50.”

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Paul Herdman