Member Voices: Opting Out of Our Future

Editor’s Note: Former AACTE Board member and education dean Nancy Zimpher reminds readers of the important purpose of standardized testing, which has been overshadowed by recent political battles and opt-out campaigns. This essay originally appeared on the State University of New York’s Big Ideas blog and is reposted with permission. The opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect the position of AACTE.

When it comes to whether students should opt out of standardized testing, no one is actually talking about what’s best for our kids. Standardized tests have become a pawn in political debates about teacher evaluations and we have lost sight of what they are: a way to measure what students know so we can help them improve.

For too long, our education system has failed to track students’ progress toward college and career readiness. Parents, educators, and policy makers have an obligation to use standardized assessments to shine a light on how best to support students.

Parents need to know these assessments are just one of our tools to support college readiness, not the whole toolbox. And I know firsthand — as many testing opponents will argue — that we don’t yet have it exactly right. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: we will have no way to track our progress and improve our tools without annual assessments.

If we are truly trying to do “what’s best for kids,” we would use standardized test scores to diagnose where we need to improve teaching and learning so that kids come to college ready to succeed. We need those results to support students, whether with early intervention when they are falling behind or to guide them toward advanced course work when they are ahead of the curve. If kids opt out, we risk them being left behind.

That’s what’s happening today, as fewer than 40% of New York students are considered college ready when they graduate high school. Each year, community colleges at the State University of New York (SUNY) spend over $70 million on remediation while 20% — or $93 million — of financial aid awarded to community college students goes toward remedial classes. That’s $163 million taxpayer and tuition dollars wasted every year to get our high school graduates ready for college courses. And these students will graduate college with more debt because they have to pay for courses that don’t count toward their degree just to catch up.

I started my career as a classroom teacher, and I know how hard the job is. Since then, I have spent my career focused on how we can do a better job of preparing teachers. As chancellor of the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the nation, I insist that we — all of higher education — share the responsibility for the problem and have an obligation to help find the solution; we prepare the teachers who teach the kids who come to college ready or not. We own this challenge.

And SUNY’s 17 teacher preparation programs are committed to working with our graduates and preservice teachers to enhance curricula and make sure we use assessments as a flashlight — to guide improvement — rather than a hammer to punish failure.

It’s up to us to make sure that we are preparing our kids to succeed. Opting out is not a choice that leads to success — not in college, not when it comes to finding a job, and not in life.

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Nancy Zimpher

Chancellor, State University of New York