Opt-Out Is For Quitters


I would never consider having my elementary school student opt-out of any test even if I thought the test was of dubious pedagogical or evaluative merit. I want my daughter, and all children, to suffer to endure mentally-challenging, physically-exhausting, and emotionally-draining tests because I am not a billionaire, she is not an heiress, and she’ll have to work in a world full of tests if she wants more out of life than poverty and homelessness: bar exams, MCATs, civil service exams, NTEs, SATs, citizenship exams, driver’s license exams, doctoral dissertation committees, pilot license exams, etc.

The experience of difficult test-taking has a value in of itself; engendering mental discipline. It’s why football coaches drill their players with rigorous exercises and weight-training even though jumping jacks, sit-ups, and push-ups don’t score touchdowns and win football games.

They understand that these exercises cultivate coordination, muscle development, stamina, agility, and strength—all things essential to producing a good football player. Imagine a protest movement within the NFL whereupon players boycott sit-ups and jumping jacks because they are too hard, don’t score touchdowns, and harm the self-esteem of those who, for whatever reason, are not in as prime athletic condition.

I’m no stranger to educational theory. Back in 1983, when I just finished earning a degree in biology and the U.S. Department of Education published its “A Nation at Risk” report prognosticating the advent of a generation of Americans less educated than their elders, I took a few university-level courses on educational theory. The general attitude of the professors was that education’s raison d’ etre was the promotion of self-esteem, trendy social causes, sexual identity awareness, and ethnic pride rather than serious academic learning.

Today, we see the results: I encounter college graduates in their thirties who read and write at what had once been the third or forth grade reading level; people with diplomas more familiar with Britney Spears than Shakespeare, more acquainted with Taylor Swift than Jonathan Swift, more knowledgeable of Magic Johnson than Samuel Johnson; persons who don’t know when World War Two was fought and think the Orthodox Christian church in my neighborhood is a mosque and all Moslems are terrorists.

When I endeavored to explain to them, in the last instance, that neither was the case, they shrugged their shoulders and uttered their generation’s dismissive one-size-fits-all catchphrase: “Whatever…”. As far as they were concerned, I was a pretentious snob filled with a lot of “worthless book smarts.”

In describing the aforementioned to a retired high school teacher, she said I was being narrow-minded and judgmental and “just because people don’t have knowledge of facts doesn’t mean they are uneducated.” What we are dealing with in 2016 is an entire generation of Americans conditioned by a dumbed-down and hyped-up popular culture to not only suffer to endure mediocrity and ignorance, but to celebrate it.

I observed at the start of this letter than I am not a huge fan of standardized testing or the inordinate time and effort devoted to administering them. But when parents have their children opt-out of taking them, the children are not going to analyze the epistemological, pedagogical, or evaluative merits of these tests or the lack thereof. They are simply going to receive the massage that if you don’t feel like doing something, you protest, boycott, and quit.

—Paul Manton


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