The movement against mandated standardized testing in public schools has not hit Maine as it has other states, like Colorado and New York, where a still small but growing number of parents are opting their children out of taking exams aligned with the newly adopted Common Core standards. According to one lawmaker, that may be because parents who are upset at the time spent preparing for and taking the tests just aren’t aware that they have that option.

That may be the case. Particularly since the implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, there have been perverse incentives for schools to spend classroom time on test preparation rather than proper lessons.

However, the Common Core tests are a departure from the fill-in-the-dot exams of the past decade-plus. They may not be perfect, but standardized testing does have a place in schools, and opting out is the wrong way to force the improvements necessary to make sure the tests are a true gauge of how well our schools are preparing students.

NEW TESTS

Starting this month, Maine students in grades 3 through 8, as well as high school juniors, will begin taking the Smarter Balanced tests, a series of assessment tests in math and English that are replacing the New England Common Assessment Program tests that have been used in recent years to mark progress related to No Child Left Behind.

The Smarter Balanced tests are aligned with Common Core, a series of standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia that spell out the skills and knowledge students should have at every grade level. As opposed to some prior tests, they emphasize critical-thinking and problem-solving skills over memorization, asking students to explain how they arrived at their answers rather than simply regurgitate facts and figures.

Resistance to the tests, and standardized tests in general, is growing. Some parents and educators feel the testing takes too much time away from classroom instruction, as teachers are pressured to “teach to the test” so that their schools score high.

Others say the tests are unproven in their ability to judge student proficiency and progress, or feel they are an unwelcome federal intrusion into the creation of local educational standards and practices.

A bill now before the Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, would require Maine school districts to notify parents that they have the right to opt their children out of the tests.

MAKING CHANGES

But opting out is a poor response to a fixable problem.

If the testing is causing a misuse of classroom resources, a small number of opt-outs won’t make a difference. The tests will go on, the classroom time won’t be restored and the children not taking them will be left in an extended free period.

If large numbers opt out, school systems will be left without an objective way to measure themselves and their students, and a school’s federal funding may be put in jeopardy.

Standardized testing should not be a school’s focus, but it does have its place: In judging curricula and teaching methods, in matching school district against school district and state against state to see what works and what doesn’t on a large scale, and in holding public schools accountable for the significant investment made by taxpayers.

So if the test is a poor assessment, then improve the test, don’t scrap it altogether.

And if a school spends too much time teaching to the test, then teachers, administrators, the school board and parents need to push for a change in culture.