I generally don’t feel a need to save Checker Finn and Fordham from their own arguments, but in the midst of this spring’s burgeoning opt-out movement, there has been a growing tendency to equate the need for standardized testing to the need for vaccination – and to regard those who opt to opt-out as the moral equivalent of the anti-vaccination crowd. Checker's rant yesterday is a case in point. But the argument just doesn't stand. In fact, Finn and others might find that following this line of argument will – much like a good gamma globulin shot – hurt them in the rear end.
Checker contends that tests are necessary to “immunize” the community from the dangers of low standards, bad teaching and other ills of poorly run schools: As he puts it: "Test results advance the public interest much as vaccinations do. (Maybe your kid is healthy today but the classroom needs everybody’s kid to be inoculated lest an epidemic start.)"
The logic is that without testing we won’t know which schools or teachers are bad. But Checker expressly grants permission to private schools and homeschooled children to remain out of the testing pool – despite the fact that they account for roughly 12 percent of the U.S. school-age population.
Either Checker thinks that the 1.8 million homeschooled children (roughly 3.4 percent of the school age population) and 4.5 million private school students (8.6 percent of the school-age population) are all unquestionably receiving an exemplary education or that they don’t matter to the economy the way public school students do. But if one is planning on using the vaccination metaphor such a huge loophole defeats the argument. Why should this group of private school and homeschooled opt-outers matter less than a few thousand public school opt-outers? This group enrolls more students than the entire state of California. Would he think it's alright to allow California to opt-out? I doubt it.
Checker says the difference between private and public opt-outers lies in the fact that public school parents are “asking” the state to pay for their children’s education. Despite the fact that this is untrue (states are required to provide children an education), it is also irrelevant to the vaccination metaphor. If this were like vaccination, it wouldn’t matter which group were omitted from the testing pool: a source of contagion is a source of contagion.
So if Checker is to persist with the vaccination metaphor he either has to require testing for private school students and homeschoolers or consider them already somehow “inoculated,” clearly a fallacy given the huge range of private school instruction and the widely unevenly regulated homeschool environment. In fact, recent work shows public schools do better than private schools, when working with the similar children.
Second, the nature of the injury stemming from vaccination and testing are quite different. There is a known percentage of children who will be harmed by vaccines due to their allergic reaction. (This percentage is eligible for compensation under a fund administered by the U.S. government). At the same time there is a known (and provable) benefit from receiving the vaccine – both for the individual and for the collectivity. We can estimate quite clearly the number of lives saved by administration of the vaccine.
For testing, none of that is true. In fact, if we were to treat this truly like a vaccination, we would insist on seeing demonstrable proof that widespread application of standardized tests in conjunction with a high-stakes accountability regime has improved education (not just test scores; they are differerent, after all).
So, let’s go ahead and treat testing as the equivalent of vaccination: show us the proof that this is improving educational outcomes, just as vaccines improve quality of life. This would include a full accounting of the benefits and harms: count the increased drop-outs, force-outs, the narrowing of the curriculum, widespread test cheating scandals, unrelenting test preparation, growing teacher dissatisfaction with the profession, and – particularly within early childhood education – the effects on children’s attachment to school and their desire to attend school and to learn. If this really were like a vaccine, without such a tallying of benefits and harms, policymakers could not adopt an untested idea.
So go ahead with the vaccination metaphor, if you will: Then voters and parents should simply expect you produce the evidence and to apply testing and accountability regimes to private and homeschooled students.