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Why 'opting out' is actually a cop-out that won't change the education system

  • A nationwide "opt out" movement against testing hasn't yielded many tangible benefits.
  • "Opting out" is actually skewed toward wealthier kids, and sends the wrong message.
  • The best way to accomplish educational change is by pressuring on elected officials, who can rein in un-elected bureaucrats.

student test
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This is the time of year when several states conduct standardized testing for elementary school students. It's all part of what's required for those states to get or increase their federal education funding, which ends up making millions of parents and teachers really angry.

Here's why: Under President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program, the federal government started to require states to rate schools based on test results in order to receive federal funds. Bush's successor, Barack Obama, then doubled down on that with an additional $4.3 billion dollars in total funding—largely based on test scores as part of his "Race to the Top" program.

However, just as high test scores can earn a school or state more funding, low test scores can be used to close schools and even dismiss teachers. The stakes are potentially very high.

Critics rightfully point out that not every student can be adequately evaluated with multiple choice tests. Additionally, with the considerable financial threats behind these tests, there is a tendency for many schools to focus on higher test scores at the expense of other educational efforts. "Teaching to the test" does happen in a lot of schools, and then there's the very real threat of schools cheating to make the cut. Indeed, there have been widespread cheating scandals, most notably in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

That opposition led to the birth of a nationwide "opt out" movement, where parents keep their children from taking the tests, in the hope that drastically lower participation numbers will convince politicians to scrap them altogether.

Yet, even after hundreds of thousands of students in New York state alone have opted out, there is no sign of any significant change from officials in either major party who make these tests necessary for funding.

In short, the federal bureaucrats at the Department of Education have been moving along just fine thank you very much, doling out the money based on test scores they have, regardless of how many parents have held their kids out of the tests.

Oh, and here's the kicker: they're all un-elected bureaucrats who can't get voted out of office either. (More on that in a moment). However, at least getting our kids to opt out teaches them the value of political protest, and gets them thinking about how tests and grades aren't what education is all about. Right?

Wrong. It turns out that the areas where opting out is most popular, at least in New York City, are also the most affluent and educationally competitive school districts. The same parents who are most concerned with getting their kids into top colleges and acing standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are suddenly against standardized tests that aren't a part of college admissions requirements. Thus, their opposition to testing regimes is very suspect. Districts with poorer or more immigrant families aren't as likely to have high opt out numbers.

Now it's time for some real parenting truth. Sure, lots of the opt out movement parents are convinced that their kids are learning all the right lessons from refusing to take the tests. Some of them even insist they're learning to stand up for their human rights... at age 8, mind you.

Perhaps, but as any honest parent and lots of real experts can tell you, the lesson junior is most likely learning from opting out is that when something unpleasant in life presents itself, Mom and Dad will just let you sit it out.

Education experts and child development authors Karin Chenoweth and Amanda Ripley have pinpointed this problem in recent years. For her part, Chenoweth argued that while testing are flawed, they at least give added and valuable information about our kids' abilities. Ripley has previously pilloried "opt out parents" in a series of exchanges on Twitter, suggesting if they also believe their kids should opt out of lice checks—in case they feel hurt and stigmatized by that process as well.

So what would be a more effective political protest against state testing regimes? The answer is to take that anger out on elected Washington politicians who are accountable at the ballot box. Appointed bureaucrats can't be voted out, but their bosses are a president who can fire them, as well as senators and representatives in Congress who can change or eliminate their funding.

There's a good chance that millions of Americans were thinking about just that when they voted for President Donald Trump last fall. Although it didn't get as much publicity his positions on immigration and Obamacare, Trump's cries to eliminate Common Core—and the testing requirements that go along with it—at campaign rallies earned strong applause each time. Trump even appointed Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education because she is more likely to cut these testing requirements than any of her recent predecessors, being that Devos is clearly not a product of Washington's educational bureaucracy.

Instead of opting out, these parent movements should redirect their energies by trying to reach Devos, pressuring her directly to end federal "funds for tests" programs. Based on her most recent statements, Devos is not likely to favor eliminating the tests entirely. However, she did just say in a televised interview in March that each state should have more flexibility in deciding how many standardized tests to administer to students each year. That's a start.

By contrast, opting out hasn't started or really accomplished anything. The expectation that all standardized tests in public school systems will be quashed is simply unrealistic. Still, we can make compromises and teach our kids to make them too without the expectation that just sitting it out is really an option.

Because in politics and in life, you have to at least show up if you really want to make a difference.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.