What Would Milton Friedman Say: Should parents opt out of standardized testing?

School choice typically is depicted, simply, as a family’s decision between a public or private school. But the freedom to choose in education actually goes much deeper, getting to the heart of what parents truly want for their kids on a day-to-day basis.

An excellent example is the growing national and local trend in which parents are seeking to opt their children out of government-mandated standardized testing. Indeed, in New York to Colorado, and several other states, parents withdrew their children from mandated tests or petitioned their local school boards for permission to do so.

What would Milton Friedman say with respect to this movement? Before answering, we should look at the two popular sides in this intellectual debate and what each represents:

The first is the Reagan Administration’s National Commission on Educational Excellence, which issued the first of several—famous or infamous—“A Nation at Risk” reports in 1983. Ultimately, that commission is what inspired the decades-long effort that culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which required public schools today to so intently focus on standardized testing.

One recommendation of that landmark report was:

“Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work. The purposes of these tests would be to: (a) certify the student’s credentials; (b) identify the need for remedial intervention; and (c) identify the opportunity for advanced or accelerated work. The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests. This system should include other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.”

NCLB’s prompted tests, in and of themselves, inspired considerable push-back from parent, educators, and politicians. But it wasn’t until the creation of the Common Core State Standards that such anti-testing efforts really gained momentum. At about the same time public school parents became more aware of Common Core, a “Testing Resistance and Reform Spring” began in which parents began asking to remove their children from public school testing requirements.

Some of that “opt out” movement is propagated by organizations that advocate against certain uses and forms of testing. For example, FairTest generally opposes high-stakes standardized testing, where scores are the sole measure used to judge students, teachers, and public schools. Recently, FairTest encouraged the movement to suggest to parents that they opt their students out of federally-required and high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.

The other side of the argument over standardized testing includes prominent education reformers tired of the “status quo” in schools—i.e., low graduation rates, large “achievement gaps,” mediocre performance when compared to students from other nations, etc. Michelle Rhee—the former superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools and founder of StudentsFirst—is one testing proponent. Ms. Rhee likens opting out of testing to avoiding stepping on a bathroom scale or skipping an appointment with a dentist because the experience may be unpleasant or nerve-racking. “All parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom,” she wrote.

For Ms. Rhee, there are benefits of the accountability and standards movement started by “A Nation at Risk”—a strong set of standards and quality tests aligned to those standards provide students, parents, and teachers with high aspirations and valuable information about the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and teachers.

So would Dr. Friedman be more about “students first” or would he want more of a “fair test”? For Dr. Friedman, both could happen but only by including a third level to the equation: parental choice.

Milton Friedman would want parents to opt in or out of standardized testing—via school choice.

Parents make decisions on where to send their children to school based on many factors, and standardized testing could be an important consideration. Under Dr. Friedman’s universal choice idea, parents would be exposed to a wide variety of educational offerings not available today. With a wider array of school choices, the scope and type of standardized testing given to students would vary across individual schools, including what is tested, how it is tested, and when it is tested.

Would he proscribe a high-stakes testing system for all public schools, let private schools remain autonomous, and then give parents a choice between them? Not likely.

Under universal school choice, individual schools—both public and private—would select their own testing programs. They also would have strong incentives to select testing programs that parents would value.

For example, schools could advertise their standards, curricular, and testing programs so that parents would be more likely to choose their school. Some testing is likely a natural outcome of a competitive environment, which is something parents should be able to opt into, and the vast majority probably would.

But some parents would not. And that’s okay. As Dr. Friedman wrote, “[school choice] would prevent parents from being frustrated in spending more money on schooling by…the present need for conformity….”

The current movement toward high-stakes standardized testing encourages exactly that: conformity.

Perhaps some parents’ children have severe test anxiety. Maybe their children have talents and interests not measured well by any existing tests. Some parents probably are concerned the real or perceived benefits of testing do not justify the costs—the increasing expense, the narrowing of curriculum to tested subjects and formats (e.g., multiple choice), the growing number of cheating scandals by teachers and administrators, etc.

Milton Friedman would agree with this sentiment expressed by Friedrich Hayek in 1960:

“The argument for liberty is not an argument against organization, which is one of the most powerful means that human reason can employ, but an argument against all exclusive, privileged, monopolistic organization, against the use of coercion to prevent others from trying to do better.”

Dr. Friedman even said educational freedom would be preferred compared to coercion “because teachers and parents are free to choose how the children shall be taught. … Control has been taken away from bureaucrats and put back where it belongs.”

Dr. Friedman would not argue against “organization” via standardized testing of how well students learn a standardized curriculum.

The issue is who decides the standards, curriculum, and testing: parents who know their children best or elected officials and education experts who impose one-size-fits-all programs on students?

Whether one chooses to call it parental choice, school choice, or educational choice, the goal is the same: Give families the freedom to choose the schools, teachers, books, curriculum, or tests—and any other acceptable educational offering—that works best for them. We believe that is what Milton Friedman would say.