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Published in Print: May 6, 2015, as Some Balk As Testing Rolls Ahead

'Opt-Out' Push Gains Traction Amid Common-Core Testing

Meredith Barber, a Penn Valley, Penn., psychologist, has decided that her 10-year-old daughter Gabrielle Schwager will not be taking the state assessments this year.
Meredith Barber, a Penn Valley, Penn., psychologist, has decided that her 10-year-old daughter Gabrielle Schwager will not be taking the state assessments this year.
—Matt Slocum/AP

'Opt-Out' activists set sights on hobbling states' exams

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The push by activists of various stripes to have parents opt students out of state exams this spring has transformed skepticism and long-running anger over the direction of education policy into a movement with numbers and a growing public profile. Whether those activists can craft a durable and effective political movement remains an open question.

Advocates, standardized-testing opponents, and observers continue to debate the movement's true goals, the disparity between the proportion of opt-outs and their broader importance, and how much the demographics of participating parents hurt or strengthen the cause.

Recent events in New York state, where disputes over the fiscal 2016 budget ratcheted up tensions over the role of testing in state policy, show how the opt-out campaign can gain traction. After years of negotiations and disagreements with the state over evaluations, the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers called on parents to opt their children out of exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and tens of thousands reportedly have done so.

And in a sharp counterpoint to social-media monitoring conducted on behalf of the testing company Pearson to watch for breaches in testing security, last month a Facebook group opposed to New York state's testing posted portions of the state's English/language arts exam online.

In remarks last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan indicated the Education Department would intervene in states and districts with high opt-out rates. Sanctions for insufficient participation on federally required exams can include the withholding of Title I funds. Federal law requires 95 percent of students to be tested.

Many states don't have policies that specifically address opt-outs, according to a survey by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. That uncertainty, along with many parents' anxiety over the footprint and variety of tests in public schools, has helped propel opt-outs, said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which tracks implementation of the common core and aligned tests.

"This stuff is really confusing. It does differ from state to state," Ms. Ferguson said. "People don't know what to do, and so it's like, 'We'll opt out. We'll free our children from this tyranny.' "

Searching for a Tally

Official statistics on the number and proportion of opt-outs continue to be hard to come by in many instances, but not always.

Last month, the New Jersey education department reported that for the first window of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests in English/language arts and math, the parental refusal rate for students in grades 3-6 was 3.8 percent. For high school juniors, who don't have to pass the test to graduate, the refusal rate was 14.5 percent. (The PARCC test is given over two testing windows.)

However, in New York, the state education department has not reported the number or percentage of parental opt-outs from the state's English/language arts and math tests, and does not plan to do so until the summer, according to spokesman Tom Dunn.

The Newsday newspaper in New York reported late last month that in two Long Island counties, roughly 32,700 students out of 67,600 eligible students in grades 3-8 (48 percent) refused to take the math test.

United 2 Counter, a group opposed to New York's common-core tests, reported in late April that statewide, there were about 193,000 opt-outs from the English/language arts test, and 151,000 opt-outs from the math exam. The statewide K-12 enrollment is about 2.7 million, with 1 million in New York City, although not all of those students are eligible to take the common-core test.

The group cites news media, union representatives, school officials, and parents as sources, but doesn't always put a name to them. Asked to what extent the public should trust the organization's numbers, Loy Gross, the group's co-founder and a math tutor in upstate New York, responded that, if anything, United 2 Counter undercounts the real tally of total opt-outs. She explained that parents involved with the group, for example, are told to count heads on three testing days and report the lowest of the three opt-out numbers.

Ms. Gross said schools have become "shackled" to the common core and aligned tests.

"These tests are not telling us anything that we haven't known since NCLB started," said Ms. Gross., referring to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "The testing initially did give us some useful measurements. But ever since that point, it's become all about those measurements, that if we measure these kids enough, somehow they're going to grow faster."

While Ms. Gross acknowledged the NYSUT support for a boycott of the tests was an important step for the opt-out campaign, she strongly objected to the argument that unions are the true leaders of the push.

Among opt-out proponents, there's also a deep distrust of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and state K-12 governance, she said.

"The only thing left was to starve the beast," said state Assemblyman James Tedisco, a Republican who is sponsoring a bill that would require districts to inform parents about their rights to opt their students out of the state tests, and to provide alternate activities for opt-outs. "We're not going to take it any more."

But one advocate for the use of test scores in teacher evaluations said that without the self-interest motivating NYSUT, the opt-out campaign would lose critical fuel."While I'm sure there is some genuine parent pushback, there's no question the teachers' union ginned up dissatisfaction so that union members would not be held accountable for student learning," said Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirst New York, a state affiliate of the Sacramento-based StudentsFirst.

This year, New York legislators charged the state education department with overseeing a new teacher-evaluation system. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch subsequently announced her plan to extend the deadline for implementing new evaluations from this November to September 2016. Ms. Tisch has urged parents not to opt their children out of testing, but she also vigorously opposes the idea that the federal government should respond to high opt-out rates by withholding funding from schools.

'Bootleggers and Baptists'

Just where the movement will ultimately lead is an open question.

Without a broad strategy that covers the full range of tests beyond common-core exams, Ms. Ferguson said, opt-out proponents' success may be limited.

But significant ideological divides may actually help the opt-out push in certain ways.According to Dick M. Carpenter, a professor of leadership and foundations at the college of education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the opt-out movement fits the "Bootleggers and Baptists" phenomenon articulated by economist Bruce Yandle. In this environment, groups that typically disagree sharply about issues, like liquor smugglers and religious anti-liquor activists, unite in their position toward a certain policy, like "blue laws" that restrict alcohol sales.

Similarly, opt-out can appeal to conservatives, who see the test as an intrusion of government, and liberals, who believe the tests hurt schools without helping instruction, Mr. Carpenter said.

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For example, last month the Colorado Senate gave preliminary, bipartisan approval to a bill that reduces state testing to the minimum required by the federal government.

"It's an issue that's getting a surprising amount of attention in a relatively short period of time," Mr. Carpenter said.

Vol. 34, Issue 29, Pages 1,16-17

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