Activists Share Strategies for ‘Opting Out’ of Tests

By Liana Loewus — January 27, 2015 9 min read
Kathleen Jasper, left, former educator and school administrator, and Cindy Hamilton, a parent and the co-founder of Orlando Opt Out, lead a session at United Opt Out's national conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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Anti-testing advocates meeting here to advance their cause tossed around a list of protest strategies: Twitter campaigns, parent test-taking parties, quiet conversations in the teachers’ lounge, organized walkouts.

The 75 or so parents, educators, union leaders, and self-titled “agitators” at the United Opt Out National: Standing Up for Action conference, which took place over a weekend earlier this month, strategized on getting more people involved in the growing practice of “test refusal”—in the hope of ultimately ending what they consider punitive and overly burdensome testing practices in K-12 schools.

“You have to know this is an act of civil disobedience,” Cindy Hamilton, a parent and the co-founder of Orlando Opt Out, told a group of attendees. “This is not for the faint of heart.”

The convening offered a small window on an anti-testing movement that is heating up at both the grassroots and national levels. As Congress works to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—better known in its current version as No Child Left Behind—many lawmakers have expressed interest in cutting back the number of tests required by the law.

Sam Anderson, left, a retired professor of mathematics and black history, leads a discussion during United Opt Out's national conference this month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Senate education committee, introduced a draft bill this month with two proposed paths for testing, one of which would give states leeway to test students just once in particular grade spans rather than yearly. Now, most students take state standardized tests each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, while remaining steadfast in his commitment to keeping the annual testing in place, has said he’d like to help schools and districts weed out unnecessary tests. And in October, state schools chiefs and a national group representing big-city districts announced a plan to review district testing policies and help schools shed duplicative exams.

That momentum, combined with the rollout this spring of tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards—which are expected to be more onerous than previous state tests—has critics of current testing policies saying the time is ripe for mobilization.

Test Confusion

Here in Fort Lauderdale, attendees at the Jan. 16-18 conference targeted not just state tests, but all standardized tests. In addition to the summative state standardized tests required under federal law, many districts require benchmark tests to track student progress throughout the year. Students might also take unit tests tied to published curricula, end-of-course exams, Advanced Placement tests, the SAT or ACT, and nationally representative tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Rosemarie Jensen, a Parkland, Fla., parent activist, and a leader of United Opt Out, said: “We’re talking about all of it. Especially those of us who have kids in school and see how much time is lost.”

“The testing crowds out anything meaningful,” said Ms. Jensen, who is also a former teacher.

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Video: Rosemarie Jensen, a parent and organizer for United Opt Out, on why a focus on testing harms young students.

How much test-taking is going on around the country is hard to say. A report by the Washington-based Center for American Progress, released in August, found that students take more district-level than state-level assessments, but that the state tests tend to take up more time. Some students take as many as 20 standardized assessments per year, it concluded.

Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president for K-12 policy and practice at the Washington-based Education Trust, who was not in attendance here, said that while overtesting is a problem in some places, pushing to end annual state tests is not the solution. Such tests are a “vital tool” for comparing student-achievement “results across school districts, across zip codes,” said Ms. Santelises, a parent and a former chief academic officer of the Baltimore public schools.

“It wasn’t too long ago that as a nation we didn’t even chart how certain kids learned,” she said. “Nobody tracked when my father went to school—Nobody tracked how black kids in rural Mississippi did. Nobody cared.”

She said it’s critical for those who are worried about overtesting “to pinpoint your advocacy.”

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Video: Amy Ackermann, the founder of Opt Out Palm Beach County, explains the struggles parents and students face when they choose to opt out.

United Opt Out was started through social media four years ago by Peggy Robertson, an instructional coach at an elementary school in Aurora, Colo. It now has seven official administrators and a Facebook page with nearly 14,000 members. Regional groups have cropped up in more than 40 states. Florida now has regional Opt Out groups in Orlando, in Miami-Dade, and in Lee and Broward counties.

While conference participants agreed that standardized testing is hurting schools, their reasons varied for getting involved.

For instance, school counselor Leena Hasbini said that while working in a large Tampa public school, “all it felt like I was doing was proctoring. ... Whatever test was on the menu that week. It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Ms. Jensen, one of the event’s organizers, said she was fighting for children with learning disabilities, like her son, who she said are “totally getting trashed by the system.”

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Video: Leena Hasbini, a college counselor at a private high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., describes how students react to excessive testing—and why she left the public school system.

‘Diffuse Movement’

Barbara Madeloni, the president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, talked about her goal of increasing “solidarity and power” among union members, who have struggled under current testing policies. (The National Education Association, of which the MTA is an affiliate, supports policies that would reduce standardized testing in schools.)

And Roseanne Eckert, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents people on death row, said she’s concerned that overtesting has led to less recess and fewer electives in schools serving low-income students—a situation that she said “is feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The event also attracted members from like-minded advocacy groups, including the Network for Public Education, Save Our Schools, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, and the Badass Teachers Association.

Several of those groups, which have some leaders in common, share viewpoints on more than just testing: Their members also tend to object to the common-core standards, the significant role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in education grantmaking, widespread school closings in urban districts, efforts to increase the number of charter schools and private management of other public schools, and the impact of companies such as Pearson that develop tests and curricula. (Education Week is among the recipients of Gates grants.)

“This is a diffuse movement driven by grassroots activists in local communities,” said Robert A. Shaeffer, the public education director at the Jamaica Plain, Mass.-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. “That’s part of its strength.”

In a session on the logistics of test refusal, Ms. Hamilton of Orlando Opt Out explained that there are two ways to refuse to participate in a test in Florida.

First, parents can keep their children home during testing. There’s a 20-day testing window, and students would have to stay out for makeups as well. “That’s a giant chunk of time to keep your kid home,” Ms. Hamilton said, and that tactic could lead to truancy charges.

The second way, which she recommends, is to have the student sit for the test—to log in if it’s on a computer or break the plastic seal if it’s paper-and-pencil—but not answer any questions. “The state statute says schools must administer the test and students must participate, leaving participation undefined,” Ms. Hamilton said. “My personal opinion is seven months of test prep is participation.”

In the second approach, the student will receive a code of “non-attemptiveness” rather than a score, which “does not impact the school grade, teacher evaluation, or the student because it is no data,” she said.

And while lamenting the burden that tactic puts on students, she added in an interview that “we have plenty of 8-year-olds who do this. We’ve had great success.”

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Video: Cindy Hamilton, a co-founder of Orlando Opt Out, says that while refusing to take a test may put the burden on students, it’s not hard and many 8-year-olds do it.

After Ms. Hamilton’s explanation, the conversation quickly turned hyperlocal—exemplifying one of the many reasons the anti-testing movement is so hard to pin down. Parents began asking questions about the tests given in their districts and schools. Their experiences and the policies in their schools and districts were quite different, leading to some confusion about when and what to refuse.

National Numbers

Keeping track nationally of the numbers of students who actually opt out of tests—a potential indicator of United Opt Out’s effectiveness—is all but impossible. Districts often don’t know why a student didn’t take a test—whether he or she was sick, absent, refusing, or the test sheet was mishandled.

Perhaps the best-known numbers are from New York state, said Mr. Schaeffer. Parent Jeanette Deutermann, the founder of Long Island Opt Out, has tracked 3rd- 8th grade opt-outs in the state in a spreadsheet of more than 500 districts. Her data show about 40,000 opt-outs each in math and reading—roughly 3 percent of the state’s public school students across those grades.

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Video: Sam Anderson, a retired professor of mathematics and black history, discusses the effect demographics have had on the opt-out movement so far.

A spokeswoman for the New York state education department said the state does not collect test-refusal data.

Among other notable opt-out events:

• Thousands of high school seniors in Colorado skipped state-mandated science and social studies tests in November. The Denver Post reports that many of those students came from wealthy, high-achieving districts such as Boulder Valley and Douglas County.

• In March of last year, dozens of Chicago parents and teachers boycotted the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which is being phased out and carried no consequences.

• Two years ago in Seattle, teachers at Garfield High School boycotted the Measures of Academic Progress test, a computer-adaptive tool that teachers said was misaligned with their instruction. The district said it would stop requiring the test.

Florida took the anti-testing spotlight in August when the 85,000-student Lee County district became the first in the nation to decide not to administer federally mandated state standardized tests. That refusal didn’t last long: The school board reversed its decision a few days later.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as Activists Learn Art of ‘Test Refusal’


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