Above: Jessie Rothenberg, age 8, holds a sign while sitting on her father’s shoulders while protesting Gov. Cuomo’s education policies in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in March. Photo by STEPHANIE KEITH FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS.
Activists driving the resistance to state exams are attempting to build on their state-level momentum over the past year, while also venturing into a new political landscape that will test whether the energy behind their initial victories will last.
And they say they’re forging ahead with their plans regardless of how much support they get from traditional education advocacy groups, including teachers’ unions.
Several leaders within the so-called testing opt-out movement, which has gained considerable traction in New York and also found a foothold in states like Colorado and Connecticut, say they will continue to push parents to refuse to allow their children to take standardized exams, particularly state tests, for as long as it’s necessary.
They’ll stop, they say, when states adopt accountability policies that prevent tests from being used to rank, sort, and impose what opponents consider unfair consequences on students, teachers, and schools.
Some groups also are looking to extend their influence beyond testing fights to push in states for higher and more equitable levels of school funding and changes to K-12 governance to increase what they say is more local and more democratic control.
Like other education-focused advocacy organizations, groups seeking to alter testing’s place in public schools say they’re looking forward to life under the Every Student Success Act, the new federal education law that returns many key policy decisions to states. That includes application of the federal policy requiring states to test 95 percent of their students for accountability purposes.
That mandate remains under ESSA. But the newly reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act specifically lets states decide how missing the requirement will impact school ratings.
Anti-testing advocates may have new chances for success in state capitals that offer them a smaller scale than Washington, said Diane Ravitch, the president of the Network for Public Education, or NPE, a nonprofit that supports the opt-out movement and pushes for local control of schools.
“Congress doesn’t pay attention to a grassroots group that has no lobbyist,” Ravitch said, referring to her own organization. “So I think that means we can be much more effective at the state level.”
A rough measure of the opt-out movement’s success surfaced last month, when the U.S. Department of Education released letters it had sent to 13 states about test-participation rates that were below 95 percent, either in individual districts or statewide. In New York, home of perhaps the most robust opt-out movement in the country, 1 in 5 students eligible to take the state English/language arts and math tests did not do so in the 2014-15 school year.
Several opt-out leaders say that if test refusal numbers continue to rise in the short-term, as they expect, it will add momentum to their agenda.
Next month, Ravitch’s group plans to release a 50-state report card on education policy. It’s designed to be a direct response to report cards by groups whose positions her organization generally opposes, including StudentsFirst and the American Legislative Exchange Council, said Carol Burris, the executive director of the network’s 501(c)3 arm.
The groups in her network’s crosshairs don’t necessarily align perfectly on all fronts—ALEC, for instance, has praised states that have created a relatively loose regulatory environment for home schoolers, whereas StudentsFirst has not.
The NPE’s report card, in contrast to ratings from those groups, will penalize states that create friendly environments for privately operated charter schools and vouchers. It will also reward those that provide relatively high and equitable levels of school funding, and uphold policy to “professionalize” teaching. (Burris declined to elaborate on what that latter phrase meant, although the group is critical of those like Teach For America that promote nontraditional pathways to teaching.)
“It’s a very public way that the Network for Public Education and United Opt Out can bring attention to a bigger cause,” Burris said, referring to another pro-opt-out organization. “That cause being: We’ve become so obsessed with testing, with the ranking and the rating of schools, and then using testing as a weapon against public education.”
‘We’ll Watch Legislation’
Those backing opt-out have won some concessions at the state level recently. One of their clearest recent victories was in Oregon, where last year Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill requiring districts to notify parents about their rights to refuse to have their children take mandated state tests. The bill also created two school-ratings systems, only one of which penalizes schools for high opt-out rates.
But early victories don’t mean that the path ahead in state legislatures is uniformly smooth.
Colorado opt-out activists’ primary goal this school year is to increase the number of parental test refusals in Colorado to 300,000, roughly triple the number of opt-outs on the state’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) exams last year, said Stefanie Fuhr, a United Opt Out, Colorado leader.
“We’ll watch legislation, of course,” Fuhr said. “But right now, our goal is to make sure the people know that the system is flawed.”
Fuhr conceded that she doesn’t “have a lot of faith in our legislators,” since many Colorado lawmakers, in her view, are more likely to be influenced by groups like the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports the need for tests in accountability, than they are by opt-out supporters.
Fuhr also said her group is increasing outreach efforts to poorer communities in places like Denver.
Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (known as FairTest), which opposes high-stakes tests, said it’s crucial that advocates get a good handle on their state’s politics.
“There are so many variables for each movement in each state,” Neill said. “It’s clearly an issue. Movement activists, whether they’re heavy into opt-out or doing other things, have got to figure that out.”
It’s also not clear whether the opt-out movement will rely on or need an ideologically diverse coalition. In at least a few instances, groups with different views on other issues have pushed in the same direction to oppose high-stakes testing.
For example, Neill pointed out that Save Our Schools New Jersey, which advocates for greater school funding as well as opt-out, has previously made common cause with the Eagle Forum of New Jersey, a conservative group that has fought the Common Core State Standards for several years in part because it believes the standards represent a federal intrusion into schools. Both groups oppose the PARCC testing regimen in New Jersey, albeit not for identical reasons.
But there’s relatively weak support for opt-out among the general public, said Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard University who runs its education policy and governance program. The program’s 2015 national polling data reported that 59 percent of the general public and 52 percent of parents oppose the right to opt out, compared to the 25 percent and 32 percent, respectively, who support it.
If arguments about teacher evaluations become less explosive, that could also hurt opt-out’s long-term prospects, according to Peterson.
“I think the parent opt-out effort is endangered,” he said.
Observers and activists also differ about how important teachers’ unions are to the opt-out movement’s credibility and long-term viability.
Peterson said if teacher evaluations move to the political back burner, unions could have less incentive to help the movement.
But some state teachers’ unions likely need all the political allies they can get, while opt-out in turn might come to consider the union’s financial muscle and organization crucial, said Jeffrey R. Henig, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“The challenge is not being trapped into it being simply an ‘anti’ focus, but also to flesh out a little bit more what a positive vision and alternative might be,” Henig said.
The American Federation of Teachers has already pushed back against what it sees as unwarranted federal incursions into the new boundaries set by ESSA. In response to an Education Department letter to states last month that they must have plans for dealing with low participation rates or face federal sanctions, AFT President Randi Weingarten stressed in her own January letter that states could decide how those rates factor into accountability. She added the opt-out movement was “a referendum on this administration’s policies.”
Regardless, opt-out leaders stress that unions have never led the movement and aren’t crucial to it. Ravitch noted that New York State United Teachers, which called for a boycott of state exams last year, only backed the opt-out movement late in the game.
And Neill said opting out of exams isn’t always a prerequisite for rolling back assessment—he pointed to the backlash to the volume of state exams in Texas that led the legislature to reduce testing’s footprint in 2013 without relying on opt out.
Said Ravitch: “We’re seeing more and more of a mainstream recognition.”
Almost a year ago, Education Week Assistant Editor Liana Heitin spoke with opt-out advocates at an anti-testing conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Organizers of the conference and those attending it said they hoped to end “what they consider punitive and overly burdensome testing practices in K-12 schools,” Heitin wrote. Below are videos of interviews with those attending the Fort Lauderdale conference discussing various aspects of resistance to testing.
Amy Ackermann, the founder of Opt Out Palm Beach County, explains the struggles parents and students face when they choose to opt out.
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.
Sam Anderson, a retired professor of mathematics and black history, discusses the effect demographics have had on the opt-out movement so far.