Academic journal article Education Next

Making Sense of the Opt-Out Movement: Education Next Talks with Scott Levy and Jonah Edelman

Academic journal article Education Next

Making Sense of the Opt-Out Movement: Education Next Talks with Scott Levy and Jonah Edelman

Article excerpt

Over the past few years, students by the thousands have refused to take their state's standardized tests. This "opt-out" phenomenon has prompted debate in state legislatures and in Washington, putting states at risk of losing Title I funds. Advocates describe opt-out as a grassroots movement of parents concerned about overtesting, teaching to the test, and a lack of transparency. Others oppose opt-out, viewing universal standardized testing as an important source of information for educators, students, and parents and a necessary tool for ensuring equity in public education. Scott Levy, a New York State public-school parent and local school board member, and Jonah Edelman, cofounder and CEO of Stand for Children, a national organization advocating for college and career readiness for all, draw different conclusions in their analyses of the topic.



IN A JANUARY 2014 SPEECH, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, urged parent leaders to hold high expectations for schools. "Please raise your voice for excellence--and against complacency," he said. "Organize other parents.... Ask the hard questions, even when it means shaking things up and challenging the status quo."

One year later, parents in New York raised their voices and shook things up when 20 percent of all eligible grade 3-8 students refused to participate in the 2015 state assessments. (By my calculations based on state-issued data, more than 225,000 students opted out.) Ironically, the policies being challenged were inspired by Duncans signature reform initiative, Race to the Top (RttT).

Many policymakers and pundits view the opt-out phenomenon as a fringe movement and have characterized test-refusing parents as uninformed middle-class suburbanites who are pawns of the teachers union and who are undermining accountability and the measurement of the achievement gap. An analysis of the facts suggests otherwise.

The New York test refusals were a symptom of legitimate parental concerns, resulting from the negative unintended consequences of school-reform policy. To get a clear understanding of the test-refusal movement, we need to analyze its root causes and the underlying issues that drove parental discontent.

Fringe Parents?

New York's 20 percent opt-out rate is impressive when compared to other expressions of civic engagement. For example, Governor Andrew Cuomo won the 2014 gubernatorial election by garnering only 19 percent of the eligible vote because of low voter turnout. Additionally, the 20 percent opt-out rate underrepresents the magnitude of parental opposition to New York's current high-stakes testing policy. Many parents (like me) oppose it, but, for a variety of reasons, decided to have their kids sit for the 2015 exam. According to an April 2015 New York Times article, "even parents uncomfortable with the exams are discovering it is hard to push the button on the nuclear option." Many superintendents discouraged opt-outs, fearing retribution from government entities. One district warned that schools with an opt-out rate in excess of 5 percent would risk being designated "In Need of Improvement," at which point the state could require a "re-allocation of financial and educational resources... [that] could be significantly detrimental." Districts that rely on Title I money worried that the federal government would withhold funds. The test-refusal rate was also very low in New York City, where state tests factor into middle and high school admissions and giffed-and-talented placement. Elsewhere in the state, the refusal rate was about 30 percent (see Figure 1).

Bamboozled by the Teachers Union?

Fifteen days prior to the 2015 state assessments, the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) publicly encouraged opt-out. The Daily News wrote, "The attacks on testing are orchestrated to protect teachers, not students. …

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