Testing Wars: Opt-Out Movement Gains Momentum and Critics

A growing legion of parents, students and educators have joined the battle over high-stakes standardized tests in recent years, arguing that students are harmed by the conditions fostered by the obsession with test scores. As an act of civil disobedience against the federal and state test promoters, who have disregarded their concerns, an increasingly insistent “opt-out” movement has taken root in school districts across the nation.

In the latest round of the testing wars, 12 civil rights organizations released a statement opposing the movement to opt out of assessments that are reported to take from eight to 12 hours to complete and which are choking out many elements of a well-rounded educational curriculum.

By describing standardized testing as a “civil rights” issue, they rest their analysis on the contention that the tests are valuable because they spotlight educational inequities and thus help schools direct resources to the neediest students.

Ceding no ground to this dozen, the Seattle NAACP makes a different case. Also inarguably focused on civil rights, this group sees the tests themselves as the source of damage to educational quality. Likewise, Gary Orfield, professor and codirector of the Civil Rights project at UCLA, identifies the conditions undermining student success as the proper target of concern. Testing does not, he notes, address students’ economic challenges, such as food insecurity, racism, unemployment and homelessness.

Recognizing that the number-one factor correlating with student success is socio-economic status, Orfield observes: “The idea that you can just ignore the conditions that create inequality in schools and just put more and more pressure on schools, and if that doesn’t work, add more sanctions, makes no sense. As if it’s just a matter of will for the students and teachers in these schools of concentrated poverty.”

In spite of the backlash against the opt-out movement, students are refusing to show up to school to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), two state-adopted summative tests described as aligned to the Common Core Standards.

Citing test-taking anxiety, irrelevance and objectionable labeling of students and schools, young people have famously opted out of the tests, sabotaged answer sheets and held rallies and demonstrations against the assessments. A growing chorus of teachers and parents echo the kids’ concerns. They agree that the tests take time away from important subjects such as art and music that make learning more relevant and meaningful.

But Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, Test Enforcer In Chief, is not backing down. Although he admits that students are over-tested, he believes that states have an obligation to test students. Duncan has publicly denounced the opt-out movement and has on several occasions threatened to withhold federal funding from states whose schools fail to test 95 percent of students.

There is scant reason to believe that Duncan will follow through on his threats to punish high-poverty schools by slashing their federal Title I funding, however. Since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the federal government has not withheld funding from any state out of compliance with the demand for universal testing.

Fearing reprisal, however, and at times buying into the latest reform movements pushed upon them, some districts have followed Duncan’s lead in discouraging opt-outs. In New York, Florida and California, students who opted out of the annual state test were forced to follow the district’s “stay and stare” policy. They had to literally stare at classroom walls while their classmates took the tests. These students were not allowed to read, write or work on alternative assignments.

Punitive measures such as these have raised ethical questions about the rights of schoolchildren. Of equal concern is federal intrusion into education policy matters constitutionally assigned to the states.

With strong backing from students and parents, Oregon teachers advanced House Bill 2655 this year to enable parents to opt out their students for any reason. The proposal includes an assessment “bill of rights” that requires districts to provide detailed information to parents about the tests their children will be asked to take. The bill sailed through Oregon’s House of Representatives on a 47-10 vote but hit rougher waters in the more-cautious Senate. Still, after a month of intense public pressure, HB 2655 ultimately passed the Senate 24-6. At this writing, the bill awaits the signature of Governor Kate Brown, where reformists have launched a full-court press to urge a veto. Even Arne Duncan placed a call.

The Oregon fight for HB 2655 is emblematic of the corporate education reform steamroller that has so bruised American public education in recent years. Corporate-funded advocacy groups worked tirelessly to kill the bill. At a Senate Education Committee hearing meeting in May, Stand for Children and The Chalkboard Project testified against the bill. Their lead argument was that federal funding of Oregon’s high-poverty schools would be put at risk – as much as $140 million.

Loss of federal funding was not the only reason they opposed the bill, however. They also repeated the claim that data from the tests is useful for school accountability, transparency and teacher evaluation purposes, supposedly to reduce the so-called student achievement gap. This argument appears to rest on the assumption that teacher quality and motivation are root causes of student learning gaps, not the issues linked to poverty. It also posits the notion that a reading and math test score paint a full picture of student “achievement.”

Assuming that Oregon’s experiment succeeds, the opt-out movement, now hovering just under 5 percent, is likely to grow. But that is hardly the ultimate victory. Whether the Refuseniks come from poor or affluent families, the resistance they invoke must lead to real change. Their civil disobedience must expose a reform movement that has trimmed back recess, cut out enrichments, and made learning a grim exercise in kill-and-drill test prep, killing children’s love of learning. Opting out must lead to a return to the kind of education that encourages all students from all backgrounds to pursue their dreams. Now that’s a civil rights vision for our times.