Big Win for Opt-Out

The Opt-Out movement in New York State and maybe across the country may have already won. In New York, 200,000 students refused to take either the Math or English standardized exam (or both) last April. This was quadruple the number of students opting out of the 2014 tests and by far the highest opt-out rate in the country.

Opt-Out is a parent-led campaign supported by many teachers against Common Core aligned high-stakes tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools. In 2015 it moved from the political margins and emerged as a full-scale social movement committed to the idea that education should be about children, not testing. States have not yet abandoned Common Core and Race to the Top mandated high-stakes testing, but as the Opt-Out movement continues to grow and its pace of growth continues to accelerate, I believe they will.

Politicians want votes almost as much as they want money and they will be forced to respond. In New York State Governor Andy (who thinks he's King) Cuomo and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl "Testing" Tisch pushed out State Education Commissioner John King last December, partly because of his poor job selling the tests to parents. Then in July Cuomo and Tisch dumped Pearson as the company responsible for creating and administering the high-stakes tests. To assuage parents the State Legislature ordered school districts not to use student scores on the high-stakes tests as the primary factor in determining promotion or to put scores on a student's permanent record. The State Education Department now concedes that because of the high number of students opting out of the last round of test the scores are not reliable measures of student, teacher, or school performance.

Testing advocates are increasingly worried by the parental response. Board of Regents Chancellor Tisch has repeated called opting out of the state exams a terrible mistake by parents and said that if she had children scheduled to take the exams she would not have them opted-out. But of course Tisch is very wealthy and her now adult children attended private schools where they did not take state tests that are mandated for children in public schools.

A New York Times editorial on Saturday August 15 declared "Opting Out of Standardized Tests Isn't the Answer." It called opting out by 20% of the students scheduled to take the tests "alarming" and charged "this ill-conceived boycott could damage educational reform." But their upset is because Opt-out is not "ill-conceived" and because stopping corporate for profit efforts to privatize public education in the name of reform is a crucial goal shared by many in the movement.

The Times joined with State Education officials and tried to drive a wedge between suburban, urban, and rural parents, claiming the opt-out movement was made up of only middle-class White suburban parents who lacked concern for the education of other children. It is true the opt-out movement took off first in the suburbs, but it is also true that those are the communities where parent organizations were already stronger and better organized.

New York City schools have about 40% of the public school children in the state. The Times emphasized that less than 2% of them opted out of the exams this year. What the Times left out is that city parents worried that if their children skipped the tests they would be denied admission to better academic programs in elementary schools and to the middle and high schools of their choice. Opt-out leaders from NYS Allies for Public Education plan to enlist support around the state from the beginning of the school year. If they can successfully address parental fears, and I believe they will, a lot more city parents will be signing up and a lot more city children will be opting out next April.

Much of the opposition to the testing regime arose because it transforms schools into test prep academies. According to NYS Allies for Public Education spokesperson Jeanette Deutermann "Opting out the week before the test, the teacher still test preps throughout the year. From the first day of school, we want teachers to know the test has no bearing on them."

As far as I know, New York State and the United States are still democracies and it is time that elected officials listened to concerned voters. The suburban parents dismissed by the State Education Department and the New York Times will be key voters in the 2016 Presidential primaries and elections. I look forward to Hillary Clinton and some of the other candidates wearing opt-out t-shirts pretty soon.