Students in the Commack Union Free School District in New York do well. The district’s high school is consistently ranked as one of the best on Long Island.
However, the district’s students have been opting out of standardized tests in droves. During the 2014-2015 school year, more than 50 percent of students in third through eighth grade opted out of taking the state’s English language arts test. Preliminary data from this year show the number has only increased.
Over 90 percent of the district’s students are white. Only a small fraction of students come from low-income families.
About 20 minutes away at Wyandanch Union Free School District, standardized testing season tells a different story. In Wyandanch, less than 10 percent of students refused to take ELA tests last year. A majority of students are black, and a majority are low-income.
Standardized testing season in K-12 public schools is currently underway, with students from third grade through eighth grade sitting down for time-consuming, high-stakes math and English language arts exams. The Commack and Wyandanch districts represent a wider dichotomy in America, whereby in some places, white families so far have been choosing to opt their students out of tests at higher rates than families of color.
In recent months, leaders from the opt-out movement have gone on the offensive to recruit more parents of color to their cause. Here's why the opt-out movement is dominated by white families, and why leaders are trying to make the cause more diverse.
A Movement For 'White Suburban Moms'?
There have been questions over the racial and socioeconomic background of students who opt out of standardized tests since 2013, when then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented that opposition to the Common Core State Standards was driven by "white suburban moms."
The Common Core State Standards are a set of math and literacy benchmarks that have been championed by the Obama administration and adopted in a majority of states. Opposition to the Common Core, and their associated standardized tests, helped spur the opt-out movement.
Parents choose to opt their kids out of tests for varying reasons, and policymakers on both the left and right take issue with the Common Core -- but some numbers bear out Duncan's statement. Students who opted out of New York state standardized tests during the 2014-2015 school year were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor. In New Jersey, wealthy districts had the highest opt-out rates last year. In a 2015 poll from PDK/Gallup, 44 percent of white parents said they think they should be allowed to excuse their children from tests, compared to 35 percent of Hispanic parents and 28 percent of black parents parents.
Jose Vilson is a math teacher and founder of EduColor, a group that "seeks to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice." Vilson favors "alternate methods for assessment" beyond high-stakes testing, and he thinks the messaging around standardized tests differs between urban and suburban schools.
"With urban schools, the test has been promoted as the opportunity for those to advance to different grades or move upward and onward ... I don’t think that’s the message coming out of suburban schools," said Vilson. "In suburbia, it's like, 'Our kid is going to be promoted regardless.'"
There's A Divide Among Civil Rights Groups
Denisha Jones, an assistant professor in the school of education at Howard University and an administrator for United Opt Out, understands why black parents might be naturally less disposed to opt their children out of the tests. Standardized tests help expose achievement gaps between groups of students, which advocates say can hold schools accountable for their failings.
But she doesn't think the logic adds up. Just because scores help indicate a school is failing its students, doesn't mean the school will necessarily be injected with new resources.
"It's like thinking taking your temperature is going to cure your flu," said Jones. "Testing will never change the achievement gap."
She thinks students of color are opting out of tests in growing numbers, and her group has been trying to make sure their communities are reached.
"A lot of black parents feel like, 'Yes the tests are flawed and they’re biased. But the best way I can help my child is to make sure they do well on this test,y" said Jones. "When you have middle-class parents it might be like,'I know my kid will do well but I find this harmful.' There's a little difference there sometimes. We’re trying to talk to our parents of color and say, it's not about whether your kid does well or not, it's, 'Should this be the way they're treated in school? Should this determine their future?'"
What's more, Jones feels like standardized tests are part of an education reform agenda that uniquely affects students of color. She notes that low standardized test scores are often used as a justification to close schools in communities of color.
"In addition to testing, they have to deal with charter schools and Teach for America coming in. That’s not necessarily happening in some of the white middle-class schools," said Jones.
On the other hand, a group of civil rights organizations -- including the NAACP and National Urban League -- announced their opposition to opt-out efforts in May 2015, citing the importance of collecting data on underserved populations.
Referring to the No Child Left Behind Act, a joint statement from the groups noted, "Until federal law insisted that our children be included in these assessments, schools would try to sweep disparities under the rug by sending our children home or to another room while other students took the test. Hiding the achievement gaps meant that schools would not have to allocate time, effort, and resources to close them. Our communities had to fight for this simple right to be counted and we are standing by it."
These organizations stress that uniform assessments are important for making sure students of color are not being held to a lower standard. Large numbers of opt-outs undermine standardized tests as an objective baseline for achievement, noted a spokesperson for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
But that doesn't mean the tests are perfect.
"Standardized tests, as ‘high stakes tests,’ have been misused over time to deny opportunity and undermine the educational purpose of schools, actions we have never supported and will never condone," said the May 2015 statement. "There are some legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed."
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.