The Testing Opt-Out Movement Explodes, and the Empire Strikes Back

Education policymakers and elected officials can no longer ignore or trivialize the test resistance movement. It's become too massive. In a historic example of civil disobedience this spring, around 200,000 New York parents opted out of high-stakes standardized testing for their children. That's more than triple last year's numbers. New Jersey refusal numbers exploded from 1,000 last year to 50,000 this year. Opting out is occurring in nearly every state. These parents are sick and tired of the fear and anxiety that the testing tsunami has provoked in their children, not to mention the narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test, and pressure on teachers to cheat.

In response, there are encouraging signs of progress in Congress. The U.S. Senate education committee, for instance, has endorsed a revamped version of the despised "No Child Left Behind" law. It ends most federal sanctions based on test scores. The bill also recognizes parents' right to refuse standardized tests by upholding state laws that allow opting out. It still does not do enough to reverse test misuse and overuse, keeping annual math and reading tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. (This could change, if enough senators hear from constituents supporting Senator Jon Tester's amendment to roll back the amount of testing to once in each of three grade spans succeeds.) There is legislation advancing in about 10 states to allow opting out, on top of the seven that now do so.

Unable to dismiss the opt-out movement, some officials seek to bully test resisters into compliance. Federal, state and local officials have repeatedly threatened that if schools don't have 95% test participation, they risk losing vital federal Title 1 education money.

FairTest knows of no school, district or state that has been sanctioned for not reaching the 95% threshold. NCLB does say that 95% of students must take federally mandated state exams or their schools and districts will fail to make "adequately yearly progress" (AYP). Failure to make AYP unleashes a chain of escalating sanctions, but the list of sanctions does not include the loss of federal funds.

These facts have not prevented many media outlets from reporting funding loss as a real risk. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan boosted the fearmongering by saying, "[T]he federal government is obligated to intervene if states fail to address the rising number of students who are boycotting mandated annual exams." Another U.S. Department of Education (DOE) staffer mentioned the possibility that funds could be withheld if too few students take tests.

However, Assistant Secretary Deborah Deslisle acknowledged the DOE does not want to take money away from schools. Moreover, in the highly unlikely event the DOE does intervene, the first step would be a "corrective action" plan to address the low participation rates. This is typically a multi-year process during which time schools would not lose funding and by the end of which Duncan would be out of office.

In New York, the epicenter of opting out, school officials are clearly feeling the political heat generated by the movement. New York Board of Regents Chair Meryl Tisch responded by speaking out of both sides of her mouth. On the one side, she said the feds should not withhold funding from low-income schools; on the other, she threated to withhold state funds. The New York State Council of School Superintendents countered with a public statement saying, "There are no provisions in law that would lead to a loss of state aid due to low test participation." Similar scenarios are playing out in New Jersey and other states.

Parents continue to opt their children out of these damaging tests, with some condemning the defunding threats in no uncertain terms. "To react to parents who are speaking out by threatening to defund our schools is outrageous," said Megan Diver, the mother of twin girls who refused their third-grade test in Brooklyn, NY.

As the resistance continues to escalate, we will no doubt see more threats and misrepresentations. But the movement shows every sign of remaining energized and united, keeping its eyes on the prize: a more rational approach to assessment and accountability that does not turn schools into test prep centers full of fearful teachers and disengaged students.