“Unprecedented” Numbers Opt Out of State Tests-What’s Next?

Today students in New York State begin three days of state-mandated tests in English language arts.  But thousands of families across the state, from Syracuse and Buffalo to the Hudson Valley, Long Island to New York City, will sit out the tests, citing concerns with their relevance and the sense that the curriculum has been taken over by preparation.

“It shifts the entire focus of the classroom,” says Jeannette Deutermann, the organizer behind Long Island Opt Out, a Facebook group with almost 16,000 members. “They seem way too young to have that much testing and that much focus on the tests.”

The spring of 2014 has seen a wave of grassroots activism against both standardized tests and the Common Core that Bob Schaeffer, a longtime activist with the group Fairtest, calls “unprecedented.” The numbers are small, but they’re found around the country. Chicago, site of the 2012 teachers’ strike, and Colorado have seen the most action so far, although opt-out protests have been reported in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennslyvania, New Jersey, and Alabama among other states.

Now it is New York’s turn. This is the second year that New York State students are taking Common Core aligned exams, which last year showed a 25-30 point drop in scores compared to previous tests, raising the ire of parents. It is unusual for parent activists in heavily democratic Greenpoint, Brooklyn to be on the same page with those in more conservative Syracuse, hundreds of miles away in Western New York. But the same pattern is repeating around the country. The convergence of resistance to the Common Core, a cause championed by libertarian and other right-wing groups, with resistance to state standardized tests, often backed by progressive teachers’ unions and civil rights groups, has led to what Schaeffer calls a “strange-bedfellows alliance.”

But based on organizers I’ve talked to in Texas, Washington State, Colorado and New York while researching my new book, most of the opposition to school testing honestly doesn’t have a prearranged political agenda at all. ”The policy and funding elites–the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations–major campaign donors, and the elite mass media are pushing for more tests and the Core,” Schaeffer says. On the other side, “There’s really a populist pushback–lots of just plain parents and teachers who think layering on even more test driven curriculum is not going to have the results we want.”

That describes Deutermann. She got involved in organizing “by accident” when the older of her two sons, then in 3rd grade, started crying and begging not to go to school.  ”He had stomachaches at night. We took him in for all kinds of blood tests, allergy tests. The doctor said it was stress related.” Since last spring she has devoted her evenings to driving all over Long Island holding public forums on the drawbacks of testing and how to opt out. She has built a network of volunteer liasions representing 80 of Long Island’s 122 districts.

She also helped found a statewide coalition, New York State Allies for Public Education. As of today she posted on her Facebook page that she expected 7500 students to refuse the state tests.

There are three potential outcomes of this movement.

The first is that no meaningful change will occur. The protests will subside and the ad hoc coalitions will fall apart. Traditional, largely multiple-choice, state-mandated standardized tests will continue for the foreseeable future and the rollout of the Common Core will proceed on schedule, despite hiccups such as Indiana’s dropping out and many other states distancing themselves from the standards in name.

The second is that more states and jurisdictions will seriously scale back on tests, as has already happened everywhere from Alaska to Texas. America could come to more closely resemble other successful school systems around the world which make do with just one big high school exit/college entrance exam, or two exams, one for high school entrance and one for high school exit.

The final possibility is that schools come to adopt better forms of assessment which align more closely with 21st century skills. For Schaeffer, the preferred alternative is performance-based assessment, where students do projects, build portfolios, and make public presentations of their work. New York State could lead the way here, because it has an established Performance Standards Consortium with 28 successful middle and high schools that use this form of assessment in place of state tests.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz writes the Digital/Edu blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (2010).