Teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School voted unanimously earlier this year not to give the district’s required reading and math test. They encountered predictable resistance from district officials and harsh criticism from outside observers. Many students and parents, however, sided with the teachers.
The PTA and student government leaders voted in support of the teachers, and many parents sent in “opt-out” letters to exempt their children from testing that they viewed as an inappropriate measure of teachers’ effectiveness. And so when administrators came to class with lists of kids who needed to take the tests during the spring testing period, many students were exempted and others students simply refused to go with the administrators.
There was “the most incredible sense of solidarity in the building,” recalls Garfield history teacher Jesse Hagopian.
Parents who opt out generally do so out of concern that too much time is being taken with testing (and test preparations), that tests are not reliable or valid measures of what students know, and that tests are being used to rate schools, teachers, and students in ways that aren’t fair.
This past year has shown an “unprecedented surge” of parents, teachers, and students revolting against standardized testing, according to Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a Ford Foundation-funded nonprofit.
Roughly half the parents at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, middle school opted out of a 90-minute “pilot” reading test that was added to the normal battery of reading and math tests this past spring.
Over the summer, an estimated 1,600 people filled a Long Island high school football stadium in protest against the state’s move toward newer, tougher tests.
More than 80 percent of the parents at a New York City primary school recently decided against participating in testing that would have been used to evaluate their children’s teachers.
A handful of states have pulled back their participation in the new assessments required under the Common Core State Assessment. And the Obama administration is now offering some states a two-year delay before they begin controversial new evaluations of teachers using test scores.
Garfield High School’s Hagopian predicts “the biggest revolt against standardized testing in U.S. history” during the coming testing season from March through May.
Test proponents aren’t so sure. “I just don’t see the groundswell of opposition against testing that FairTest and others claim to exist,” says Democrats for Education Reform’s policy director, Charles Barone.
Indeed, protests in New York State this past spring totaled less than 1 percent of students. Barone cites results from a recent Associated Press poll showing that only about one in four parents think their child takes too many standardized tests, and the support for most of the major civil rights groups for rigorous testing programs.
Standardized testing has long been a part of public education. Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Education has required that states receiving federal education funding test third- through eighth-grade students in reading and math, which is usually done in the spring and used to generate school and district report cards. Some states and districts have added annual tests in other grades and subjects, or even added fall testing. The most controversial new tests are those that have been added to the schedule in order to evaluate teachers.
Parent protests against tests “pop up like wildfires” about every decade, says the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless, who has written about the phenomenon. The last group of protests was a nearly decade ago, when parents in places like Scarsdale, New York, protested No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirements—as did several states (and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union). But the protests never caught on.
Pulling a child from standardized test can be quite simple for individual parents. Some places, it involves little more than a signed permission form downloaded from a state or district website. In other places, parents have cobbled together their own letters or simply handwritten a note. “That's all you need,” says Tulsa parent Deedra Barnes, who drafted a opt-out letter for parents to use at her son’s Tulsa middle school. “It doesn’t have to be an official form.”
On testing days, students do other homework, or read or draw in the classroom or somewhere else, depending on district and state policies. “Last year [my son] stayed home during testing time,” says Denver parent and public school teacher Peggy Robertson, one of the founders of United Opt Out National. “This year he will stay at school and do alternative activities.”
The process isn’t necessarily even controversial. There is usually no immediate impact for the kids whose parents opt them out, except in the relatively unusual situation where the tests are being used to determine whether a student is promoted to the next grade or graduates from high school. “[School administrators] were more than happy to accommodate me and actually asked if there were any other tests we would be refusing, such as ACT,” reports Robertson. Her son—now in high school—has never taken a standardized test of any kind.
However, when groups of parents become interested in opting out—or when the decision is part of larger protest of some kind (as in Seattle)—school administrators sometimes express concerns about invalidated scores, lower school ratings, or other consequences. Tests require a certain minimum number of participants to be considered valid, and No Child Left Behind requires 95 percent participation in each tested grade for the results to count.
“The guilt-tripping was very subtle, but my kids definitely got the message that they would be hurting the school/teacher if we opted out,” says Los Angeles parent Liz Dwyer, who was fed up with testing and test prep and agonized over whether to opt out or not in 2012 and 2013.
Even without any pressures from the school, “It takes some effort and ‘balls’ to opt out,” says Rebecca Labowitz, who runs the Chicago schools blog CPSObsessed. You “have to explain to your kid that you're taking a stand, and figure out what to do with them while all their classmates take the test,” she said.
Sometimes, children are more concerned about the impact of opting out than their parents. Chris Thiennes initially wanted to opt his son out of standardized tests—until his son convinced him that it was better for the school if he took the tests. The father describes the process as “an extraordinary opportunity to have an extended conversation with our son about the purpose of his learning at school."
In the last couple of years, critics have been focusing on the perceived proliferation of testing and its impact on kids. "The status quo today is test, test, test, pretest, posttest, data,” school reform critic Diane Ravitch told John Stewart on a recent edition of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. “Kids are not looked at as individuals. They’re looked at as data points."
Anecdotal reports suggest that testing has increased in recent years, though it is not known how much—or how widespread—the actual increase may be.
Even supporters admit that proponents have done “a horrible job” helping parents understand the value of testing. “We need assessments that parents and teachers can use every day to drive high-quality instruction,” says United Negro College Fund president Michael Lomax. “But there’s been such a bad job done making the case for them.”
In the aftermath of the protest in Seattle, the district didn’t reprimand the teachers at Garfield and made the tests optional for high schools in the future. “We won,” says Hagopian. Well, sort of. Exit exams that affect student graduation remain in effect, as do annual state-mandated tests.
As for next spring, Tulsa parent Barnes is thinking about opting her kids out of all standardized testing, not just field tests. “I think it's a balance,” says Barnes, who has three kids in different schools. “Right now we're out of balance.”