What Happens When Students Boycott a Standardized Test?

The movement to opt out of nationwide exams is gaining traction—and forcing policymakers to rethink the role of such assessments in public education.

Standardized tests have been an integral part of the American school routine since the 1970s, the protocol changing very little. Children were told to put away their books; to fill in the bubbles, with No. 2 pencils, completely; and, when the time was up, to immediately put down their writing utensils. However, those ubiquitous (and ever-dreaded) tests have evolved dramatically as of late—and deliberations over their purpose have become increasingly urgent.

This semester, students in roughly three dozen states and the District of Columbia are taking one of two new standardized tests that are known by their consonant-riddled acronyms: PARCC, which is part of the Pearson family, and SBAC, which was developed by a consortium of states. The force behind these assessments is the Common Core State Standards, the set of highly controversial universal learning benchmarks that, the thinking goes, would’ve been difficult to implement without new-and-improved standardized tests. (Students in the remaining states are taking other exams; under No Child Left Behind, the federal government requires that every state gives its kids some form of assessment, but it doesn’t stipulate a specific one.) Like the hodgepodge of older tests used over the past five decades, these new assessments are designed to gauge students' proficiency in math and English via series of multiple-choice questions.

The days of booklets and pencils, however, are long gone; these tests are administered on computers and come with fancy resources such as virtual rulers and protractors and can be customized to students with, say, special needs. Some sections feature "drop-and-drag" options and even adaptive questioning that responds to individual students’ abilities. The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, emphasize critical thinking. That means the English tests include essay sections, for example, while those for math at times ask students to explain how they found their answers. Compared with the previous assessments, the results from these tests generate more information for officials and parents about student proficiency and progress.

But perhaps the most obvious distinction from years past, at least now, is that significant resistance to the standardized tests has organized in a growing number of states—to the point of mass boycotts in certain communities. This movement was jumpstarted by parents and has since garnered the support of the teachers’ unions. And now it’s getting some ammunition from the students themselves. This campaign isn’t only raising pressing concerns about the validity of standardized tests, it’s also revealing the extent to which the foray into a new era of test-driven accountability and debates surrounding this reform could end up damaging the country’s public education system. After all, the consequences of an exam boycott could be just as severe as those that come with over-testing; finding a compromise is certainly preferable to too much or too little.

While states generally have not released exact numbers on the opt-outs, school officials and local newspapers report that growing numbers of students, with their parents’ blessing, have not taken (or will not take) their standardized tests this spring. In New Jersey, for example, at least 46,000—or 5 percent—of the roughly 896,000 public-school students in grade levels subject to the exam are estimated to have opted out of the first installment of the PARCC test, which was conducted in March; greater numbers are expected refuse to take the second one in May. (Similar statistics are predicted in Colorado, Florida, and New York, too.) And while the vast majority of students are still taking their tests, the number of refusals is hard to ignore—as are the specific areas in which refusals are most prevalent. At least in New Jersey, the opt-outs are largely concentrated in wealthy communities, according to an analysis of compiled data.

Here in New Jersey, I witnessed the anti-testing politics evolve over the past few months. It appeared to begin with a small number of parents expressing diverse concerns, sharing information at school board meetings and through social media. Opposition started to increase, however, as the teachers unions helped parents organize. The teachers reversed their initial support of the new testing guidelines once the Legislature, similar to those in many other states, passed legislation tying teacher evaluations—and thus their pay—to assessment results. Some of the unions’ local branches even arranged parties to view the film Standardized (Lies, Money, & Civil Rights: How Testing Is Ruining Public Education) or set up websites informing parents how to complete the necessary paperwork to release their children from the testing.

Then, just weeks before the March segment of the PARCC, the NJEA, New Jersey’s largest teachers union, aired a series of widely viewed television commercials that denounced the exam. One ad features a middle-aged dad with a goatee telling a group of fellow parents that his first-grader cried when he came home from school, apparently too tired to go to karate practice. The goateed dad despairs, "What are we doing to our kids?"

The advocacy continued after the test, too, when the NJEA compiled a spreadsheet of each town’s alleged refusals numbers that was based on information in local newspapers, at least one of which affirmed that union's figures corresponded with its own reporting. Still, Mike Yaple, the spokesman for the state Department of Education, said he could not comment on the "accuracy of another organization’s list," and a number of other towns' papers cited slightly different statistics than those contained in the spreadsheet.

Exact figures aside, the students themselves have been largely responsible for the opt-out surge—the rallying among adults is just part of the picture. As kids saw their peers get permission to opt out of the exam, many of them urged their parents to exempt them, too. After all, how many children actually want to take an exam—particularly one that doesn’t leave a mark on their report cards? And when the choice is between algebra questions and a few extra hours of sleep, predicting how students will respond is a no-brainer. Even my kid was in on the action.

Indeed, my 15-year-old son used every weapon in his teenage arsenal—eye rolls, deep sighs, guilt-tripping, and even logic—to pressure my husband and me to write a letter to the school opting him out of the test. None of his friends were taking it, he reasoned; it wouldn’t be fair if he had to stress out about boring math problems while his friends were eating bagels in town—and gleefully texting him about their fun morning. His classmates, he added, would be better prepared for their afternoon exams or classwork (which actually count) because they would be well-rested and have two extra hours to prepare for them. He rightfully pointed out that the PARCC was not required for graduation.

While my son did ultimately take the PARCC exam, other students were more successful in pressuring their parents. Many of the students who couldn't get  waivers took to Twitter to express their annoyance, tweeting things like, "PARCC spelled backwards is CCRAP." Some reportedly filled in their answer sheets with gibberish. Though the opt-out campaign began as a parent protest, in some ways it developed into a student-led movement.

State officials and district administrators, education advocacy groups and test proponents appeared completely unprepared for the protests in New Jersey and elsewhere. Schools scrambled to find separate rooms and teachers so that they could monitor both test takers and non-test takers (assuming the latter weren’t off somewhere eating bagels). Some schools were said to tell parents that the non-testing children should stay at home during the exam. Districts across the country embroiled in opt-out movements had to develop policies on the fly in a few short weeks before test day; some are still trying to come up with a game plan.

As these problems unfolded, education leaders failed to put forward one concise justification for these tests. Some emphasized that the time had come for a new assessment because the old ones were too easy; harder tests would force improvement in mediocre school districts. Others said that the new version would provide parents with better information about a child’s strengths and weaknesses. Still others said the test generated nationwide data on schools that could then be used to better inform public policy. But many parents said they heard nothing informative enough to change their minds.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools where at least 5 percent of the students fail to participate in testing face sanctions from the federal government, even theoretically losing Title I funding for low-income students. They may also be sanctioned by their states, which could mean increased monitoring by Department of Education bureaucrats. And of course, the opt-outs could also distort a school's overall score for student proficiency, making it seem more or less effective than it actually is. At this time, the long-term ramifications from this unprecedented protest are unclear.

In the U.S. News and World Report, Andrew Rotherham recently described the opt-out movement as both "ridiculous, selfish and more than a little hypocritical" and an opportunity for exploring options outside of the default public-school system—charter schools, for example. These protests should also serve as a reminder for decision-makers that parents and students are stakeholders in education policy and that community outreach must be part of any reform. Just as third-grade students need to explain why, for example, three-fourths equals six-eighths on the PARCC, education leaders should also answer the "why?" question: Why should students take standardized tests?