Education

Opt Out Everywhere: Why the Standardized Testing Movement Is Expecting a 'Full-On Revolt'

Parents, students and educators are refusing to participate in high-stakes tests—by the thousands.

Gainesville kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles doesn't quite fit the mold of a rabble-rouser. "I’m such a rule-following, non-activist type,” she tells me. “I hate speaking to anyone above the age of seven.”

But with the onset of a Florida law mandating that every kindergartener grind out a lengthy computer-based standardized test in the first month of school, Bowles began speaking out widely. New test-based teacher evaluations meant kids with little or no experience using computers or even taking exams were expected to post valid scores. “[The kids] didn’t care if they got it right or wrong,” says Bowles. “It wasn’t going to yield productive results.”

Moreover, Bowles estimated, the tests would gobble up six weeks of valuable instructional time. She wanted to forgo the tests, but school administrators warned that such an act of civil disobedience could get her sacked for insubordination. A 26-year teaching veteran, Bowles lost sleep over what to do. A verse from the Book of Esther echoed in her head, reminding her of her responsibility to act: “And who knows but that you have come to your…position for such a time as this?”

Finally, Bowled penned a letter to her students’ parents explaining that, despite the risk of being fired, she “[could not] in good conscience submit to administering this test.”

Despite the threats to the contrary, Bowles kept her job. A week later the district instead suspended the tests, citing a “technological glitch.” Bowles’ stand attracted national media attention, but she doesn’t consider it a full victory. “That’s just one test,” she points out. Her kindergarteners are still slated to take seven end-of-year exams.

Bowles’ story epitomizes the diverse new testing resistance movement bubbling up across the country. Only three months into the school year, opt outs and refusals have become ubiquitous, from high school seniors boycotting tests to militant first-grade teachers in Tulsa decrying torturous new exams. They’re not just partisans of one stripe or another making hay, but ordinary members of school communities responding to extraordinary times.

"The movement is explosive right now and it’s not even testing season yet," says Bob Schaeffer of the assessment reform group FairTest. “We’re seeing the movement starting much earlier [this year], with many more people involved.”

This flurry of activism in part reflects a new reality in public schools: every season is now testing season. But it also comes as a battery of reforms ushered in by Obama's Race to the Top approaches full deployment.

This school year also follows a bumper crop of nationwide opt outs. Last year, thousands boycotted tests in places like Chicago and Colorado; in New York, around 60,000 students, or about 5% of the tested population, pushed their tests aside. Activists I talked to in a half-dozen states all report exponential growth in the ranks of their memberships.

“We’re aiming to triple the opt-out rate across the nation,” says Peggy Robertson, co-founder of the national test reform group Opt-Out United, suggesting a quarter of a million students could ditch their tests this year.

Meanwhile, schools are grappling with increasingly unpopular assessment-based reforms such as the Common Core and “value-added” teacher evaluations. As these take hold, so do resistance efforts, from tightly orchestrated opt-out campaigns to organic uprisings. Here are four states where the opt-out movement is gaining particular speed.

Colorado

One of the most surprising early testing actions this year sprung up in the suburbs of Denver. With almost no advanced planning or organization, thousands of high school seniors refused to take the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (or CMAS), a newly released standardized test.

The CMAS tests don’t align with existing curriculum, students argued, and scores wouldn’t even be posted until after graduation. This sort of idiocy reflects a common pattern: despite reformers’ protestations that this kind of testing will benefit the kids, the hunger for data often precedes the educational value of the testing itself.

“We’ve been taking standardized testing since we were in sixth grade,” one student told CBS Denver. “I think there’s way too much of it and quite frankly, I’m tired of it.”

Though a degree of senioritis may have played a part, the action had a definite political component. Many of these seniors’ younger siblings had just received scores from their own CMAS tests. The newer, more “rigorous” test showed abysmal results.

Between the frustration of added testing and the totally extraneous nature of the tests, seniors boycotted en masse. At Cherry Creek High School, the largest in Colorado, less than 3 percent of students showed up.

“It was a very organic movement among students and parents in the community,” says Cherry Creek parent Ilana Spiegel. Parents paid attention when testing requirements brought unwelcome changes to the school curriculum, she says.

According to federal mandates, testing data from schools with less than 95 percent student participation becomes inadmissible. In all but one high school in three Denver-area districts—Boulder, Cherry Creek and Douglas County—far fewer than 95 percent of students reported for these tests.

By refusing to show up, Colorado’s high school seniors effectively threw a wrench in the gears of corporate-style school reform. “Under 95 percent, we have results that can’t be used,” says Opt Out United’s Robertson, also a Colorado parent. “It’s going to cause policy makers to say: ‘What are we going to do?’”

Oklahoma

In this state, it’s educators who are leading the charge. First-grade teachers at Skelly Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, surprised parents last week with an open letter describing how a new standardized test is impacting the classroom —and what they plan to do about it. “In keeping with best practices,” they wrote, “[we] are unable to administer the MAP and student surveys to your children.”

The MAP (Measures of Academic Progess) is a grueling new 55-question computer assessment that now greets Oklahoma students in the first weeks of the school year. The exams algorithmically adjust question difficulty to keep students constantly at the edge of their comfort zone.

“The test is designed for the students to fail,” says Nikki Jones, a nationally recognized first-grade teacher at Skelly. And that wasn’t all: testing requirements meant that kids would spend the equivalent of 72 days this year filling in bubbles.

Seventy percent of Jones’ students speak English as a second language; virtually all qualify as low-income. Faced with the arduous tests, Jones says, pupils would react one of two ways. “Either they really give it their all and suffer through it and cry or pee their pants or scratch their face,” she says, “or after 10 questions they end up just clicking through them all.”

The tests have their origins in Obama's Race to the Top, the provisions of which helped expand the scope and stakes of standardized tests as never before. “There’s an increase in testing every year with the school accountability laws that have come into place,” says Jones.

RTTT and other federal policies pushed states to expand data-driven teacher evaluations. Together with district benchmarks imposed to prepare for the various other tests students must take, many students now face a bewildering and seemingly endless gauntlet of exams. It’s this “new normal” that US education secretary Arne Duncan conjured when he hypocritically worried that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the classroom.”

That’s precisely why Skelly’s teachers, at the risk of their careers, are boycotting the exams. “I love helping kids develop a love of learning,” says Jones. “But what we’re doing with testing in the classroom is just squelching that.”

Florida

As Susan Bowles’ one-woman crusade demonstrates, Florida has become a hotspot for anti-testing activism. As the New York Times reported earlier this month, “not only parents but also educators across Florida are rebelling.”

In a state where upwards of 60 days are devoted entirely to testing, dozens of districts have passed resolutions calling on the state to reduce testing. The Lee County school board even took the unprecedented step of opting out of all mandated tests (though it quickly reversed its decision).

In response to the threatened opt-out, one state representative warned that doing so would have “significant negative consequences on student learning, education funding, and, ultimately, a graduate’s ability to find a job in today’s global marketplace.” And there has been little indication overall that Sunshine State lawmakers will be leading the charge to ease testing requirements.

Accordingly, parents have sought change outside the statehouse. “We tried all the traditional methods of pleading with our legislators,” says Cindy Hamilton, who co-founded Opt Out Orlando. “The only way to end it was to refuse what was feeding the testing machine: data.”

In a span of just three months this year, the number of opt-out groups in Florida has grown from one, in Orlando, to 24, Hamilton tells me.

It’s a notable shift for a state that has been at the vanguard of assessment-based reforms. Under the governorship of Jeb Bush, who now spends his days stumping for Common Core standards, Florida was first in the country to institute a statewide, test-based A-F school grading system. But last spring state legislators folded under popular pressure and delayed sanctions related to school grades. (In its retreat from burdensome testing mandates, Florida mirrors the state where another brother Bush inaugurated the era of test-based school reform -- Texas, which cut the number of tests students have to take throughout their academic tenures from fifteen to five last year.)

Hamilton’s concerns, however, are more immediate. “Children who are eight years old are carrying all this burden,” she says of early-grade testing of the sort Bowles refused. “What’s going to cause this change in our legislators is the public waking up.”

Maryland

When the national media reports on testing issues, it often overemphasizes a Tea-Party fringe that has latched onto the Common Core standards as tyrannical federal overreach. While it’s true that some of the furor around the Common Core emanates from Glenn Beck disciples, the story is more complex than that.

“This year, people now understand that Common Core is linked to standardized testing,” says United Opt Out’s Robertson of the anti-Common Core crowd, which also includes plenty of progressives. “When they realized the two were tied together, they knew they had to refuse the test.” Thus a testing resistance coalition that spans lines of class and politics was born (though not without its growing pains).

In all, 30 states will administer new Common Core-aligned exams this year. “This year I think it’s going to be a full-on revolt,” says Robertson.

Cindy Rose, a conservative Maryland parent of four, exemplifies that rebellious energy. Rose got her activist feet wet protesting her daughter’s third-grade textbook, which she felt leaned too much on “global citizenship” and a “progressive, liberal ideology.”

Her focus has since moved to testing, where one could almost mistake her for a lefty. “I’m tired of government and corporate entities telling us what we should be doing in education,” she says. “The only way we’re going to end it is if parents stop participating [in testing].”

Rose sought to exempt her fourth-grade son from Common Core-aligned PARCC tests, set to be implemented in 12 states this year. Not only does she reject it on principle, she finds it wildly inappropriate for her boy. “He has severe developmental needs,” she says. “He’s missing parts of his brain.”

He has the mental ability of an 8-month-old, she says, and he wears diapers.

Yet the district won’t let Rose exempt her son from tests. “They’re treating him like a trained circus animal,” she says. But she’s not backing down: newly lawyered up, Rose plans to fight to the hilt to for the right to opt her nonverbal, illiterate son out of standardized testing.

But in numerous states where onerous Common Core-aligned tests are set to advance, state leaders have drawn battle lines around test refusal. In Illinois, the state superintendent announced, “Opting out of PARCC is not an option.” Officials in New Jersey and South Carolina have made similar veiled threats.

They’ve set the stage for a showdown this year that will help determine the course of school reforms for years to come.

Owen Davis is a New York-based writer and former intern at The Nation magazine. He writes curriculum for the alternative children's magazine IndyKids. Davis blogs here and tweets @of_davis.

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