Reflections on the Opt-Out Movement’s Future

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 19, 2016

Last spring, millions of parents across America protested against the outsized influence of standardized tests by keeping their children at home on test day. This movement, known as “opt-out,” originated in 2013 as a small campaign in New York, but it has slowly expanded over the past couple years to involve millions of parents across a dozen states, including Colorado, Oregon, California, Connecticut, and Washington. In New York, where the opt-out movement has always been strongest, one out of every five test-bound students remained at home last year, and in some districts, the opt-out rate was over 50%.

Photo courtesy of BobboSphere.

Photo courtesy of BobboSphere.

The parents who opt out their children are not just making a political statement; they are also challenging federal law. Both No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) have mandated that all schools test at least 95% of their students as a condition of receiving federal education aid. If schools do not test 95% of their students, they (and their states) can be subject to a variety of sanctions.

In light of widespread opt-outs during the 2015 testing cycle, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) sent letters to twelve states last month warning them that their low participation rates were a violation of federal law. In its letter to the Colorado Department of Education, the ED forcefully recommended that the state respond by either lowering the accountability rating of schools with low participation rates, counting non-participating students as non-proficient, intervening in schools or districts with low participation, or withholding funding from schools and districts with low participation. The ED also threatened to withhold a portion of the state’s federal education dollars if it refused to take action.

Activities at the State Level

’The Oregon Capitol Building. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

’The Oregon Capitol Building. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite federal requirements, the opt-out movement has nevertheless managed to pick up steam in a couple statehouses. Last June, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed legislation (House Bill 2655) which requires school districts to notify parents twice a year about their rights to refuse testing for their children. The legislation also creates a two-pronged school rating system. Schools and districts with low participation rates will now receive two accountability ratings – one that penalizes them for low participation and another that shows what their accountability ratings would have been without the opt-out penalty.

In Delaware too a similar bill passed both houses of the state legislature, although it was vetoed by Governor Jack Markell last week, and an override attempt failed in the State House of Representatives. Nevertheless, opt-out proponents seem undeterred, and they hope to grow their movement again this year.

An “Endangered” Movement?

It remains to be seen whether the opt-out movement will indeed continue to flourish. Despite obvious progress, there are reasons for some to believe the movement will simply fizzle out in 2016. First, unlike in previous years, test-based teacher evaluation reforms are no longer on the political front burner in many state legislatures. In the past, the debates over these reforms often mobilized teachers unions to foment grassroots resistance to standardized testing, and in some states (especially New York), the unions were believed to be a big impetus behind the opt-out movement. Second, national polls have shown that a majority of the general public (59%) and of parents (52%) oppose the right to opt out, and without an improvement in messaging to appeal to broader swaths of the electorate, it will remain a minority movement. For these reasons, Paul Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard who studies education policy issues, recently labeled the opt-out movement “endangered.”

Perhaps skeptics of the opt-out movement’s longevity are being a bit too cynical, however. The parents who opt-out their children from standardized tests are nothing if not passionate about their children’s education and their ideas of what a good education should look like. Moreover, parents have always been fiercely protective of the right to run their schools locally, and when officials at the state and federal levels overreach, they do so at their own electoral peril. Additionally, despite the ED’s threats, it remains extremely unlikely that the Obama Administration will cut off federal funds to needy students simply because some parent activists have begun taking their children’s education into their own hands. In my mind, the ED’s letters are almost certainly an empty threat. For these reasons, the opt-out movement may prove to be more persistent than some observers believe. This spring’s assessment season will reveal much about its long-term prospects.

Contact David: dwc@msu.edu

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.