Anti-Test 'Opt-Out' Movement Makes A Wave In New York State

Apr 20, 2015
Originally published on April 23, 2015 9:25 am

Across New York state this week, some students are refusing to take a test, and they're not getting punished for it. The test is a Common Core-aligned, federally mandated exam, and students, parents and educators are part of what they're calling the opt-out movement.

Opt-outs made news last week in several states: Colorado, Florida, Oregon, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, to name a few. The objections are similar everywhere. But no state is posting numbers like New York.

According to the advocates' own tally, about 175,000 opted out in several hundred New York districts. That's big for a protest, but pretty small compared with the millions of students enrolled in public school in the state.

At the same time, even small numbers can make an impact in a particular school. That's because No Child Left Behind, the federal testing law, states that if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test, it can cause the school to be labeled "failing to make progress."

Maddie Corman, a mother I met this week, has twin boys in fifth grade in Westchester County, whom she opted out of the tests.

"I feel like the tests in New York state and across the country have gotten out of control," she said. "They're wasting teachers' time and kids time. It's robbing teachers of the chance to be creative in ways that they want to be and can be. And I just don't feel like as a public school parent, I have much of a voice except to become a part of a social movement, a protest movement which is saying that it's too much."

Teachers' unions have their own objections to tests. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced in January that teacher evaluations would be based 50 percent on the test scores. That, plus a whole lot of grass-roots organizing for the past few years, is the biggest reason the opt-out movement has gotten so big in New York.

Annual high-stakes testing has been around since the No Child Left Behind passed in 2002. But the adoption of the Common Core State Standards has really brought things to a head. The new Common Core-aligned tests are harder. And the Common Core has drawn objections from across the political spectrum from people who see it as an unwanted, top-down intervention in public schools.

The irony is that even as parents are raising such a ruckus, there's a draft bill in the Senate right now that would remove a lot of the federal high stakes from tests and could turn the temperature down on testing nationwide. It gives a lot more leeway to the states in deciding what accountability should look like.

Take the issue of using test scores in teacher evaluations. The U.S. Department of Education promoted that idea in Race to the Top in 2009. But this new bill backs off from that position. That's at least partly because a lot of objections have emerged to this method, called value-added measurement. The American Statistical Association says making assumptions about the performance of all teachers based on year-over-year multiple-choice tests in math and reading alone is a complicated, difficult and unreliable way to evaluate the performance of teachers who may be teaching a range of subjects in different ways.

What's been most striking in my reporting on this issue is meeting students as young as 11 or 12 who are getting involved, speaking out, and performing, essentially, civil disobedience for the cause of public education. And like any political protest movement, this may be a gateway for political participation later on. In fact, on Long Island where the movement is strongest, 21 candidates endorsed by opt-out supporters won school board positions last May, and several of those were first-timers who ousted incumbents.

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In New York state this week, thousands and thousands of students are refusing to take a test. That standardized test, mandated by the federal government, is designed to show how students are doing under the Common Core education standards. Of the more than 2 and a half million students in New York's public schools, about 175,000 opted out of the exam, enough to make news, especially since Common Core is so controversial. For some perspective, we turn to NPR's Anya Kamenetz. She's NPR's lead education blogger and author of a book that looks at the origins of the opt-out movement. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Anya, you are especially well-positioned to talk about this opt-out - this sort of massive opt-out that's happening. Why are the students and/or their parents choosing to do this, to opt out of this test?

KAMENETZ: There's a range of reasons. The other night, I was in a room full about opt-outers in Westchester County, and it got really emotional. One woman said that her daughter, a sixth-grader, felt that the test did not measure her own true abilities. And I spoke to a woman named Maddie Corman. She's the mother of twin fifth-grade boys who she's opted out of the test, and here's what she said.

MADDIE CORMAN: I'm not against all testing. But I feel like the tests in New York state and from what I can tell across the country have just gotten out of control.

MONTAGNE: Those are understandable concerns, but these annual high-stakes tests have been around since No Child Left Behind was passed back in 2002. So why this great move to opt out now?

KAMENETZ: Well, it's true that we've had annual tests for a while, and they've been high-stakes for a while. But the adoption of the Common Core State Standards has really brought things to a head. The new tests are harder, and the Common Core has drawn objections from across the political spectrum, from people that believe it's an unwanted, top-down intervention in public schools.

MONTAGNE: And why the focus in New York state?

KAMENETZ: So the opt-out movement has made local news in several states this testing season, but New York state is special. And that's because Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State Address announced that teacher evaluations would become a lot more rigorous. And he clarified later that that meant teacher evaluations will be based on 50 percent on state test scores. Here's the State of the State in January.


GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: Every study says the quality of the teacher makes a difference in the school. We must start treating teaching like the profession that it actually is.


KAMENETZ: So Cuomo essentially made the decision in that moment that the top issue of his second term would be a confrontation with teachers' unions over tests.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about that 'cause this gets into the whole issue of consequences. Opting out for students - am I right? - does not, for that individual student, have much consequence.

KAMENETZ: That's right. For students in most cases, these tests don't really have an individual impact because their purpose is to evaluate the school and the teacher. So unless they're in a grade where they're preparing for competitive admissions, let's say to middle school or high school, there's really no personal consequence to opting out.

At the same time, it's debatable, but on the school level, unless you have a high-poverty Title I school, it's really unlikely that there would be consequences in the form of losing funds. And of course, it's important to point out here that most of the participants in the opt-out movement are anecdotally middle-class or affluent parents and families and districts.

MONTAGNE: And so you mentioned teachers, it's the teachers that really are affected by these tests.

KAMENETZ: That's right. So above all, what we're seeing is that teachers do feel that they are being affected by these tests because their evaluations are going to depend on the test scores.

MONTAGNE: Just finally, as the opt-out movement is happening, testing is going forward. But there is action on this issue at the federal level, is there not?

KAMENETZ: Right, Renee. So the irony is that even as parents in New York state are raising such a ruckus, there's a draft bill in the Senate right now that would remove a lot of the high stakes from these tests and actually could really turn the temperature down on testing nationwide. And in fact, on the very issue that Gov. Cuomo's taken up - the issue of using test scores in teacher evaluations - this is something the Department of Education previously promoted. And - but this new bill in the Senate backs off from that position. And that's because a lot of objections have emerged that scores on these largely multiple-choice tests may not be the most reliable way to evaluate the performance of teachers.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz is a blogger for our NPR Ed Team. She's also the author of the book "The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing But You Don't Have To Be." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.