by Carol Burris
The Power of Opt Out to Preserve Public Education
Jeanette Deutermann did not intend to become the leader of the most effective opt out organization in the United States. She was a suburban mom trying to figure out why her son no longer wanted to go to school.
The year that Long Island Opt Out began, Tyler Deutermann was an unhappy fourth grader with school anxiety that was increasing every day. During the month of February of 2012, Jeanette began investigating why her son who once loved school so much, now hated it.
“I saw it emerge a little bit during testing season in third grade”, Deutermann said. “But then the test anxiety became constant in fourth grade. After speaking with teachers and parents, I knew it was the testing.”
The 2011-12 school year was the first year that teachers in New York State were to be evaluated by the test scores of their students. Anxiety across the board was running high. She read a letter signed by over one third of New York’s principals that explained why evaluating teachers by test scores would have unintended negative consequences on students. Jeanette began to connect the dots, and she realized that high-stakes testing was the reason that her child and his education were falling apart. “I had to speak out and let other parents know. I felt like a whistleblower—I did not have a choice,” she explained.
Tyler, she decided, would not take the test. In order to organize other like-minded parents, she began a Facebook group—Long Island Opt-Out. It started out small—the first year 1,000 students on Long Island refused the test. Membership in the group ballooned to over 16,000 in year two. Today Long Island Opt Out has over 23,000 members.
Opt Out has spread across the state of New York like a wildfire. In the spring of 2014, between 55,000 and 65,000 students refused to take the 3-8 Common Core tests, with about half of those numbers coming from Long Island. In 2015, the number was in excess of 200,000 test refusals—which meant that 20% of all possible test takers’ parents said, “not my child”.
New York is not alone in test resistance. Opt out in Florida began when Florida teacher, Ceresta Smith, joined five others from Florida, Colorado, Maryland, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania to start a national organization, United Opt Out. By 2013, the Florida opt out movement began to take off. According to parent activist, Sandy Stenoff, “We formed Opt Out Orlando in the spring of 2013 as a way to start with our local community, and in anticipation of Common Core rolling out. The group has grown steadily, but exploded this year, with the implementation of the new CCSS-aligned Florida State Assessment, particularly because of the technical challenges of online implementation.“
As a result of pleas from parents across the state, Stenoff, via Opt Out Orlando, started to help local districts start their own opt out groups in 2014. They were aided in their effort this year when Florida Education Commissioner, Pam Stewart, announced that there would be no opt outs on her watch. Numbers skyrocketed from 800 to 3,000 in one month. Stenoff sees opt out in her state growing steadily. “There are now more than 40 opt out groups in 34 of Florida’s 67 districts. As of last week, we are now The Opt Out Florida Network.”
Last year about 4,000 Albuquerque, New Mexico students refused the PARCC Common Core tests. In response, Albuquerque Public Schools are publishing an Opt Out kit for parents in order to help opt out go smoother this year.
New Jersey Opt Out began in 2013, started by two sisters, Jean McTavish and Susan Schutt. Fifteen percent of all eleventh-graders in New Jersey refused the state PARCC exam this year. In Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain High School, only 9% of the eleventh graders, 16% of the tenth graders and 30% of the ninth graders showed up to take the PARCC tests this spring. In Pennsylvania, elementary math state test refusals exceeded 4,000. In Washington State, 62,000 students opted out of the Common Core SBAC tests.
Monty Neil is the Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). He saw testing resistance begin in the 1999-2000 school year, but during the last three years it has become “a real phenomenon”, he said. In January of 2013, the teachers of Seattle’s Garfield High announced their unanimous vote to not give the school’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. One month later, the teachers of Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago refused to give the state’s ISAT exam. When students began organizing testing walkouts in Portland Oregon’s Cleveland High School two months after that, Neil realized that “we were on the edge of a movement.”
Neil attributes the growth of opt out to “testing overkill and its high stakes.” He believes that parents see the new teacher evaluations as using their child’s test results to go after teachers whom they like. Parents see that “my kid is not happy”, and they question testing, Neil said. These concrete experiences are turning the tide.
And indeed that tide has turned. The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll shows that the public rejects testing as the driver of policy and sanctions. Sixty-four percent of those polled said that there was far too much emphasis on testing in schools, and a majority does not want teachers evaluated by test scores. Seven out of ten said that Washington should not have a say in holding schools accountable or determining testing—a clear repudiation of the policies pushed by No Child Left Behind and accelerated by Race to the Top. On the issue of opt out, the public was about evenly split.
Meanwhile, Jeanette and parent activists are gearing up for another season of opt out. They are determined to grow the movement until high-stakes testing is stopped. And they continue to connect the dots, deepening their understanding of how testing threatens the local public schools that they love.
Opt out parents are now seeing beyond the stress of their children and becoming attuned to the connections between testing and charter schools, the Common Core, teacher evaluations based on test scores, school closings, and other politically popular policies designed to undermine public schooling. Opt out has become a movement of civil disobedience and of conscience. It will continue to grow and be the eventual undoing of corporate school reform.
And what might education look like if testing goes away? Jeanette Deutermann surveyed teachers to find out how instruction would change if they knew in the fall that nearly all of their students were opting out of spring testing. Their responses are well worth the read. You can find them here.
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NPE Fund Executive Director
The superintendents of Florida have recently issued a press release stating that they have “lost confidence in the current accountability system for the students of Florida” and ask the commissioner to discard the results of last spring’s Common Core tests. Confidence in testing across the Sunshine State is failing.
History teacher Jesse Hagopian talks here about how the Seattle teacher strike won important gains for students in the fight against testing.
Civil rights group call an ad promoting charter schools “racist.” Bertha Lewis, president of The Black Institute, condemned the ad by Families for Excellent Schools. “They found a way to make money and profit off little black boys and girls,” Lewis said. “They act as if they are here to save us.”
You can read more about it here.
Meanwhile, Arizona further destroys its public school system by increasing funding to charters at the expense of public schools.
The story is here.
Billionaires plan to fund charter expansion in Los Angeles until half of all LA students are in charter schools. The pusher of the plan is Eli Broad.
You can read about it here.
NPE recently announced the location for our 3rd Annual National Conference, which will be in Raleigh, NC the weekend of April 16th – 17th. Mark your calendars now to hear keynote speaker Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.
Rev. Barber is the current president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the National NAACP chair of the Legislative Political Action Committee, and the founder of Moral Mondays.
You can read more about Rev. Barber and #NPE16NC on our website.
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