As the spring standardized testing season continues, the opt-out movement around the country is growing. The New Jersey Assembly, for example, voted on Thursday to allow parents to opt out their children from the PARCC Common Core tests and to require that schools provide alternative activities for students during testing. (The Maryland Senate, rejected an effort on Thursday that would have withheld funding for PARCC until the state government had a suitable opt-out policy.)  The debate about opting out is at such a fever pitch in some places that an Indiana Superintendent of the Year, Rocky Killion, suggested to parents that they homeschool their children during testing week because he is so opposed to the exams.

New York state has been at the forefront of the opt-out movement, with some 60,000 parents last year deciding not to allow their children to take these tests. Activists say they expect more this year, and as activity around this issue grows, so too does pushback from some school officials. This post, by Carol Burris and Bianca Tanis, explains what is going on right now in New York.

Burris, of South Side High School, has been exposing the problems with New York’s botched school reform effort for a long time on this blog. (You can read some of her work here, herehere,  here, and here.) She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding The Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

Tanis is an elementary special education teacher and public school parent in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is a co-founding parent of the state-wide organization, New York State Allies for Public Education, which is allied with over 50 parent and education organizations across New York State.  She is also a steering member of Re-Thinking Testing and a frequent speaker at education forums across the state. Bianca is the parent of a child with a disability, and has been an outspoken critic of the Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and their negative consequences for students with disabilities. She is a frequent guest blogger on several educational blog sites.

By Carol Burris and Bianca Tanis

New York is on the leading edge of a growing national Opt Out movement—a movement that galvanizes the energy of parents, teachers and administrators who are pushing back against the Common Core tests and standardized test-based reforms. Support for such practices has plummeted, with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s education reforms dragging his approval ratings down to their lowest level ever. By more than a 2 to 1 margin, New Yorkers trust the teachers union more than the governor, and less than 30 percent want test scores to determine teacher pay and tenure.

Last year the parents of approximately 60,000 New York students in Grades 3-8 refused to have their children take the English Language Arts and mathematics exams. This year, the New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of pro-public school, anti-testing advocates, are sponsoring more than 40 forums across the state, and parents are coming out in droves to express their dislike of Common Core test-based reform. One forum on Long Island, featuring Diane Ravitch, had nearly 1,500 attendees.  Other forums have drawn hundreds of parents and teachers who applaud Opt Out as the strategy to stop the attacks on public schools and teachers.

Opt Out has captured the attention of New York legislators as well. Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco is infuriated by what he considers to be obfuscation on the part of the New York State Education Department, as well as some school districts, in order to discourage test refusals. During a recent interview with ABC affiliate, News 10, he said, “They [NYSED and districts] should be providing parents with the truths and the facts and their rights. And their rights are yes, they can opt out of something they haven’t opted into. They can refuse something for their kids they’ve never opted into.”

Tedisco, a former teacher, recently introduced a bill that would not only make it easier for parents to opt students out, but would also make any repercussions on students or teachers illegal. He describes the purpose of his bill as means “to starve the beast of testing.” Democratic Assemblywoman and chair of the Education Committee, Cathy Nolan, publicly announced that she would probably opt her son out if he were subjected to these tests. She describes testing as “a mania” and announced that she is working on her own bill to reaffirm a parent’s right to refuse.

Teacher associations are becoming more vocal in their opposition to Common Core testing. Over 70 local teacher associations have signed the “I Refuse” resolution, which not only decries high-stakes testing, but encourages teachers to opt their own children out of the tests. Teachers have spoken in opposition to the Common Core tests at board meetings as well.

The Ken-Ton School Board is threatening to not give the tests, and to not use test scores in teacher evaluations. The school board of Fairport, New York is considering doing the same.

Meanwhile, the reactions of New York school districts to Opt Out have ranged from tacit approval, to discouragement and outright threats. Reactions are a result, in part, of the mixed, unclear messages sent by the State Education Department, which has insisted that Opt Out doesn’t exist because the tests are required by federal law. Although Deputy Commissioner Wagner told the press that parents do not have the right to refuse, he admitted, when pressed, that there is nothing that forbids parent refusal.

The Patchogue Medford School District firmly believes that parents should be the decision makers when it comes to Grades 3-8 state tests. The district website affirms a parent’s right to refuse and makes it clear that there will be no consequences for the student if they opt out. Southold Schools, like the majority of districts around the state, including New York City, will allow opt outers to read during the test. The Southold PTA has posted information on how parents can refuse the test on its Facebook page. Even the Williamsville School District, which took a “hardline” approach last year and required opt outers to “sit and stare” during the test, will now allow students to sit at their desks and quietly read.

Still others are attempting to stop Opt Out, using a combination of shaming, threats and misinformation. Some superintendents suggested that schools will lose state funding if they fall below 95 percent participation even though the New York State Education Department has stated that test refusal will have no effect on state aid. The Dobbs Ferry School District, while objecting to testing, claims that opt outers “diminish the excellent work of teachers” and unfairly penalize teacher evaluations, a claim that is blatantly untrue. There is no evidence that the much maligned “growth scores” are adversely affected by the exclusion of some scores, and if the number of test takers drops enough, the teacher does not receive a growth score at all.

In order to discourage Opt Outs, the superintendent of the Otselic Valley Schools made the claim that if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test, “the state comes in, runs the day to day activities of a school, and sends the district a bill for doing it.” However not only would it take three years before a school in good standing could be labeled a Local Assistance Plan (LAP) School, that designation would not result in a takeover by the state. Rather the school would be required to craft a plan to encourage greater test participation and there would be no loss in funding.

Otselic went even further in its quest to prevent Opt Outs. According to Charlene Smith, a parent in that district, when she sent an email to school staff politely informing them that her children would not take the Common Core tests, she received an email from the superintendent threatening to block her email address and informing her that he will not allow staff to respond to her email without his inspection and approval.

The Phoenix School District is using a “we’ll fix your wagon” strategy to discourage parents’ from opting out. Parents are told that if they refuse to have their children take the Common Core tests, the school will give their kids a “rigorous” alternative test during the state testing time and the test make-up time.

Whether superintendents tell their communities that they are just following orders, punish children with “sit and stare,” or promulgate false information about state takeovers and loss of funding, it is clear that the Opt Out movement is here to stay. The tactics of pressure, threats and obfuscation are infuriating legislators who are receiving parent complaints. Corporate reformers have overplayed their hand.   Parents and teachers have had enough and they are saying it loudly and clearly through Opt Out.