This was written by Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund. Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state. 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. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.
By Carol Burris
Jeanette Deutermann did not intend to become the leader of the most effective testing 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 February 2012, Jeanette Deutermann 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 wildfire. In the spring of 2014, between 55,000 and 65,000 students refused to take the Grades 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 percent of all possible test takers’ parents said, “not my child.”
New York is not alone in test resistance. Opt out in Florida began when teacher Ceresta Smith joined five others from Florida, Colorado, Maryland, Washington, D.C., 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.”
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 permitted 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, N.M., 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 percent of the 11th-graders, 16 percent of the 10th-graders and 30 percent of the ninth-graders showed up to take the PARCC Common Core tests this past 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 and 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 administrators using their child’s test results to move against 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 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 10 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 against 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.