A school bus passes a sign encouraging parents to refuse to let their children take state tests on April 13 last year in Rotterdam, N.Y. (Mike Groll/AP)

The U.S. Education Department is warning states that they could be sanctioned if their public schools can’t force at least 95 percent of their students to take mandated standardized tests for “accountability” purposes. The warnings became necessary because of a growing testing “opt out” movement around the country that stemmed from the Obama administration’s push to use standardized test scores to evaluate students and teachers in unprecedented ways, using methods that assessment experts say are not valid for that purpose.

The movement was strongest in New York, where some 20 percent of students last spring refused to take the state’s “accountability” test, but it was just one of more than a dozen states that received letters from the Education Department warning them of trouble over the 95 percent threshold. All states received a letter in December from the department reminding them of the 95 percent rule and warning that funds could be withheld from states that don’t comply. The letter offered suggestions for how the states could sanction local school districts for failure to succeed, including withholding funds and/or lowering a local education agency or school’s rating in the state’s accountability system.

Education officials say that parents can’t pick and choose the exams that their children take and that these tests are important for “accountability” purposes. Education activists say parents have the right to allow their children to refuse to take a test that they believe is poorly designed and whose scores are being misused. And they say that threats from the government or schools won’t stop them.

Here’s a post on the current state of the movement by Carol Burris,  a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund. A frequent contributor to The Answer Sheet, she was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year.

[U.S. Education Department threatens to sanction states over test opt-outs]

By Carol Burris

The testing “opt out” movement is gaining momentum, even as efforts to derail it ramp up. Despite the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and threats of financial sanctions for states whose testing rates fall below 95 percent, it is clear that more students will be opting out of testing in the spring of 2016.

Opt out is mainstream. The Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would take opt out students out of accountability reporting (presently their scores are counted as zero), which would, in turn, result in less local resistance to parent requests. Ohio State School Board member, A. J. Wagner, wrote a blistering response to the U.S. Department of Education’s letter threatening to withhold Title I funding to states who fall below 95 percent test participation. The former judge then posted it on his Facebook page and made his letter public.

In Delaware, the State PTA led the fight to overturn their governor’s veto of a bill that would have made it easier for parents to opt their children out of the Common Core SBAC exam. Although the legislature ultimately lacked the votes to overturn the veto, a PTA protest on the capitol steps supporting the right to refuse the state tests would have been unheard of a few years ago. And last June, Oregon passed a law that requires districts to notify parents that they have a right to opt their students out of state exams for any reason at all.

Will the half million students who opted out last year increase to a million or more in 2016? There are clear indications that the answer is “yes.” Florida parent activist Sandy Stenoff has seen increased awareness by both parents and teachers since last year’s tests based on the new Florida Common Core-like standards. “Parents and teachers who have until now, not paid much attention are waking up,” she said.

The leader of the Florida House Democrats, Mark Pafford, publicly urged parents to opt their students out of the tests, which he characterized as meaningless. Pafford further stated:

“And, frankly … you have to question the purpose of these tests, whether they’re being used in the best way for children in advancing the public education system, or whether, in fact, they’re being used to create a bastardized type of education system that’s dependent on the private sector.”

Some hoped that the passage of ESSA and the repeal of No Child Left Behind would dampen test resistance. Not so, says United Opt Out, an organization that strongly opposed ESSA’s passage. As their February 26-28 Philadelphia conference approaches, the group is mounting an educational campaign designed to alert the public of the emergence of daily, on-line “competency based” testing. The group fears that such testing will drive instruction while reducing the role of the teacher in the determination of curriculum and daily lessons. UOO will begin a campaign for opt out against these tests as well.

Another UOO initiative is convincing civil rights organizations that the adverse effects of high-stakes testing far outweigh any benefits.  And Philadelphia, the site of their conference, is the perfect place to move that conversation forward.

Blogger Jennifer Berskshire[1] and former Teach For America podcaster, Aaron French, recently interviewed African American leaders of Philadelphia’s Opt Out movement. During the interview, parent leaders, Robin Roberts, Shakeda Gaines, Tonya Bah, Will Thomas and Eric Brice, dismissed the myth that test resistance is a “white soccer mom” movement. They also spoke about the challenges of helping Philadelphia parents understand what their rights are, and why it is important that Philadelphians keep their kids from taking the test.

Finally, it is important to keep an on eye on the state that accounted for nearly half of the half million opt outs last year—New York. Despite attempts to convince the public that there will be real change to the standards, testing and teacher evaluation, the parents’ opt out movement is gearing up. For test resistors, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force Report is viewed as a ploy designed to quell opt out and improve the governor’s dismal ratings. Advocates are skeptical that anything will change without continued pressure. As elementary principal and president of the School Administrators Association of New York State, John McKenna, recently told me, “We have to push ahead to demand change. I will believe that change has come when I actually see change.”

Jeanette Deutermann, lead of the Long Island, New York Opt Out, agrees. And she is furious with what she sees as the scare tactics being spread by the media based on the threatening letter issued by Acting Secretary of Education John King.

“As opt outs take root in NY and spread across the country, the federal and state governments continue to play a bizarre game of “yes we will, no we won’t” concerning funding threats. This year the threat took a different spin. The Feds gave the states a great little ‘bullying toolkit’ which basically says, ‘these parents aren’t afraid of us. Make sure they’re afraid of YOU.’ They came up short on one key fact: the USDOE and the SED have no authority to strip our schools of funding for a parent-led action. Our schools are in compliance. Our children are administered the test. We, the parents, direct our children not to take it. There is no law or regulation in NY that affords the SED the right to arbitrarily decide to withhold funds from our local districts. “

Deutermann’s dismissal of federal threats was echoed by upstate New York parent, Dan Lupia, who said that threats will only increase test resistance. Dan made it clear that the changes promised by the state are not enough.

That belief was certainly the majority sentiment during a recent panel discussion held by Assemblyman Brian Curran of the 21st Assembly District of New York. When Rockville Centre School Superintendent, William Johnson said, “No parent in their right mind would allow their kid to take the state test this year,” the audience burst into applause.

What was once whispered is now boldly stated. Opt out is not going away.

[1] Jennifer is the creator and writer of the popular education blog, Edushyster.