Opt Out FAQs

Our post about opting out of high-stakes-testing prompted a great deal of discussion on social media this week. [See “National Opt Out Day.”] Folks in this grassroots movement raised lots of good, thoughtful questions. And in the spirit of the best of our civil rights movements, we will work through those questions and learn together. We might not have all the answers and we might not all agree, but having this conversation is probably the most important thing we can be doing right now for public education. So please continue to be a part of this discussion, on the blog, on the Facebook page, at school meetings, and among your friends and colleagues.

What will happen to my school if students opt out and we don’t make AYP?

Schools must have at least 95% participation in order to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). This benchmark was set by the federal government under No Child Left Behind and has been used as a “bullying” tactic to enforce school district and parental participation in the testing system. The national organization Fair Test, which has been around since the 1980s, points out: “This is one of the many ways schools can fail. However, because many schools are already not making AYP, this may not matter. In other words, if your school or district is failing anyway, why worry about test participation?” [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

Thr bottom line is that our schools are already being hurt. By next year, every school in the U.S. is supposed to be 100% proficient in reading and math — at that point, every single school will be labeled a “failing” school under No Child Left Behind. Even the amazing Pittsburgh public school my two children attend — an incredible school by many, many measures — is already labeled a failing school. It is in “corrective action 2” — that’s as low as you can go. The state already has the right to come in and shut down my children’s school if it wants to. (There is no indication this is going to happen, by the way, but it’s important to remember what the very real consequences are of this high-stakes-testing mania.)

What will happen to teachers if students opt out of the tests?

Many people are worried about their teachers and don’t want to do anything that might hurt them. This is excellent and obviously a very appropriate sentiment. The concern is particularly that if a large proportion of relatively high-scoring students don’t take the tests, a teacher’s evaluation might suffer. The problem is, teacher’s evaluations are about to be subjected to the junk science of VAM, based on students’ high-stakes-test scores. [See “The VAM Sham.”] This is exactly the damaging misuse of our students’ test data that we would be protesting by refusing to have our children participate in high-stakes-testing.

Some teachers are also parents, and are facing a real conflict. Some are feeling very real fear about their own jobs. I really appreciate these words from one Pittsburgh public teacher: “We all have to support one another as we struggle through the mire before us, holding one another’s hands as we put together a movement which can strike at the heart of the beast. Right now, telling the truth about what’s happening in education and holding up another vision — other child-centered visions — is a revolutionary act in and of itself. Even there, some of us (like my gray-haired self) are more in a position to do so than others are. We are all in this together, at whatever level we feel we can be on.”

And let’s not ignore what is happening to our teachers right now, even if we do not opt out: the canned curricula, the lack of resources, the loss of creativity and freedom in the classroom to teach as one human being to another. What about how the very act of giving these mandated tests affect our teachers? I was very inspired to act after reading Sheila May-Stein’s account of proctoring the PSSAs and how it made her feel. [“Outside the Lines – of the Standardized Test Bubble,” 12-11-12]

Won’t opting out risk leaving mostly low-scoring students to take the tests, thereby harming them further, and worsening inequities?

A common concern with opt out is that only (or mostly) middle class and predominantly white families will participate, further ghettoizing those students who remain to take the tests. If schools “fail” on the basis of their scores, these students might be “blamed” even more. Education researcher Dr. Tim Slekar responds, “It helps if you see the opt out movement not as an attack on the tests but as an effort to take back our schools from corporations and the complicit state and federal government. … your school will fail if you opt out and your school will fail if you don’t opt out. The system was set up to ‘demonstrate’ that public schools (all of them) are failures and need to replaced with something new — typically market driven charter schools with privately managed boards that make a profit off of the tax payers. In fact this is already happening in Philadelphia, Chicago, DC and other urban school districts.”

Opting out is about standing up for equity, as Dr. Slekar explains: “We are doing it to bring attention to the fact that we don’t support a system that will eventually be used to hurt all of us. And we do it because are most vulnerable students are already being harmed by this system and our teachers are being demoralized. This testing system uses our children’s data to dismantle our schools. You opt out to deny the data to the reformers. You opt out because you refuse to participate in a system that uses your child to provide data that will be used to label your school and your teachers as failures. You opt out because these are your schools and at this time in history only civil disobedience at the grass roots level has the potential to stop this insanity. It is because of the ‘OTHER’ children that we opt out. If we don’t they will be the ones to feel the most pain in the new two tiered system of separate and unequal education.” [See also, Huffington Post, 11-21-11]

What about public perceptions of my school if people hear that it did not make AYP?

By next year, every single school in this country will be labeled a “failure” under AYP. Some of our great public schools have already been labeled failures, including those in some of the wealthiest areas of Southwest Pennsylvania such as Mt. Lebanon. Obviously we want families to choose public education and to stick with our neighborhood schools – this is especially true in urban areas that have been fighting white flight. Clearly we need to continue working together to counter the lies and misconceptions about public education being spread by the corporate-reform-movement that would have us believe that AYP scores actually describe what is happening inside our school buildings. We need to be clear that we care deeply about the racial achievement gap and equity, but that AYP and high-stakes-testing are not addressing these issues. We care about real learning for all students. [For more inspiration on this point, please see @theChalkFace, “I Don’t Care About AYP.”]

What about special education students?

Fair Test explains that “a major reason for the 95% [student test participation] rule is that some districts had a history of holding low scoring, disabled, ELL [English Language Learners] or other students out of testing to make the school or district look better. Some advocates for those students supported the 95% rule as a way to preclude students from being excluded from testing and therefore educationally ignored.” As Fair Test points out, these “are legitimate concerns” and we need to address them. [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

Clearly, schools need to meet the learning needs of all students. But high-stakes-testing is not meeting the needs of any of our students, and is quite clearly harming many of them. When I was at the White House meeting with the President’s policy advisors last spring, a special education teacher literally broke down in tears describing how horrendous these tests are for her students, some of whom bang their heads on their desks in frustration until they are bruised. She explained how the tests are completely inappropriate, create immense stress, and do not measure any real learning that these kids have achieved. I was also really moved by an account of the effects of high-stakes-testing on special education students written by a teacher working in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. [See “Make No Mistake, Corporate Ed Reform is Hurting Kids,” 12-28-12]

What about all the other uses of high-stakes-test scores?

Some parents are legitimately concerned about the various uses of high-stakes-test data, such as making decisions about admission to gifted programs, grade or subject acceleration, or acceptance to certain High School or magnet programs. Even some outside agencies such as Carnegie Mellon’s C-MITES program asks for these test scores. However, in many cases parents can ask to use other measures of learning. It might be worth exploring this issue ahead of time where these concerns exist, while explaining precisely why your student won’t have test data in their file. It’s also very useful to remember that “achievement” as measured by these tests is not the same thing as aptitude, or the potential for learning and doing well in a subject. Dr. Dave Powell, education professor at Gettysburg College, reminds us: “The next time you see a kid’s future being framed by a test score, ask yourself: Is this what I would want for my kid?” [Read his excellent piece: Education Week, “Confusing Achievement with Aptitude,” 12-11-12]

How many people have to participate in order for it to “work”?

Essentially, even one person can make a difference, because that is one voice standing up for public education. Dr. Slekar says that three years ago when he originally starting opting his older child out, he thought that a mass-movement would be necessary: “Now I know that every individual that opts out is what matters the most. Individuals serve as role models and surrogates for others. Just one opt out says loud and clear: I love my child, I love my school and I love my teachers! I will not take part in this insanity anymore.” Others have pointed out that we don’t want lone voices to lead to martyrdom, which is why we need a real movement to do this right.

Pittsburgh public school parent Elaine Rybski has proposed having each school organize a parent campaign, to educate other parents, distribute FAQs and sample letters, and collect letters from those who choose to participate. She explains her proposal saying, “when a significant number have turned theirs in … they can be turned in as a group. This collection method ensures that there are enough to make a difference, and if only a few participate in the campaign, they will actually not be opted out, so the school will not be hurt. But the campaign needs to start soon so that parents can get all their information and have time to think about it and have any questions answered.” What do you think?

One more thought: According to Dr. Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education at College of Education at the University of Oregon (where he also serves as the director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education), it would take just a 6% opt-out rate to invalidate state test results. [“The 6% Club,” 5-11-11]

How do parents go about opting out their children?

In February, the state will deliver copies of the tests to school districts. At that time, parents and guardians may ask for a meeting with the school’s assessment coordinator. You have a right to look at the test at this time, though you can also use the meeting to simply submit your letter. In Pennsylvania, families can request a religious exemption from testing: you simply need to write a short letter stating that you are asking for just that. It does not need to be long, nor does it even have to identify your religion (in fact, the state is not permitted to ask that). I will personally be calling on the traditions of social justice, social action, equity, and compassion at the root of all our major religions.

Students can attend school on the days when tests are administered (the state and district cannot refuse to admit a non-test-taking student, which would be an issue for some working parents). Some parents involved in Opt Out around the country have offered to volunteer in the schools that day to assist with real learning opportunities for those students who are not taking tests. Other parents have simply kept their children at home and engaged them in out of school learning activities. United Opt Out has developed a tool kit for parents interested in this movement with additional tips and sample letters that can be used. [United Opt Out, “Opting Out of High Stakes Testing,” 9-12-12]

Would you like to see some sample Pennsylvania letters? Would you like to have a meeting to discuss the specifics involved in opting students out of testing? Please speak up so we can have the conversation and get things organized.

Will my school lose its Title I funding?

Title I funds are federal dollars used by schools that have a substantial proportion of low income students (measured by the number of those participating in the free-and-reduced-lunch program). Fair Test explains the impact on Title I funding is actually indirect:

  • “If a school fails to make AYP for two years, a portion of Title I funds must be spent on transporting students to another school in the district that is making AYP (if there are any making AYP and don’t have special admissions requirements such as minimum test scores).
  • “After three years, Title I funds must in part go to ‘supplemental services’ (e.g., small group after school instruction, often test prep).
  • “Up to 20% of Title I funds must be earmarked for these two purposes, with no more than 15% of Title I funds required to be spent on either one of the two. There is evidence that many districts are not spending the 20%. Still, this is a financial consequence.
  • “There are no other federal financial penalties for schools that receive Title I funds and do not make AYP. Other consequences, such as privatizing control over a school or closing it, may have financial implications.
  • “NLCB only requires states to impose the escalating AYP sanctions on schools that receive Title I funds (but all schools must test and report the disaggregated results).” [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

Others have pointed out that even when Title I monies are used by a District, they can circle back to testing companies and the disruptive agenda of corporate-style-reform. That is because schools often use the money to pay for things such as after school test preparation, or are forced to spend it on transporting students to other schools.

Is opting out legal?

There is no federal law, under No Child Left Behind in particular, that prohibits parents from opting their children out of high-stakes-tests. At the same time, there is no specific statute that permits it, and the law was written in such a way as to provide great incentives for compliance (by instituting the 95% participation mandate). [Fair Test, “How NCLB Relates to Opting Out of Tests”]

An opt-out group in Coloroda, Uniting4Kids, prepared this helpful information about parental rights and testing: “Parental rights are broadly protected by Supreme Court decisions (Meyer and Pierce), especially in the area of education. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents posses the “fundamental right [to] direct the upbringing and education of their children. Furthermore, the Court declared that ‘the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.’ (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35)”

“The Supreme Court criticized a state legislature for trying to interfere ‘with the power of parents to control the education of their own.’ (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 402.) In Meyer, the Supreme Court held that the right of parents to raise their children free from unreasonable state interferences is one of the unwritten ‘liberties’ protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (262 U.S. 399). In recognition of both the right and responsibility of parents to control their children’s education, the Court has stated, ‘It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for the obligations the State can neither supply nor hinder.’ (Prince V. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158)” [Uniting4Kids, “A Guide to Exercising Your Parental Rights”]

Finally, Uniting4Kids points out this line from the U.S. Supreme Court (in American Communications Association v. Douds): “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

What could we expect the outcomes to be this year if we opt out?

One parent asked, “When will our teachers be allowed to stop teaching to the test?” It might be too much to expect that opting our students out of testing this year will lead to an immediate end to test-prep in our schools – at least for this year. But doing nothing will not change the situation, either. My hope is threefold: to start a real conversation here in Southwest Pennsylvania about the damaging impact of corporate-style-education reform; to make a dent, however small, in the system by refusing to allow my children’s bodies and souls to be used in this way; and to make a much bigger impact through our movement by drawing the attention of policy makers to these critical issues. I expect we will be able to get a critical mass involved in this effort – and that this will feed back into our other efforts, such as fighting further proposed education budget cuts.

Does opt out work?

The short answer is yes. But it’s early and this movement is just getting off the ground. There is terrific evidence from other places around the country where this movement has been growing for the past few years: we are not alone, in fact, we are nowhere near the first to do this. Entire PTA groups and even school boards have decided to opt out. School superintendents like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland are speaking out very publicly. [Charlotte Observer, 12-21-12] The entire state of Vermont even refused to apply for an NCLB waiver on the grounds that the tests were not working. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In 2011, Michele Gray started an opt-out campaign in State College, PA. [CNN, 3-21-11] Back in June last year, the parents of East Village Community School in New York City came together and opted out en masse of the field trials of standardized tests the state was trying to give their children. Nearly every parent in the school signed a letter, which they delivered to the principal, stating that they would not have their children tested and wound up catching the attention of the media. [New York Times, 10-12-12] There are loads of other examples at the United Opt Out web site and at Fair Test, with parent groups from Florida to Connecticut, Oregon to South Carolina, and everywhere in between. The Bartleby Project aims to invite 60,000,000 students to opt out of tests. The American Federation of Teachers has just launched a new website against high-stakes-testing called, Learning is More than a Test Score. United Opt Out will also be holding its second “Occupy the Department of Education: The Battle for Public Schools” in D.C. in early April.

We are not alone, and this movement is growing quickly. Now is the time to add our voices to those calling for an end to this madness that is hurting our schools, our teachers, and our children.


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9 thoughts on “Opt Out FAQs

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  3. Pingback: Opt Out Resources | More than a Score Chicago

  4. How can students opt out of testing when parents are told students must be proficient in literature, biology, and algebra to graduate?

    • The state will not be requiring Keystone exams for graduation until 2017. My understanding is that students who opt out starting at that time will be allowed to do a project instead.

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