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Topic: Testing Skeptics Aim to Build Support for Opt-Out Strategy
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Testing Skeptics Aim to Build Support for Opt-Out Strategy
Posted: Apr 1, 2014 5:50 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, March 12, 2014, Volume 33, Issue 24, pages 1,19. See
Testing Skeptics Aim to Build Support for Opt-Out Strategy

By Karla Scoon Reid

Riding what they see as a wave of anti-testing sentiment among
parents, opponents of high-stakes assessments believe a strategy
known as opt-out-having parents refuse to let their children take
state-mandated tests-could force policymakers to take note of their

Once considered a rarity, the opt-out push has prompted high-profile
boycott efforts and meetings in large districts such as Chicago and
led more parents nationwide to join forces with anti-testing
advocates in arguing that the assessments are unnecessary, excessive,
and, in some cases, even harmful to students.

Such efforts come at a time when states across the country are
preparing to field-test assessments aligned with the Common Core
State Standards, and when controversy over the common core in many
statehouses has reignited the debate over testing overload.

In Chicago, where students started taking the Illinois Standards
Achievement Test last week, teachers at two schools will likely face
disciplinary action for refusing to administer the assessment. Parent
advocates last week were asserting that up to 2,000 students in
grades 3-8 opted out, though a Chicago school district official
disputed that tally, estimating the number to be fewer than 1,000.

Rallies and meetings promoting parents' rights to refuse student
testing are planned in a wide range of communities, from Denver to
Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. And a new national coalition called the
Testing Resistance & Reform Spring, which officially launched in
February, hopes to coordinate such local efforts to start a more
substantial assault on reforming and scaling back high-stakes testing.

"Opting out is one powerful tactic to make policymakers aware that
parents are fed up with testing overkill," said Robert A. Schaeffer,
public education director for FairTest, based in Jamaica Plain,
Mass., which is part of that new coalition. "Opting out, at its core,
is a form of civil disobedience."

But opting out can be a murky and messy process in most states
because few specific guidelines exist outlining what rights parents
have to refuse testing on behalf of their children.

Michelle Exstrom, the director of the education program at the
National Conference of State Legislatures, said state laws generally
require districts to administer the assessments, but students are not
required to take the tests. Federal law, she said, is largely silent
on the issue of opting out.

Variations Seen

While some state legislation allows the parents of students with
disabilities to opt out of testing, Ms. Exstrom characterized opt-out
policies as "vague."

In California, the education code explicitly grants parents
permission to refuse the test on behalf of a student. In Illinois and
New York, the student, not the parent, must refuse the test. (Parent
advocates say forcing students, some as young as 9, to refuse the
test is unconscionable-in New York, some parents are being advised by
advocates to pin "I refuse" notes on their children's shirts,

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education advises that while
parents may have the right to opt out of state tests, such a decision
could end up hurting a school's ability to meet the 95 percent
testing participation rate mandated under the No Child Left Behind
Act law. Failure to meet that rate is one of the many requirements
for schools that can trigger academic interventions.

"It's a bizarre game of semantics," Jeanette Deutermann, a co-founder
of the parent advocacy group New York State Allies for Public
Education, said about who can or cannot refuse the test. Ms.
Deutermann, who lives in Bellmore, N.Y., believes the lack of
explicit guidelines is designed to discourage parents from availing
themselves of their right to opt out. And, she said, oftentimes it

But Ms. Exstrom said opting out is gaining momentum nationally
because parents don't understand how crucial student-level data is to
ensure that schools and districts are held accountable for educating
all children.

"Parents don't see the bigger picture, in part, because they don't
see the data," she said.

This year's national testing landscape is complicated by the
common-core-aligned assessments being piloted to replace state tests
developed to meet federal NCLB mandates. Some states are seeking and
have been granted "double-testing" waivers from the U.S. Department
of Education to ease the testing burden.

Common-Core Heat

Some anti-testing advocates also believe that opposition voiced at
public meetings around the country about the common core is
manifesting itself in parents wanting to exercise some measure of
control over their children's education.

"[Opting out] sends a message that these are our children, and we
will decide where we draw the line," said Julie Woestehoff, the
executive director of the Chicago-based Parents United for
Responsible Education.

Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development for the
Washington-based Education Trust, said that parents have legitimate
concerns about the frequency and necessity of testing. But opting out
isn't the solution; rather, she said, the response should be a
careful examination of the tests.

Standards-based assessments, she said, "are the way we will know how
all students are performing against a common benchmark and that is
particularly important for low-income parents and for parents of
color whose children for too long have been subject to low

For parents, the practicalities of opting out can be daunting,
advocates concede.

United Opt Out National, an advocacy group that provides parents with
guidance as they navigate the unchartered testing-refusal waters, has
seen a marked increase in requests for help.

Peggy Robertson, a teacher and mother of two who lives in Centennial,
Colo., and an administrator for United Opt Out National, said the
group receives upwards of 100 emails a day seeking advice. The group,
which is hosting a national conference in Denver on March 28 to
mobilize anti-testing advocates, has volunteers in 27 states to
assist parents. Ms. Robertson said parents face intimidating tactics
from school and district administrators seeking to keep students in
their seats for the tests. Parents also have been told that schools
could lose funding and have their reputations damaged if too many
students opt out.

"They so desperately need us to take these tests," Ms. Robertson said
of district and school administrators. "But the more they bully
parents, the more parents refuse to take the tests."

Michael Bohr, a stay-at-home father of two in Sparta, N.J., and an
organizer of an opt-out rally planned for March 29 in Port Jefferson
Station, N.Y., said, "The politicians can't ignore us if we're not
taking their tests. They have to respond to us."

Chicago Showdown

The most recent clash over parents' opt-out rights has taken place in
Chicago, where a coalition of parents began a testing boycott March 3.

Chicago is replacing the ISAT with the Northwest Evaluation
Association's Measures of Academic Progress assessment-known as the
NWEA MAP test-which will be used for school and student assessments,
promotions, and eligibility to competitive schools. While Chicago
parent advocates call the ISAT obsolete, district and state officials
say the test must be administered to comply with federal mandates.
Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the
state's testing guidelines have always been clear: Students who are
present on test-taking days must be offered the assessment. If the
student refuses the tests, he or she may sit quietly or read.

John Barker, Chicago's chief accountability officer, said in a phone
interview that although he does not want to minimize parents'
concerns, the magnitude of the issue has been "overstated." Mr.
Barker said the district meets with parents on a bimonthly basis to
address concerns regarding the proper balance between assessment and
instructional time.

"Our CEO [Barbara Byrd-Bennett] and senior leadership team absolutely
believe that assessment is an important tool to inform teacher
practice and guide student achievement," Mr. Barker said.

Chicago parent activists admit that they are facing an uphill battle
to calm parents' fears and dispel what they said are myths about
testing requirements. Despite the highly-charged atmosphere
surrounding the testing boycott, however, Julie Fain, an organizer
with More Than a Score, a new coalition of Chicago-based parent
advocacy groups opposed to testing, said anti-testing activists
aren't the driving force behind opting out in the city.

"This is mostly parents who are seeing that their kids do not love
school anymore," said Ms. Fain, the mother of two children, and who
is married to Chicago Teachers Union vice president Jesse Sharkey.
"They're seeing that testing is taking more resources and time away
from authentic learning."

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