In a January 2014 speech, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, urged parent leaders to hold high expectations for schools. “Please raise your voice for excellence—and against complacency,” he said. “Organize other parents…. Ask the hard questions, even when it means shaking things up and challenging the status quo.”
One year later, parents in New York raised their voices and shook things up when 20 percent of all eligible grade 3–8 students refused to participate in the 2015 state assessments. (By my calculations based on state-issued data, more than 225,000 students opted out.) Ironically, the policies being challenged were inspired by Duncan’s signature reform initiative, Race to the Top (RttT).
Many policymakers and pundits view the opt-out phenomenon as a fringe movement and have characterized test-refusing parents as uninformed middle-class suburbanites who are pawns of the teachers union and who are undermining accountability and the measurement of the achievement gap. An analysis of the facts suggests otherwise.
The New York test refusals were a symptom of legitimate parental concerns, resulting from the negative unintended consequences of school-reform policy. To get a clear
understanding of the test-refusal movement, we need to analyze its root causes and the underlying issues that drove parental discontent.
New York’s 20 percent opt-out rate is impressive when compared to other expressions of civic engagement. For example, Governor Andrew Cuomo won the 2014 gubernatorial election by garnering only 19 percent of the eligible vote because of low voter turnout. Additionally, the 20 percent opt-out rate underrepresents the magnitude of parental opposition to New York’s current high-stakes testing policy. Many parents (like me) oppose it, but, for a variety of reasons, decided to have their kids sit for the 2015 exam. According to an April 2015 New York Times article, “even parents uncomfortable with the exams are discovering it is hard to push the button on the nuclear option.” Many superintendents discouraged opt-outs, fearing retribution from government entities. One district warned that schools with an opt-out rate in excess of 5 percent would risk being designated “In Need of Improvement,” at which point the state could require a “re-allocation of financial and educational resources … [that] could be significantly detrimental.” Districts that rely on Title I money worried that the federal government would withhold funds. The test-refusal rate was also very low in New York City, where state tests factor into middle and high school admissions and gifted-and-talented placement. Elsewhere in the state, the refusal rate was about 30 percent (see Figure 1).
Bamboozled by the Teachers Union?
Fifteen days prior to the 2015 state assessments, the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) publicly encouraged opt-out. The Daily News wrote, “The attacks on testing are orchestrated to protect teachers, not students.” The Buffalo News editorial board stated, “Parents are being hoodwinked and NYSUT is the single most influential force behind the push.”
The union’s endorsement most likely did contribute to the record number of test refusals, but it does not fully explain the opt-out phenomenon. Beginning in 2013, parents began building a well-coordinated grassroots advocacy infrastructure to protest New York’s rollout of RttT. Specifically, parents were frustrated by the rapid and unrealistic timetable for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the overemphasis on high-stakes testing, and the state’s effort to capture and analyze student data without an adequate plan to assuage data-privacy concerns.
New York simultaneously rolled out the Common Core, the new assessment program, and a new teacher-evaluation system but did not have the institutional capacity to implement so much change at once. Schools were required to teach the Common Core in 2012–13, but very few state curriculum modules were completed when the school year started. In other words, teachers were asked to implement a curriculum that was not available. Furthermore, many of the modules that were released contained errors. Nevertheless, in April 2013, New York became one of the first states to administer high-stakes Common Core tests.
More than 50 parent and educator groups from across the state united to form New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), with the mission of combating the state’s standardized-testing program and advocating for student data privacy. The group played an integral role in the movement by creating lines of communication between regional advocacy groups and parent and educator groups, relying heavily on social media, particularly Facebook.
In 2014, a year prior to NYSUT’s endorsement of test refusal, approximately 60,000 students opted out of taking the state exams. NYSAPE stated, “This was a deliberate decision on the part of parents to show how displeased they are with the Common Core exams and the way in which these tests have narrowed and diminished the education of their children.” A NYSAPE press release in March 2015 (also prior to the NYSUT endorsement) advertised 40 opt-out forums throughout the state during that month alone. The sample test-refusal letter on NYSAPE’s website received 175,000 hits leading up to the 2015 state tests. A steering committee member of NYSAPE wrote in a letter to the New York Times:
The 185,000-plus students who opted out of the state English Language Arts [ELA] test last week did so because of more than three years of organizing by a genuinely grass-roots movement of public school parents. This year parent groups held more than 100 forums across the state; rallied, protested and raised thousands of dollars for billboards promoting test refusal; and engaged tens of thousands more parents via Facebook and Twitter.
Testing and Accountability
Merryl H. Tisch, then chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, urged parents not to opt out, saying, “We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.” However, many parents viewed New York’s testing system as educational malpractice. Reading a statement on behalf of the state PTA, its executive administrator said, “Parents need to trust that testing will actually benefit their kids and right now, that’s not what they see.” At its core, the opt-out movement is not a rejection of all testing. Parents supported reasonable measurement and accountability but were pushing back against a system that they believed compromised educational quality and failed to accurately evaluate teachers.
What were their specific objections? First, many parents thought the tests were too long. From 2010 to 2014, the length of the 3rd-grade ELA and math tests grew by 163 percent, and 4th graders were required to sit for seven (partial) days of state assessments. In 2015, some elementary school students took up to 540 minutes of standardized tests in April/May (in comparison, the SAT is 225 minutes). Many parents believe that the state did not consider the impact of high-stakes testing on students with disabilities, and there were reports that Individualized Education Program (IEP) accommodations have not always been honored during test administration.
Second, concerns were expressed regarding test quality and transparency. In 2013, several New York Assembly members summarized feedback from schools, stating that the test questions were “too vague and did not align with the Common Core curriculum.” Scoring procedures were opaque. The state PTA argued that setting cut scores after test results were known reduced trust among parents and teachers because “policy makers can set proficiency levels to make any case they choose.” Furthermore, the complete tests were not released, making it difficult for outsiders to assess the quality of the questions.
Third, parents felt the assessment system did not promote student learning. Scores were not received until the following school year (five months after testing), and initially, only aggregate results were released, making it impossible to pinpoint individual student weaknesses.
Fourth, the linkage of test scores to teacher evaluations proved controversial. Parents at forums shared anecdotal evidence of teaching to the test, less-creative teaching methods, and narrowing of instruction. In many districts, educators felt compelled to rely on state-scripted lesson plans. The New York State Council of School Superintendents reported that teachers were afraid to deviate from specific content for fear of not being aligned with the state assessments. These concerns were echoed in the findings of the New York Common Core Task Force, which Cuomo convened in 2015 to conduct a review of the standards and how they were implemented. The report highlighted that “students are spending too much time preparing for and taking tests,” teachers were “teaching to the test,” and the narrow focus on ELA and math has “diminished the joy in learning, inhibited creativity, and taken time away from other subjects.” Some schools doubled up on ELA and math instruction at the expense of science, social studies, art, and music. The task-force student ambassador expressed concern that the standards had diminished students’ excitement for learning “because they and their teachers are discouraged from pursuing and teaching topics about which they are passionate.” The state legislature passed a law limiting test prep to 2 percent of instructional time, but it was difficult to enforce.
Additionally, the new formulaic system was not a successful way to identify underperforming teachers. In 2014, only 1 percent of teachers statewide were ranked as “ineffective.” This year, a state court judge ruled in favor of a Long Island teacher, determining that the “ineffective” rating she had received on the growth-score portion of her evaluation (the part linked to student test results) was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Critics of opt-out contend that test refusals happen mainly in middle-class and wealthy areas, hurting high-need schools by making it more difficult to measure the achievement gap. Opt-out leaders believe they are protecting all children from a measurement system that does more harm than good, and they have said they will opt in to standardized tests when the state rectifies the problems.
In fact, reforms placed a particularly difficult financial burden on “average” and “high-need” districts. (In New York State, “need” level has a precise meaning that indicates a district’s ability to meet student needs with local resources. The state designates a district as high, average, or low need by dividing the district’s poverty rate by its wealth per pupil.) The $700 million federal RttT grant that the state received covered only a fraction of the cost of implementing the required reform measures, putting financial strain on districts just after the 2008 recession. For example, in Rockland County, northwest of New York City, six districts collectively received $393,398 but estimated their implementation costs at $10.9 million. As a result, districts with tight budgets funded RttT by increasing class size, providing extra study-hall periods, and cutting athletics, librarians, art, and music. Judith Johnson, then superintendent of the Mount Vernon public schools, testified to the New York State Senate that rapid and unfunded reforms were not helping high-need districts. Rather, reforms were diverting precious resources to “statistically unreliable assessments that are used for high-stakes decision-making.” A recent survey of large urban districts nationwide found that students take an average of 112 mandated assessments during the K–12 years; the survey discovered no correlation between mandated testing time and student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, whose aggregate results are reported via “the Nation’s Report Card.”
While it is true that students who opted out were more likely to be white, less likely to be English Language Learners (ELL), and less likely to be economically disadvantaged, the aggregate statistics do not tell the full story. The low opt-out rate in New York City (where, as previously mentioned, tests were used for admissions and placement) skews the statewide statistics. New York City has a disproportionate share of nonwhite students (86 percent versus 55 percent statewide), ELL students (14 percent versus 8 percent), and disadvantaged students (73 percent versus 54 percent). Outside of the city, high-need districts experienced a test-refusal rate in the 20 percent range. Furthermore, many non-English-speaking parents and parents with limited resources may not have had sufficient access to information or the ability to submit the paperwork required to exercise their opt-out right.
Aggregate statistics also fail to reveal granular differences among districts. For example, Blind Brook and Bronxville, in Westchester County, experienced a 23 percent and 2 percent opt-out rate, respectively, yet both are wealthy, high-performing districts, and they are located just 13 miles apart. Bay Shore, a Long Island district where the majority of students are nonwhite and classified as economically disadvantaged, experienced a 44 percent opt-out rate. Lackawanna, a Buffalo-area district with 90 percent of its students classified as economically disadvantaged, had a 46 percent opt-out rate.
Because opt-out is a grassroots phenomenon, communities varied in the extent of their participation, based in part on factors such as: 1) degree of parental involvement in the local schools, 2) whether the local PTA had an organized advocacy committee, 3) parental awareness of school-reform issues, and 4) access to the Internet and social media.
When Traditional Advocacy Fails
A group of national civil and human rights organizations have denounced test refusal, stressing that “we cannot fix what we cannot measure,” and that, instead of having their kids opt out, parents should be “stimulating worthy discussions” about overtesting. New York parents tried to engage state officials in discussion but couldn’t get them to listen.
Historically, there has been a clear path for parents to influence their children’s schools: reach out to the principal, superintendent, or school board, or run for a spot on that board. However, RttT reduced local control, and parents had difficulty navigating advocacy at the state level. The first hurdle was identifying the decisionmakers. Was it the governor who had the authority? The legislature? The board of regents (appointed by the legislature)? The state education department (appointed by the appointees)? Even leaders in Albany didn’t seem to agree. A December 2014 letter from Cuomo’s office to the regents chancellor said, “The Governor has little power over education, which is governed by the Board of Regents.” The chancellor responded: “The questions and concerns outlined in the letter relate to issues of State Law, which are under the direct control of the State Legislature and the Governor, not the Department or the Board of Regents.”
Nevertheless, community members tried to be heard. Thousands of parents signed petitions, wrote letters to local politicians and attended forums airing a litany of grievances about the test system. In 2013, 1,555 New York State principals signed a petition against the teacher-evaluation system. The school boards in 77 districts symbolically voted to opt out of RttT and return their RttT funds to the state, even though they were still legally bound to comply with the reforms. More than 125 districts passed resolutions opposing high-stakes tests tied to teacher evaluations.
Despite the protests, and although Cuomo agreed that reform implementation was “flawed,” the governor announced a new plan in early 2015 to increase the state test-score component of teacher evaluations from 20 to 50 percent. Because traditional advocacy methods failed to capture Albany’s attention, NYSAPE and other groups intensified their encouragement of test refusal. “We’ve written letters to legislators for years, until we were blue in the face, and they didn’t listen,” said Eric Mihelbergel, a founding member of NYSAPE.
Policymakers could not ignore the unprecedented number of test refusals. Less than a year after Cuomo wanted to link 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to student test scores, he called for a “total reboot” of the system and formed the Common Core task force to investigate. The task force concluded that the “one-size-fits-all” reforms caused “parents, educators, and other stakeholders to lose trust in the system.” It recommended an overhaul of the Common Core standards and a moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations until the 2019–20 school year. The panel confirmed the legitimacy of many of the issues parents had been raising for years. It found that the standards were too rigid, were not always age appropriate, and did not take into account students with special needs. In addition, the task force concluded that the high-stakes exams encouraged teaching to the test, were too long, and were not transparent.
Seven New York State regents published a position paper stating that the “malfunctioning” teacher-evaluation system was based on an “incomplete and inadequate understanding of how to address the task of continuously improving our educational system.” In March 2016, Board of Regents Chancellor-Elect Betty Rosa said, “If I was a parent and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time.” Finally, the New York State Education Department has committed to making the tests shorter and untimed, and to improving their quality and transparency.
The Obama administration has similarly shifted its stance, admitting that testing policies had “unintended effects,” such as excessive time spent on standardized tests. The administration will allow states greater flexibility to use other teacher-evaluation methods, such as student and parent surveys and observation and feedback systems.
Early reports suggest that the New York State test-refusal rate has remained high in 2016. Policymakers have begun to address parental concerns, but the length, transparency, and quality of the exams are still issues. Furthermore, the current moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations is not enough to placate parents who want to see a permanent solution. On a positive note, policymakers are listening more attentively to their constituents, and the dialogue has improved.
Arne Duncan was right when he challenged parents to “ask the hard questions,” but if that tactic is to work, policymakers have to respond to the questions. For three years, parents in New York spoke out against state education policy, but they were ignored. It is a shame that they had to resort to test refusal in order to be heard.
Policymakers and parents alike believe in high standards, equity, and school accountability, but no one has a monopoly on the best ideas for achieving those goals. All constituencies must work together to construct a fair and effective system of assessment that supports teaching and learning rather than disrupting it.
This piece reflects the personal views of the author and does not necessarily represent the position of the local school board on which he serves.