When Colorado Education Commissioner Richard Crandall waltzed into office last January, there was one issue facing his department that seemed to rise above the rest: standardized testing.
The state’s swelling opt-out movement had already led roughly 1-in-10 students to boycott their end-of-year exams last spring. State policymakers responded quickly, ditching the PARCC exam at the high school level in favor of using the PSAT and the SAT for 10th- and 11th-grade students’ annual assessment.
“As I came in and learned about the high percentage of opt-outs in high school it was a little bit of a ‘Holy cow what’s going on here?,’” said Crandall, who added he himself might have opted out his children. He’s not the only top educator to express that view. New York’s new Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa last week said she too would opt her children out of the exams if she were not on the board that sets education policy for the state. New York’s tests start next Tuesday.
But Crandall said he dialed it back after learning that state lawmakers had already jettisoned the high school-level PARCC exam.
“Then I learned what the legislature and the state board had done (and) all of the sudden it was like, ‘Phew,’” the commissioner said. “Nature took its course. Folks acted appropriately. Action was taken that needed to be taken. We’re in a great place to move forward.”
Education commissioners and school administrators across the country are increasingly faced with two competing pressures: to work toward complying with federal requirements for annual testing or to yield to a grassroots, politically influential opt-out movement that wants to put the brakes on assessments.
Last spring, opt-out advocates waged aggressive campaigns—sometimes successfully and often in tandem with teachers unions — in state legislatures, at school board meetings and in school parking lots to expand the rights of parents who dislike the standardized tests. As a result, hundreds of thousands of students skipped the assessments altogether in 2015.
That campaign became a contentious element of the No Child Left Behind rewrite as legislators debated whether test-based accountability should be incorporated into the new federal education law. In the end, the law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, kept the requirement that 95 percent of all eligible students participate in annual testing but loosened the reins on what states have to do with the results.
Observers will soon know whether those concessions and testing rollbacks in various states like Colorado will be enough to quell parent discontent this spring.
“It will be interesting to see what the opt-out level is this year,” said Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform. “Will it be the same level as last year in those communities or will it be lower?”
One thing is certain, opt-out advocates have no plans to dial back the heat.
“I think it’s growing. I think it’s been growing since our inception in 2011, There were a lot of people who thought it was too radical to even broach as an option,” United Opt-Out activist Morna McDermott said of the movement. “It’s become very normal in the conversation around education.”
How often, how long and how high the stakes
Crandall said the recent passage of ESSA will give Colorado an opportunity to reassess the frequency and use of standardized tests, including potentially creating an assessment system aligned to every district’s individual needs. The days of a single test at the end of the year may be fading away, he said.
“I like the way the feds kinda placed the onus back on us to say ‘Come up with something better. You guys need to come up with an assessment system that’s closer, that measures things that matter more, then tell us what you’re gonna do,’” he said.
Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education sent letters to a dozen states saying they were in danger of not meeting the 95 percent test participation requirement that remains under ESSA. Federal officials asked the states for their plans to address the test boycotters, reminding them that they could lose federal funding if they don’t.
Count Crandall as one commissioner who is unworried about that consequence..
“Never. I anticipate us being great partners with U.S. DOE as we design a more relevant and engaging assessment system,” he said. “And they’re not going to hurt students by (withholding) Title 1 funds because we have families that don’t feel we’re quite there yet (and choose to opt out).”
Other states have responded to the warning with varying degrees of action.
The Connecticut Department of Education eliminated the long-form essay from the Smarter Balanced Assessment for middle school students. That change means students will now spend six-and-a-half hours in annual state testing, down from eight.
But as part of the state’s new accountability system, schools will also be judged on whether they meet the test participation threshold.
“We don’t want to burden people with too much testing but we certainly want to make sure that we’re mastering the subject matter,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said during a press conference last month. “That’s what we have to do.”
Other states are taking a more passive approach.
After only 88 percent of Rhode Island students last year took the Language Arts section of PARCC and only 90 percent took the math, the state education department promised to ramp up its communication with parents and schools about the importance of testing.
Schools that failed to meet the 95 percent participation rate will be ineligible to be recognized as a “commended school,” a celebratory distinction the department offered to only two schools last year, according the Rhode Island Department of Education.
But the state stopped short of making any major changes to the testing itself — at least not yet.
“We learned, in partnership with educators, that we must establish a deeper understanding of the purposes and uses of assessments before we can make thoughtful decisions about reducing testing,” Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner wrote in a letter to federal education officials.
Only a handful of North Carolina student groups failed to meet the required test participation threshold, including the number of sophomore English language learners who took the math test. Still, the state Department of Education sent a letter back to U.S. Department of Education outlining the consequences for schools that failed to meet the threshold.
They will have to send letters home to parents disclosing their failure to test 95 percent of all students. If that trend continues for three straight years, the school will be identified as a Focus School, requiring it to take action to improve, according to the North Carolina Department of Education.
White suburban moms or a true revolt
Neither the rewrite of the federal education law nor regulatory pushback from states and federal education officials has done much to persuade opt-out leaders to walk away from their advocacy. From their perspective, the move away from standardized testing is just in its infancy.
“Pressure is rising not declining,” said Bob Shaffer, the public education director for the national FairTest activist group. “The core demands of this movement are simple and threefold: less standardized testing, no high-stakes testing and support for non-test related assessments.”
But challenges for test boycotters remain.
The opt-out movement lacks support for its cause in the hearts and minds of the American public. Fifty-nine percent—including a majority of parents—oppose letting families decide whether their children should take annual tests while a quarter of the public support it, according to a recent poll from Education Next.
Test boycotters must also fight to shed the perception that it is made up of “white suburban moms” as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously called those who were opposed to the Common Core State Standards. A preliminary analysis on New York’s opt-out data from the Brookings Institute’s Brown Center on Education Policy showed affluent school districts chose to reject the tests more than poor communities. Another organization’s informal analysis of opt-out rates found a similar trend in New Jersey.
But opt-out organizers reject that niche characterization.
“The opt-out movement is being framed as a white soccer mom movement and it’s not,” McDermott said. “There are schools in urban communities (that are opting out) and get ignored by the mainstream media in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Chicago. Nobody wants to write that.”
Perhaps in no other region is the litmus test for the strength of the opt-out movement stronger than it is in New York. Last year, some 20 percent of all students skipped the test, which equates to roughly 200,000 kids—a far cry from the 5 percent who sat out the year before.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia set off this week on a tour of districts in Western New York, including West Seneca where 71 percent of the students boycotted the tests last year. Her message to parents: things have changed, give the assessments another chance.
In January, the New York state Department of Education outlined a series of reforms it was taking to reduce the burden of testing, including incorporating more educator involvement in the test development process, reducing the number of test questions and, in some cases, shifting to untimed testing. The month before New York’s Board of Regents voted to suspend the use of state standardized test scores in teacher evaluations until 2019—a major victory for the state teachers union.
But the movement’s leaders said they were not satisfied. Instead, the New York State Allies for Public Education, an opt-out friendly group, jumped into the political and policy fray even more, vetting and endorsing candidates for the state Board of Regents to prompt more changes to state education policy. Earlier this month, state legislators appointed one of their candidates to the Board of Regents and Rosa, a former Bronx schools superintendent endorsed by Allies for Public Education, was elected chancellor.
All that activity has some superintendents wondering whether even more kids will skip the tests this spring than did last year, said Robert Lowry Jr., deputy director for advocacy research and communications for The Council of School Superintendents.
“There is some murkiness and uncertainty,” Lowry said. “Our general feeling is that we need to put forth some assessments that parents and educators see value in.”