Student protests of standardized tests have become more vocal and organized. How did we get here and what can be done?
By Mindy L. Kornhaber
Penn State University
“Opt Out,” a civil disobedience movement against state-mandated testing in elementary and secondary education, is growing rapidly across the United States. Last year, Opt Out protests occurred in about half the states. This year, the movement has found support across all 50 states.
In New York state alone, the number of students opting out has more than tripled this year. Nearly 200,000 students – more than 15 percent of the state’s students – opted out this spring.
While Opt Out protests are aimed at several test-related issues, they have been ignited mainly by the Common Core Standards, a set of reforms to establish a nationwide set of academic standards and tests.
For the past 25 years, my research has focused on testing policies. Over the last four years, along with my research team, I have intensely researched the Common Core standards, interviewed several leaders, scrutinized the reform’s funding and assembled a database of responses to the reform across 10 diverse states.
What happens on the day of the test
Opt Out protests can take many forms. At times, teachers take the initiative and refuse to give the test, and at others, it is the parents who decide to exempt their children. Sometimes students themselves decide to boycott.
For instance, at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, protesting parents and students acting on their own opted out. So, the entire 11th grade class didn’t show up on the testing day.
On the other hand, in Washington, Florida and Oklahoma, although very disparate states, teachers acting alone or with union support refused to administer the tests.
In some cases, school policy has required parents to send their children to school, but instead of taking the tests they are made to “sit and stare”: that is, do nothing while their classmates toil away on the tests.
Some critics claim that Opt Out has been largely driven by teachers’ unions angered by policymakers’ efforts to undermine teacher tenure and collective bargaining.
Union activity has played a role in Opt Out. However, our database indicates such protests have occurred in states with or without strong teacher unions. For example, despite a weak teachers’ union in Florida, Opt Out actions there are among the strongest in the nation.
In fact, opposition to the Common Core and its testing is broad-based. National poll data show 60 percent of the public does not support the reform.
Opponents span the political spectrum. For example, conservative pundit Glenn Beck held an anti-Common Core simulcast in 700 theaters nationwide in July 2014. Diane Ravitch, the now-left-leaning academic, has regularly posted critiques of the reform on her blog since 2013.
Reaction to the Common Core
How can the Common Core – a reform backed by billions in federal funds and hundreds of millions from the Gates Foundation – be upended by children who won’t take tests?
I’ll focus on three explanations.
First, while Opt Out was ignited by the Common Core, it was incubated by a long stream of similar “standards-based reforms.” The Common Core and prior standards-based reforms (SBRs) entail aligning standards, curriculum, instruction and tests. To motivate alignment and effort, test scores are pegged to consequences, such as school closure and job loss.
However, the public hasn’t found this playbook compelling since at least 2008. The majority of teachers and parents in our 10-state database say the incessant focus on testing undermines students’ education.
Some critics say it can even harm children, partly because the test questions can be developmentally inappropriate – they go way over the heads of small children.
Second, the Common Core has lacked transparency. The reform was unveiled in June 2009 and described as “state-led.” However, the federal government’s Race to the Top Initiative (RTTT), announced three months earlier, dangled US$4 billion before cash-strapped states to induce them to embrace the Common Core.
Claims that the reform was “state-led” were also contradicted by $360 million in RTTT federal funding for the development of Common Core tests. A reform leader I interviewed in 2011 said, “Every effort must be made not to tie federal dollars or federal accountability measurements directly to the Common Core.”
He correctly recognized that perceptions of federal involvement jeopardized the reform. Among Opt Out participants are those seeking to get the federal government out of state education systems, because education is a power the US Constitution accords primarily to the states.
Third, the Common Core became entangled with market-based reforms. These are the 1955 brainchild of economist Milton Friedman, who claimed school choice will improve education. Competition for seats in better schools will shutter bad ones for lack of students. RTTT encouraged the use of Common Core tests to identify weak schools, and it also promoted school choice.
Market-based reform has sprouted into a worldview that a free market can fix schools. Private enterprise is now seen as a source of solutions for schools posting low test scores.
Standards-based reforms were launched following the 1983 federal report, A Nation at Risk. The report proclaimed, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future….”
In response, every state sought to boost academic standards. By the late 1990s, almost all states had their own version of standards-based reforms (SBRs). In 2002, SBRs prevailed in federal policy when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was signed into law.
Yet standard-based reforms inevitably unleash damaging distortions. Here’s why.
Rational people seek to avoid punitive consequences associated with inadequate test scores, but under SBR there are many ways to raise scores that do not improve learning.
Such “gaming” includes narrowing curriculum to tested subjects and limiting instruction to test prep. Gaming can extend to outright cheating – the recent convictions of 10 Atlanta educators is one example.
Moreover, SBR isn’t effective. No Child Left Behind hasn’t changed achievement trajectories. NCLB didn’t close achievement gaps among high school students even in states with high standards. This bodes poorly for the Common Core’s aim of graduating all students ready for college and career.
Market-based reforms (MBR) have also spurred Opt Out. One MBR entanglement comes from the Gates Foundation’s strong support of the Common Core. Gates and other foundations are acting as venture philanthropists to promote the reform.
Corporatization of education
In contrast to traditional philanthropy, venture philanthropy seeks to maximize philanthropic “investment” in social and political changes the philanthropists value. It does so partly by attracting other investors.
For venture philanthropists in education, the other biggest investor is the government and its public tax dollars. Some question whether venture philanthropists’ outsized sway over public education undermines democratic control.
Venture philanthropy is salient in the Common Core. My research team found that less than 12 percent of philanthropic funding for the reform directly targeted public school districts. Far more went to other nonprofit entities.
These were charged with appraising the new standards, educating parents about the value of the reform, or developing aligned curriculum. In other words, philanthropists invested much more in strategic partners who advanced the reform the philanthropists desired rather than in schools that served students.
Prominent elements of the Opt Out movement are taking aim at corporate education reform. An early example is the 2012 Occupy the Department of Education — a protest in Washington, DC orchestrated by United Opt Out National.
Given that Opt Out entails all 50 states and millions of citizens across the political spectrum, its scope likely exceeds Occupy Wall Street.
However, by “voting with their feet,” Opt Out protesters are rejecting political leaders’ support for federal control and for standards- and market-based reforms.