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Opt Out Revolt Against High Stakes Tests

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My eight-year-old daughter Nora is part of a mass movement. She is one of thousands of children in New York state who opted out of this year’s high-stakes tests.

Journalists and opt-out groups are scrambling to get a fix on exactly how many families opted out. The education authorities, normally so keen on data collection, deny tracking this figure, but what is clear is that, out of the 1.1 million children eligible for the tests, it’s in the hundreds of thousands.

The strength of the opt-out movement varies dramatically from district to district and school to school. In Long Island and upstate New York, there are several districts where more than 80% of students opted out. In New York City, the overall numbers are lower, but they vary dramatically from school to school. In my daughter’s school, 17 out of approximately 330 students opted out, but in our district there is one school with a 95% opt-out rate and several with opt-out rates of over 35%.

A Long Time Coming

This “anti-testing tsunami” as the New York Daily News described it, has been a long time coming.

Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, corporate “education reform” nationally has been driven by a focus on high-stakes testing to provide data which is then used to close schools and attack the teachers’ unions. High-stakes testing has also forced teachers to teach to the test, which is deeply detrimental to teaching and learning.

In New York, parents have seen their schools’ funding cut in successive budgets, while the amount of money spent on testing increases. They’ve seen test scores artificially inflated for several years so politicians could claim the success of the reform agenda, and then they’ve experienced their children’s dismay when the results were adjusted downwards by the state in a “correction.” Most recently, the badly mismanaged introduction of the new Common Core curriculum saw students taking tests aligned to standards that their teachers had not yet been trained for.

The final spur to action this year was provided by Governor Cuomo. He tied a proposal to base 50% of teacher evaluations solely on test scores to the state budget, which also included further major cuts to education funding. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) organized a week of action, which featured the largest mobilization of parents in recent history, and went into lobbying overdrive to ensure the Democratic-led State Assembly would not pass Cuomo’s bill.

In the end, the worst cuts were removed in budget negotiations, but the teacher evalution bill passed. Stunningly, the UFT claimed this as a victory on the basis that Cuomo was forced to accept an amended bill which gives oversight of the evaluation system to the “independent” Board of Regents – an appointed committee that oversees New York schools – rather than being directly run by the governor.

While NYSUT, the statewide teachers’ union, as well as Randi Weingarten, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers, have come out in support of parents who are choosing to opt out, the UFT, unfortunately, continues to advise its members not speak out on the issue of testing.

The Next Step

The question is whether the opt-out revolt can become the beginning of a decisive showdown to end or severely curtail high-stakes testing. The example of New York is certainly likely to inspire anti-testing groups around the country. But activists need to clearly understand how hard corporate interests will fight to preserve the testing edifice. An indication of this are the editorials in New York newspapers attacking parents as dupes of the teachers’ unions.

One of the weaknesses of the opt-out campaign to date is that there is far less participation in poor and working-class communities than in more affluent areas. The entire working class, not just parents and teachers, must be mobilized to save and transform public education. Opting out must be linked to mass mobilizations. Parents and teachers should organize an ongoing, grassroots, democratic campaign with town hall meetings, production of leaflets and posters, and the further development of a program to take back education. We also need to stand independent left candidates who will oppose education reform and truly represent the interests of working people.

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