The Opt-Out Movement - National Council of Teachers of English
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The Opt-Out Movement

capitol buildingBoycotting services or goods has historically been an effective form of advocacy, either to highlight injustices or make a statement of one’s belief. Look no farther than the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Grape Strike and Boycott. The opt-out movement is employing similar tactics. NCTE shares the movement’s opposition to over-testing and to accountability systems based on a single standardized test, but it pursues change primarily through engagement with policymakers rather than direct action. Nevertheless, we recognize that this movement is impacting policies at the state and federal levels and contributes to the larger movement for powerful literacy education. It is also a cause of concern to civil rights groups, a concern that will be addressed in my next blog.

In the last couple of years, parents, students, and teachers have chosen to opt out of standardized tests all over the country. Four of NCTE’s policy analysts filed reports discussing the opt-out movement and policies in their states. In PARCC Opt Out, Lauren Wilkie wrote that the Illinois legislature passed a bill to allow students to opt out of PARCC exams, but the governor has threatened to veto it. Leslie Roberts listed the Consequences for Students Who Opt Out of the M-STEP in Michigan. Erin O’Neill describes Students Protesting PARCC Test in NM, and Aileen Hower notes that Students who are still learning English fuel Philly opt-out movement. Although the opt-out movement was attributed to “white suburban moms,” these reports and articles published throughout the country describe a diverse group of people opting out. They include conservatives and liberals, whites, blacks and Hispanics, wealthy and poor. They come from urban and rural areas, small states and large states, Common Core and non–Common Core states. Clearly, thousands of parents, students, and teachers are making a statement.

Opt-out numbers range from 1% in Minnesota (small but still noticeable) to 15% in New Jersey and over 20% in New York. Colorado had huge opt-out numbers in some districts.  In Washington , opt out by juniors was as high as 53%. The reasons given by parents, students, and teachers are varied: opposition to Common Core and intervention by the federal government; too many tests; standardized tests taking too much time away from actual learning; teaching to the test interfering with creative and analytical thought; the reduction or elimination of other subjects, such as the arts and athletics; English Language Learners not given enough time to prepare; computer skills not adequately learned; and tests being tied to teacher and school evaluations, resulting in punitive and damaging consequences.

Policymakers are taking notice at the federal and state levels. Accountability and testing is one of the key issues being debated in ESEA. Policies diverge throughout the country as states grapple with constituents who have made clear that they are unhappy with standardized testing. States such as Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Wyoming have clear no opt-out policies. California, Utah and Oregon, on the other hand, allow opt-out. Some states, such as Arizona have filed bills to allow opt-out.

Indiana, Illinois,  Missouri and Tennessee have no policy. Although there is no specific opt-out policy in Oklahoma or West Virginia, there are consequences. Alabama suspended a student for refusing to take tests over a 3-day period. Some states allow exceptions, such as South Dakota which exempts English Language Learners. Other states, like Idaho , allow substitute tests; Connecticut allows juniors to take the SAT in place of the SBAC. Maine eliminated Smarter Balanced as an assessment, creating a panel to determine their own.

In its 2015 Education Policy Platform, NCTE articulated its belief that, although we need an accountability system that ensures equity, we believe that multiple measures better reflect student learning. That belief is supported by NCTE’s most recent policy brief, published in 2014, by the James R. Squire Office of Policy Research, How Standardized Tests Shape – and Limit-Student Learning, which concluded that standardized tests should be one measure amongst many. Through our Assessment Story Project and position statements such as Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction, NCTE is working hard to improve assessments and educational policy through research and practice. Advocating for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the last year has provided us with an opportunity to educate lawmakers about alternative ways to measure progress toward educational equity other than standardized testing of all students, every year.

This month as part of Connected Educator Month, NCTE will be tackling the theme of Innovations in Assessment to discuss the many ways to equitably and fairly assess student and teacher performance. We look forward to your participation in creating alternative approaches to accountability for equity that truly support excellent literacy instruction and build on the expertise and innovation of teachers.