Lessons from Opt Out: The Anti-test Movement

While the number of families saying “no” to high stakes tests for their children are growing nationwide, New York State stands at the vanguard of this movement. Last month, the number of children opting out of tests rose by more than 300% since last year in New York. Last month, 165,000 students — or one of six eligible students– opted not to take standardized tests, representing a substantial increase over the 49,000 students opting out in 2014.

In New Jersey, 14.5% of 11th graders sat out the new tests. Weeks ago, Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado signed a law eliminating certain tests and requiring districts to allow parents to keep their children out of state tests. Given all that is at stake, it is helpful to have an analysis of the driving forces behind this movement, and some attending lessons outlined below:

How is even more important that what when it comes to implementation. Generally speaking, people will (and do) follow bad ideas that are presented in an engaging manner quicker than they will a good idea that comes to them via command, or fiat. I have asked thousands of educators during presentations in the past 2 years “Who is against the content of Common Core?” No one has yet raised their hand. I then ask “who is opposed to the way it is being implemented?” Virtually everyone raises a hand.

When I sat with 6 organizational leaders and two top DOE representatives at the NEA Headquarters for the Transformational Dialogues focused on Common Core in 2010, it became clear that there was not yet an implementation plan in place. The one used in NY State resulted in the resignation of Commissioner John King last year, and has led to a backlash in districts throughout the state.

Good people with good intentions often conceive of great advances for their constituents. Yet the implementation of these concepts is at least as important as the ideas themselves.

Failure isn’t an option for some parents. While poor children and their parents have been labeled failures for far too long, this is a unacceptable for middle class families at the heart of the current opt out movement in New York. Statewide only 31% of students were proficient in last year’s English test. While testing companies gaining billions of Common Core dollars, and politicians who are closely aligned with this industry make glib announcements about “adjustment periods,” parents don’t see failure for their children as insignificant collateral damage. They see their children suffering.

This opens up an opportunity to reevaluate failure as a viable option for any child. If a child’s life chance for happiness and economic independence is tied to success on a test, isn’t it our job as the adults in that child’s life to assure that he or she succeeds? As my coauthor Pedro Noguera and I point out in our recently released book, Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student, the zero sum game is a tired and broken paradigm. All students perform better when schools focus on equity, even students who are already high-performing.

Relationships rule. While I respect many of Governor Cuomo’s qualities, and those of our new State Commissioner, and have great affinity for John King and his extraordinary intellect, my daughter’s 3rd grade teacher and her productive work with my child is more important. When parents start to see the tremendous burden and stress being placed on their local teachers and principals who also happen to be their neighbors and friends, who will these parents support? Will parents’ respect for the Governor trump the relationships with their children’s teachers? Not likely according to common sense, and every PDK/Gallup poll for the last half century.


The only political lever left to assure that parents opt back into tests for their children is the financial lever. That is a heavy handed approach that will gain compliance at best, but never commitment. What is needed is a strategy that truly engages all stakeholders in ways consistent with what motivates real people (see Daniel Pink’s book, Drive; or my own book, The Answer is in the Room). Using a hammer to fix a crack in the wall leads to a large hole in the wall. Instead, perhaps it’s time to deal with the real and legitimate concerns of the human beings affected by a policy-driven agenda that has left them out of the planning.

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