What’s Driving the Opt-Out Movement? The belief that high-stakes testing promotes rote learning and is unfair to teachers, a Teachers College survey finds

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August 8, 2015 – What’s Driving the Opt-Out Movement? The belief that high-stakes testing promotes rote learning and is unfair to teachers, a Teachers College survey finds.

Teachers College unveiled the findings of Who Opts Out and Why?the first national, independent survey of the “opt-out” movement—which reveals that supporters oppose the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and believe that high-stakes tests force teachers to “teach to the test” rather than employ strategies that promote deeper learning. The new survey also reports concern among supporters about the growing role of corporations and privatization of schools.

“For activists, the concerns are about more than the tests,” said Oren Pizmony-Levy, TC Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education, who co-authored the study with Nancy Green Saraisky, Research Associate and TC alumna. “We were surprised that the survey reveals a broader concern about corporate education reform relying on standardized test-based accountability, and the increased role of ‘edu-businesses’ and corporations in schools.”

Who is actually opting out? What motivates parents who opt their children out of the tests? Are those who opt out trying to protect their children, or do they have broader political aims? These are some of the questions that we aim to address in this study.

Of particular note
“Teachers and educators, but necessarily teachers’ unions, play a central role in the movement, comprising 45.0 percent of respondents. On the one hand, this suggests that the claims of the protesters are heavily rooted in the professional expertise of teachers and educators, which should legitimize the stances of the movement. On the other hand, teachers themselves are opposed to new models of evaluation that are based on students’ performance on standardized tests (models that have been criticized by various academic groups). Thus, their participation in the movement could be seen as a response to the growing pressure of accountability.

As a lower‐status, highly feminized profession, teacher expertise is often disregarded in the policy making process. Indeed, when respondents wrote in additional comments on the survey, they often used language about getting teachers and educators to the policymaking table. For example, a respondent from California wrote: “I believe there is some role for state and federal government to guide and monitor student learning, but it is currently being done very, very badly. I think experts in the field of education, and not politicians, should be responsible for shaping policy”.

Large majority of respondents endorse alternative modes of evaluation – examples of students’ work and written observations by teachers – as providing an accurate picture of students’ academic progress.

Survey respondents believe that they are having an impact through their opt out activism, and most of them say that they are impacting policy. Indeed, both the Democratic and Republican party platforms for the 2016 presidential election include language about standardized testing. The Democratic platform was revised to include language that supports the parental right to opt out of standardized testing, while the Republican platform praises those states that reject “excessive testing and “teaching to the test.”’26 The two largest teachers’ unions also oppose high stakes testing. And even when states’ opt out policies prohibit opting out, protesters are going ahead and refusing anyway. While none of these translates into specific policy change, taken together they suggest that at the very least the opt out movement is reshaping the public discourse about the role of standardized testing in public schools.

It shows that opt-out proponents reject not only the popular narrative that public education in America is failing, but also the notion that, even if it were, more standardized testing would fix it. “People in the opt-out movement are not saying the whole system is broken,” said Green Saraisky. “They’re not anti-testing; they’re anti-standardized testing.”

Respondents believe that opting out “is about political challenge to current educational reform,” Pizmony-Levy said. “Policy makers need to take opt-out supporters seriously and pay attention to what motivates them and what ideas they bring to the table.”