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A Decade of New York's Opt-Out Movement

What drove the country's largest standardized test rebellion and where is the movement now?


This article and research are by our co-founder Olivia Ildefonso, Ph.D., co-founder of  North Arrow. The research extends from her doctoral dissertation , which traced the evolution of New York's opt-out movement. We first published it in a interactive format that can be found at the following link.

All the data used throughout the article is mapped in our comprehensive dashboard.


New York's Opt-Out Movement Today


Over the next few weeks, students in grades 3 through 8 will be taking the New York State Assessments. However, like in years past, we can expect many parents and caretakers to either keep their children out of school during the exam period or request that their school provide a separate activity for their children in lieu of taking the exam.


North Arrow - 10 Year of Opt Out Movement

North Arrow - 10 Year of Opt Out Movement


Where the Movement Has Taken Hold


The opt-out movement started with a handful of districts in 2013, the year that New York implemented a new set of academic standards called the “Common Core.” Opt out participants criticized the exams for being too long and unnecessarily difficult,forcing teachers to spend more class time "teaching for the test." They also opposed the "high-stakes" that were attached to the exam--counting for 50% of teacher evaluations and being used to rate district performance, which was tied to funding and a school's status.


Two years later, these Common Core exams made national headlines for being the most boycotted standardized test in the nation's history with twenty percent of New York state’s 1.1 million eligible students refusing to take the state-mandated English Language Arts and Math exams.



Opt Out Pre-COVID


While widespread, especially at its peak in 2016, the opt-out movement has not been evenly distributed throughout the state's school districts. In New York, as in much of the nation where testing refusals have occurred, the boycotts overwhelmingly have taken place in white, middle- to upper-class, suburban school districts.


In fact, a 2016 national survey of opt-out parents and teachers reported that the vast majority of respondents (91.8%) were white. Additionally, the median household income for respondents was $125,000, more than twice the median household income for the United States ($55,322).




Opting Out Today

Today, the movement tends to be more diverse overall then in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic.


Though districts with the highest refusal rates continue to be in low and average-need suburban school districts, some suburban regions have seen an uptick in racially diverse districts with high refusals ratings. On Long Island, districts with the highest refusal rates are now, on average, 53% white, while the region is 50% white overall.


And in New York City, there has been a significant growth in test refusals from having a district average of 4% before COVID to doubling that at 8% for last year's ELA exams.



Factors that Explain the Uneven Geographies of the Opt Out Movement


2013-2019

Many factors contributed to the initial lack of diversity in the movement.


Network of Opt-Out Leaders

One important factor mentioned by both Kemala Karmen, one of the founders of NYC Opt Out, and Jeanette Deutermann, one of the founders of Long Island Opt Out, was the lack of information given to parents that refusing the test was even an option. Jeanette mentioned that most of the growth on Long Island was organic and depended on where movement leaders could give talks and reach parents. She explained that when they were invited to speak at districts that are majority students of color, the rates of opt out would immediately rise that testing year, signifying that if more parents knew about the boycott the rates could have been higher in many more districts.


The Uneven Geographies of Local Control

There also seem to be aspects of the movement's uneven geographies that relate more to structural differences and inequalities.


For example, suburban residents are used to having local control and shaping education and accountability measures in their school districts. Urban districts, on the other hand, are controlled by many more levels of bureaucracy. In New York City, schools are under mayoral control, which led some teachers and parents to express fear that low test participation could lead to school takeovers or closures. This difference in governance and structure helps to explain the movement's urban/suburban divide.


Even in the suburbs local control is not expressed evenly across districts, but is influenced by race and class. More affluent districts, which are disproportionately white, can primarily fund their schools with local taxes, giving them more autonomy than districts that rely more heavily on state and federal funding, which tend to be disproportionately communities of color.


Furthermore, in low-income districts, the priorities might look different than in higher-income districts. For example, in districts where 90% or more of students are economically disadvantaged, the schools are likely to spend more energy to ensure students have their basic necessities met, such as having warm coats in the winter, leaving them with less capacity to focus on testing and accountability measures.


Distrust in The School System

In addition to the barriers preventing lower-income communities from opting out, communities of color have disproportionately supported standardized testing as a way to hold their schools accountable. Education scholar and New York City activist Brian Jones describes one parent’s hesitation to join the opt-out movement:

Toward the end of the discussion, this parent rose to ask a question. He was dark-skinned and had an accent I couldn’t place. His question, as I remember it, was something like: “I hear what you are saying about the problems of these tests, but what if a teacher doesn’t like my child or discriminates against my child? Isn’t the test more fair than the teacher’s judgment?” From where that man was sitting, the choice between a standardized test and a prejudiced teacher was no choice at all.

Seen through this light, the ability to reject standardized testing also implies a level of trust in teachers and administrators and their ability to provide an appropriate education to students. In a hyper-segregated and unequal school system like New York's, this level of confidence is expressed differently across lines of race and class.


When the opt-out movement gained steam in the 2010s, several civil rights organizations came out against the movement. In stating their opposition, they argued that standardized assessments were critical to measuring disparities in student performance and as a tool of accountability, especially for schools that serve low-income students and students of color. (Note: However, some groups, such as the NAACP, have changed their stance since then, placing more emphasis on the ways that high-stakes tests can negatively impact students of color.)


Contrarily, white communities were more likely to be assured of their district’s ability to serve their children well. For example, in the 2016 national study of opt-out activists, who were overwhelmingly white, a majority of respondents expressed satisfaction with the quality of their school district.


The Spectacle of School Rankings & Its Effect on Property Values

Lastly, while, not spoken about by today's opt-out leaders, another possible factor for higher test refusal rates in the suburbs is the intense connection between school quality and property values.


In 2001, caretakers in Scarsdale, one of the state's highest performing and most affluent school districts, launched NY's first ever testing boycott.



In Scardale, Debate on Tests Masks Much Bigger Issues

During the "Scarsdale rebellion", a  New York Times reporter interviewed boycotting parents . Their testimonies helped to shed light on the wider consequences of testing that extend beyond students and teachers to larger concerns about heightened competition between districts and its effects on property values.



Debating the Real Issues of Standardized Testing

Dr. Sherry King, the superintendent of the Mamaroneck schools in Westchester, explained:

“When we have all of our scores being printed in newspapers with graphics and charts, it’s foolish to believe that this doesn’t cause a kind of test frenzy.”

The reporter pointed out that it seemed to be the highest-ranking districts that were the most nervous about the exams. The most telling example of the link between test scores and property values was her interview with the Scarsdale Parent Teacher Association president who said:

"Our community expects the best, and rightly so. All people have to go by is a number that’s printed in the newspaper, and, you know, it’s human nature to look at that box and want to be No. 1. The schools are our industry, and that’s what sells the houses, and that’s what sells people on Scarsdale."

2019-Today

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a crucial moment for the opt-out movement. In 2020 state exams were canceled and in 2021 most students chose not to take the exams due to the circumstances related to the pandemic.


During those years, schools needed to figure out different means for assessing students' progress. This set the stage for a potential turning point during which alternative assessment methods were given a chance.


While it's unclear why certain parts of the state, such as NYC, have experienced an increase in test refusals since schools reopened, it seems as though COVID has affected some caretakers' and students' decisions to no longer take the exams. One explanation given by Kemala Karmen is that the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings politicized many parents and made them more active in their children's education. Additionally, she mentioned that the pandemic coincided with the racial justice uprisings during which more parents became aware of racial inequities in the education system, including those related to high-stakes testing.


Additionally, the fact that the state and federal governments have taken no punitive actions against individuals participating in the boycott or districts with high test refusals has likely assuaged preexisting fears of the possible repercussions involved with challenging the state.


The Future of New York's Opt-Out Movement


My interest in the opt-out movement has always been broader than the fight against state-mandated exams. On the other side of a rejection of the status quo is an opportunity to do things differently.


What do caretakers, guardians, and students who are opting out want instead of the exams? How do we define and measure a high-quality education? Who gets to decide?


Movement leaders have been clear about particular alternatives that they support, such as a "whole-child education" centered on project-based learning and a more holistic and comprehensive rubric to determine school quality--e.g. does the school have a health clinic, a library, laundry services, vision care, food pantries, culturally responsive curricula, a diverse staff, etc.? They argue that the benefits of these forms of educational support and services might not be reflected in average test scores, but they will likely have other critical benefits, such as reducing chronic absenteeism and ensuring that more children are receiving an education.


Outside of the voices of movement leaders, we don't know the full range of reasons that most caretakers and students opt out; and with that what their vision is for a better form of education.


I hope that North Arrow's new opt-out movement dashboard will inspire more people, especially reporters and journalists, to look into areas with high refusal rates and try to understand what's motivating these communities.


Explore the dashboard!

 

Methodology

Refusal rates are based on the English Language Arts exam.

Methodology for calculation for 2013 & 2014

Since refusal data was not available before 2015, we estimate refusals rates for 2013 and 2014 based on the number of students in grades 3-8 minus the number of test takers. To account for students who might have been absent due to other causes (e.g. illness or family emergency), we calculated the difference between refusals rates and normal absentees for years in which the refusal rates were available. We found a 3% difference between refusal rates and the average absentee rates. Therefore, for 2013 and 2014, we assume a 3% margin of error when calculating the refusal rates. For this reason, we only report on refusal rates in 2013 and 2014 for districts with more than a 3% difference between the total number of students enrolled in grades 3 through 8 and the total number of students who took the exam. 


Methodology for calculation for 2015 & 2016

Similarly, for 2015 and 2016, NYSED does not provide the refusal rates for NYC districts, only one rate for the entire city. Therefore, for those two years we calculate the values for NYC districts by taking difference between the total number of students enrolled in grades 3 through 8 and the total number of students who took the exam.

Omissions 


Districts with less than 40 students taking the exam are supressed due to the large variability in refusal rates.


Data is not available for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Data Sources

NYSED Report Card Databases, NYSED Districts, Charters Grades 3-8 ELA and Math Refusals, NYSED Enrollment Databases, NYSED 3-8 Assessment Databases.

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