Common Core tests: Why the 'opt-out' movement isn't losing steam

Despite changes to Common Core testing in New York to appease some of parents' frustrations, many still plan to 'opt-out' their children during Tuesday's tests.

Mike Groll/AP
In this Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 photo, Mackenzie Brown works in an eight grade algebra class at Holy Spirit School in East Greenbush, N.Y. The Diocese of Albany, New York, announced recently that it will reduce the frequency of the Common Core-aligned tests while sticking with the standards. The decision coincides with a call by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for “a total reboot” of the Common Core after his state became the epicenter of anti-testing sentiment.

As spring testing season begins, a growing number of parents across the country are taking a stand against Common Core tests.

Parents say the tests are stressful and exhausting for K-12 students, keeping their children home on testing day in an expanding "opt-out" movement. But their concerns go beyond testing conditions to the "whys" and "hows" of standardized tests. 

Parents argue that the tests assess their children on information they haven't learned while implementing new learning approaches that "look like pure nonsense — or just a lot of extra work," as The Atlantic's Alia Wong wrote last year. In some cases teachers have joined parents in opposition, arguing that their teaching evaluations should not be linked to a frivolous test. 

"For a segment of parents fed up with the growing numbers of tests and the increasingly high stakes placed on their scores, ‘opting out' is now a popular form of protest," as the Monitor's Amanda Paulson reported last April. "And in certain states and communities, the movement is gaining steam, with large percentages of parents and students sitting out required exams." 

"To me we are setting our kids up to fail. The reading passages are three levels above the child's current grade level," an opt-out mom told CNN last April. "Many teachers have posted that their students were crying because they did not have enough time to finish the test and bubbled in random answers." 

Last year, roughly 20 percent of all children between the ages of 3rd and 8th grade, about 240,000 students, opted out of New York's Common Core tests — the highest rate in the country.

Suburban Buffalo's Allendale Elementary School, the Long Island district of Comsewogue and the Mowhawk Valley's Dolgeville district all had between 86 and 89 percent of students opt-out of taking last year's Common Core test. This year, almost 50 percent of all Long Island students refused to take Tuesday’s test. 

To appease parents in the opt-out movement, MaryEllen Elia, New York state's Commissioner of Education, announced several changes to this year's Common Core tests. Student test scores will no longer be linked to teachers' evaluations, and both English and math assessments will be shortened to three days each. Information about the changes could help "get the trust back from parents and teachers and administrators across the state," Ms. Elia said. 

But the changes may not mollify supporters of the opt-out movement. 

"As a mom and as a teacher, I can say at this point that until I know more, my kids will not be taking the state assessments," Christine Gust told the Associated Press.

Long Island, in particular, is "the hotbed of testing residence," Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal, writes for the Washington Post. "There is also evidence that the Opt Out movement is gaining ground with parents of color, with many no longer willing to buy the spin that taking Common Core tests will improve their children’s life chances." 

In theory, standardized testing helps identify gaps and hold districts accountable for all students' success. "We need a measure that allows us to get a snapshot that is consistent across communities and zip codes, that allows us to see where we are missing the mark for some groups of kids as opposed to others," Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president of K-12 policy and practice for the Education Trust, which works to reduce the achievement gap, told the Monitor last April.

But for many parents, it's one more example of schools making major decisions without community input.

"Public schools have historically excluded parents of color from the conversation regarding policies that impact their children the most," Jamaal Bowman, the principle of a Bronx middle school, told Ms. Burris, noting that years of testing have not yet leveled the playing field for poorer students. "These tests are about profit and power, not helping black and brown children," he said. 

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