Opting out of What, Exactly?

It’s Thursday again, which (I think) still qualifies as a serious work day. I suppose that means we should do something that amounts to serious education policy-ing rather than just watching a video or something. Oh, stop looking at me like that. You like it when we get nerdy.

If the plan is for us to be serious today, we should pick a super-serious topic. And if we have to pick a super-serious topic, what could be better than opting out of statewide assessments? It is, after all, testing season in Colorado.

I was thinking about opt outs yesterday as I read a Politico article about a new push by the opt-out “movement” to diversify the people who participate. Or should I say who don’t participate? Whatever. The point is that they want the movement to be less white. More specifically, they’d like it to be less white and poorer.

Now why would opt-out folks want something like that? Well, there’s the boatload of evidence showing that the people who opt out of assessments tend to be white folks who comfortably reside in the middle and upper bands of socioeconomic status. Yes, even in Colorado.

Here in the Centennial State, higher-income parents opted to let their kids skip the PARCC test at more than twice the rate of low-income parents at every grade level. On the 11th grade English Language Arts test, which saw some of the heaviest opt outs, nearly 40 percent of non-FRL students opted out of the test. Less than 20 percent of low-income students did the same.

And while the percentages of students who opted out at each grade level by race are somewhat less startling, there’s still a clear trend toward white students opting out at higher rates than Hispanic or African American students—by a factor of two in the case of 10th grade math and English assessments.

(You can read CDE’s official report on 2015 participation here if you want to dig deeper. Students who opted out also tended to be older, and very few elementary students opted out at all. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

This lack of diversity is bad news for opt-out supporters, and it has led to a politically unpalatable showdown between folks Arne Duncan characterized as “white suburban moms” (he later apologized for that one) and powerhouse civil rights groups like the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League, and others. In a 2015 letter, a dozen such groups wrote:

…[W]e’re troubled by the rhetoric that some opponents of testing have appropriated from our movement. The anti-testing effort has called assessments anti-Black and compared them to the discriminatory tests used to suppress African-American voters during Jim Crow segregation. They’ve raised the specter of White supremacists who employed biased tests to ‘prove’ that people of color were inferior to Whites.

There are some legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed. But instead of stimulating worthy discussions about over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and the misuse of test data, these activists would rather claim a false mantle of civil rights activism. At the heart of that debate is whether or not we will have the courage to make the necessary investments in each and every child, no matter their race, ethnicity, class, disability status, or first language.

But we cannot fix what we cannot measure.  And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.

It doesn’t really look great when you attempt to invoke systemic racism and discrimination as a core platform of your movement and then proceed to be rebuked by the very groups you hoped to persuade—especially when coupled with evidence that your movement is very much not made up of people from those groups. Thus, the push for decreased whiteness is in the best interests of the opt-out movement’s survival. And it clearly wants to survive. But… why?

After the passage of ESSA, and major reductions in Colorado testing last year both legislatively and on the provider side of the equation, the opt-out movement should be declaring victory, patting backs, and moving on. But that isn’t what’s happening. Instead, the movement is shifting its messaging, attempting to build even more momentum, and preparing for another round of battle. That begs the question: What are we opting out of, exactly?

Many people’s gut reaction will probably be “PARCC.” Fair enough. I’ve been pretty open about my general dislike for the test, especially given the logistical headaches it has caused, the apparent inability of the test to produce useful information in a timely fashion, and the fact that it has become the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb. My policy friends Ben DeGrow and Ross Izard have publicly advocated for the state to move away from this particular instrument, and I think that’s probably a good idea.

We can have a lot of good discussions about which tests to use. And we probably should have those conversations given that nearly 70 percent of Americans support some form of annual testing. I’d love to see Colorado develop its own tests that stand apart from any national consortium (though doing so will cost some dough).

But that’s an entirely different argument than the one being made by major opt-out groups like United Opt Out, which now bills itself as “The Movement to End Corporate Education Reform.” That mission is an awful lot broader than testing, and covers unspeakable evils like charter schools, school ratings, private school choice, tenure reform, and pay for performance.

More and more, it seems that the organized opt-out movement is becoming an outright anti-reform movement. It’s not really about opting out of tests anymore. It’s about opting out of reform entirely.

Of course, somewhere behind all of that nastiness stand the teachers unions. Sensing an opportunity to undermine things they hate—stronger teacher evaluations, school ratings, performance-based personnel decisions, etc.—both NEA and AFT have voiced some level of support for opt outs. NEA even offers a field guide for opt-outers (neologism?) that includes model policies and advocacy tips.  Here in Colorado, the Colorado Education Association likes to remind us that teachers and students are “more than a score.” You know, in case we forgot.

All of you know how I feel about a reasonable level of annual testing. It provides the backbone for critical accountability and transparency systems in a government enterprise—I think we sometimes forget that’s what public education is—that in Colorado soaks up roughly $9.5 billion a year in total revenue, enables informed school choice, helps us identify and address issues, and allows us to make sure that every single student is receiving a “thorough and uniform” education under our state’s constitutionally required public school system. My support for education reform more broadly—including reform related to both public and private school choice—is also no secret.

Given my policy positions, I probably don’t need to say that when you combine anti-reform ideology and rhetoric with teachers union propaganda and advocacy, Little Eddie grows profoundly wary of your movement. If individual parents want to opt their kids out of statewide assessments, that’s their call.

But I do think that parents who choose to get involved in the opt-out “movement” should be aware of the fact that they may not be opting out of testing as much as they are opting in to something else entirely.

See you tomorrow!