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Something amazing is happening. Parents have discovered that they have the power to bring corporate reform to a halt. They do it by telling their children not to take the test. No test, no data. No data, no punishments for teachers, administrators, schools. Opting out is a vivid demonstration of the power of the powerless.

In Washington State, an unprecedented 48,000 students opted put.

Most of the opt outs were in 11th grade.

Carolyn Leith calls this an “educational uprising.”

If state leaders don’t listen to stents, the uprising will spread.

New York State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia plans an informational campaign for parents with a toolkit to explain why assessment is valuable and necessary.

““As you get more people involved in the process, you have more people understanding what’s going on and why you have assessments,” she said. “There are a lot of people that don’t know what the Common Core is.”

“Educators are hoping that the toolkit includes further guidelines, including what is and what is not ethical for teachers or school administrators to say publicly about the exams, an issue that has become controversial across the state.”

Elia recently told a meeting of the Gates-funded group “Educators for Excellence” that opting out was “unreasonable” and that educators who encourage it are “unethical.”

Leaders of the opt out movement reject the claim that they are uninformed.

“Some parents, like Jessica McNair [who is also a teacher], say they already are informed about Common Core and the opt-out movement should not be dismissed as a lack of information.

“I think she has a lot to learn about the parents in New York State,” McNair said. “We’re not going to back down until we see tests that are developmentally appropriate, and tests that are decoupled from the teacher evaluations.”

Is it “ethical” to require children who can’t read to take standardized tests? Is it “ethical” to require children who are English language learners to take tests they are sure to fail?

It is time to think about the meaning of ethics. Does it mean following orders, regardless of the consequences? Or do educators have a higher duty when directed to act in ways that harm the children in their care?

Dyett High School in Chicago closed but members of the local community are continuing a hunger strike to demand that it reopen as a district-run neighborhood high school.

Blogger Fred Klonsky says it is a scandal that the media in Chicago have ignored the community’s fight to save Dyett.

He quotes at length from an article that appears in “In These Times” that explains the reasons for the protest and its goals.

“The high school has long been in the process of closing. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced in 2012 that Dyett would be “phased out,” meaning after 2012 no new students would be admitted, as a result of low test scores, and the building would be closed when the last class graduated.

“Three years later, Dyett’s doors are now closed. But the fight to reopen the school is heating up. On Monday, August 17, 12 parents and neighborhood activists began a hunger strike, under the banner of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School, to demand that CPS make a decision on the future of the school and reopen it as a district-run, open-enrollment, neighborhood school that would allow all students to attend regardless of grades.”

What exactly is the point of closing so many schools, so many of which were the heart of their local community?

The newspaper in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York (north of New York City) is called Its reporters have been outstanding in covering education issues in Albany and across the state. Unlike the New York Times, Lohud’s editorialists understand why parents are opting out. Instead of scolding them, as the Times did recently, Lohud calls on state leaders to listen to them and take action to address their grievances. Last year, 5% of the state’s students opted out; this year it was 20%. The New York opt out was so huge that it has received national attention. In some schools and districts (outside of New York City), opting out is the norm, not the exception. If state officials continue to threaten parents who opt out, you can bet there will be more opt outs next spring.

This is what wrote:

It seems that everyone has been trying to analyze the opt-out numbers from April’s state tests in math and ELA. But there’s not much to figure out. There’s no secret code in the numbers, no conspiracy to unravel. If you’ve been following the education wars during New York and the nation’s “reform” era, the meaning of the opt-out numbers should be plain: Growing numbers of parents are not happy with our educational direction.

The big question is not what the numbers show, but what our educational leaders will say or do to satisfy parents who had their children boycott April’s tests — or may do so next April. School starts in a few weeks, and what happens over the next few months may determine the future of the opt-out movement….

Real concerns

At a time when few people come out to vote on school budgets, and many parents are simply too busy to worry about non-essential matters, such a widespread movement cannot be easily dismissed — even if one disagrees with the decision to opt out.

Why did so many parents choose to defy state and federal insistence that the annual math and ELA tests provide essential information? There is no single reason. But several prominent concerns led the way:

Too much focus on new Common Core tests is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and “teaching to the test.”

The use of student test scores to evaluate teachers may be inaccurate and unfair — and is hurting the morale of popular, proven local teachers.

The tests themselves are poorly conceived and have not been reviewed.

Test results are released too late, during August, to be of help teachers, parents or students.

Testing requirements are unfair to students with disabilities and recent English learners.

There are other concerns, of course. But the overall issue is that growing numbers of parents seem to believe that the trifecta of tougher standards, tougher tests and tougher teacher evaluations is not the answer to improving public education.

Many advocates and commentators continue to insist that the opt-out movement was surreptitiously created and nurtured by teachers unions, sort of like Frankenstein. This is simply not the case. At least in New York, the movement was built over several years — slowly, in stops and starts — by parent groups using social media. Local teachers unions started to publicly back the opt-out idea only in the final months before April’s tests. And NYSUT, the statewide union, did not jump in until the final weeks, after it was clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would not allow lawmakers to topple his much-despised teacher-evaluation system.

The eval link

Speaking of teacher evaluations, school officials in the Lower Hudson Valley continue to say out loud what many lawmakers and state bureaucrats quietly know: that community-based discontent over the clumsy, ineffective evaluation system will only grow and will feed — guess what? — the opt-out movement. Bedford Schools Superintendent Jere Hochman, the new president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents (and a guy who tries to see things the state’s way) told our Editorial Board last week: “The whole system needs to be thrown out. Start over.”

The Westchester Putnam School Boards Association, in a new statement to the Education Department, condemns recent changes to the evaluation system as “disruptive to our schools, staff and students” and said the current plan “cannot and should not be salvaged.” The group also noted that the opt-out movement has exposed parental concerns about the “nexus” of high-stakes testing and evaluations.

School districts need an evaluation system that continually helps good teachers improve — leading to better classroom instruction — and identifies teachers who need help or can’t do the job. New York does not have such a system.

Class divide?

There’s been a great deal of focus on where large number of parents boycotted the tests and where the movement did not gain much traction. Analysts have emphasized low opt-out rates in both urban “poor” school systems and the state’s most affluent school districts. The state Education Department noted that most test-refusers were white and “more likely to be from a low or average need districts,” in other words, middle-class suburbanites.

But if you talk to educators and parents, there’s no mystery about why opt-out rates were higher in some places than others. In cities with high poverty rates, parents often don’t have the luxury of worrying about education policies because they are too focused on daily concerns and less connected to parent groups. Plus, in New York City, where the opt-out rate was less than 2 percent, test scores have long been tied to school admissions and student promotions. In affluent districts, meanwhile, officials and real estate agents worry that any form of public “discontent” will affect property values.

Yes, the opt-out movement has been driven by middle-class parents, conservatives and liberals, who don’t like the loss of local control over school matters.

It’s disturbing to hear some advocates suggest that parents who opt out are selfish because they are weakening a testing system that reveals the achievement gap facing poor, minority students. Everyone knows that the gap is perhaps the greatest challenge facing American schools. Figuring out how to close the gap is a more pressing question than how to better define it. We hope that the state’s new efforts to assist struggling schools will work out and provide new information on how to close the achievement gap.

Reigning in the opt-out movement will not be easy. Neither Elia nor Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch should expect instant results. It took several years of questionable state leadership before the opt-out movement took hold and gained momentum. It will likely take several years and some major policy changes to win back the trust of parents — and the teachers whom parents trust.

Carol Burris recently retired as principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center on Long Island, Néw York. She is now executive director of the Network for Public Education. She read recently that MaryEllen Elia, the new Commissioner of Education in New York, said that she would be “shocked” if any educators encouraged parents to opt out of state testing, and she said such educators (if they existed) were “unethical.”

Burris wrote:

“Well, Ms. Elia, be shocked. I am turning myself in to your ethics squad. I absolutely encouraged the opt-out movement last year. In fact, I did so right here on the Answer Sheet. I don’t think I could have been clearer when I wrote this:

‘But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to opt out is now.'”

Yes, indeed, Burris encouraged opting out, as did many other administrators, both superintendents and principals.

Burris believed it would have been unethical to stand by in silence.

She wrote:

“It would have been unethical to not speak out after watching New York’s achievement gaps grow, indicating that the tests and the standards on which they are based are not advancing the learning of the state’s most vulnerable kids.

“It would have been unethical to ignore watching the frustration of my teachers whose young children were coming home from school discouraged and sick from the stress of test prep designed to prepare them for impossible tests.

“It would have been unethical to not respond to the heartbreaking stories that I heard from friends who are elementary principals—stories of children crying, becoming sick to their stomach, and pulling out hair during the Pearson-created Common Core tests.

“And it would have been unethical to not push back against a system of teacher evaluation based on Grade 3-8 test scores that is not only demeaning and indefensible, but also incentivizes all the wrong values.

“So if there is a place called Regents Jail, I guess that is where I will have to go.”

Burris noted that Elia would have to lock up her boss, Regents’ Chancellor Merryl Tisch as well, since Tisch recently said that if she had a child with disabilities, she would “think twice” about allowing the child to take the state tests.

Who is “unethical”? The educator who complies with orders regardless of her personal and professionsl values or the educator who refuses to do what she knows is wrong?

Leonie Haimson and Jeanette Deutermann explain here why the opt out movement is right and necessary. If policymakers continue on their present path, they predict, the opt out movement will grow and spread to many other states who see the power of grassroots activism.

They do so in response to editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post criticizing the parents who opt out of mandated testing.

The mainstream media echoes the Obama administration’s line that high-stakes testing will somehow promote equity and reduce the achievement gap, but as Haimson and Deutermann contend, thirteen years of No Child Left Behind demonstrate that this assertion is false.

Haimson and Deutermann write:

Why should parents put their children through this time-consuming, anxiety-producing and pointless exercise? When parents are repeatedly ignored by policymakers, opting out is their only option.

For months leading up to the assessments, and especially during the two weeks of testing, parents report their children show signs of anxiety, sleep problems, physical symptoms, school phobias and attention difficulties. This phenomenon has been growing among children as young as 8 years old. To add insult to injury, for the last three years the exams have become overly long and confusing, with incoherent questions like the pineapple passage on theeighth-grade exam in 2010, and the talking snake passage on thethird-grade test this year. Our youngest learners sit for up to 18 hours of state testing.

The most vulnerable children – students with disabilities and English language learners – are asked to endure exams that are so inappropriate even the state asked for waivers from the federal government, which were denied. Only 3.9 percent of English language learners and 5.7 percent of students with disabilities passed these exams. The bar should be set high for all children, but at an appropriate level for each child.

Parents have become increasingly frustrated at watching the alarming changes in their children and their education, along with the waste of precious tax dollars. More than 220,000 New York state parents chose to have their children refuse the state exams this year, in both high-performing suburban districts and struggling city schools, to express their anger. Many teachers joined parents in the fight to protect their students and the integrity of their profession. The question is, will the powers that be listen and make the necessary changes? If not, the number of opt-outs will continue to grow until parents’ voices are heard by policymakers, the tests are improved, the punitive, high-stakes exams removed, and real teaching and learning return to our classrooms.

The state of New York has a problem: according to its own data, 225,000 students did not take the mandated state tests. What should the state do? There’s been talk of financial penalties, but thats’s not likely. Now we know that federal officials told state officials there would be no financial punishment.

State officials say they will patiently explain to parents why the tests are necessary, as if the parents really don’t understand.

What the state and the Feds don’t understand is that the parents know exactly what they are doing and why. They know the state tests do NOT provide useful information to parents or teachers. They know the tests are too long (8 hours!) for children, with a passing mark intended to fail most children. They object to the time and high-stakes attacked to testing; they don’t want their teachers fired because of children’s test scores. Parents of children with disabilities are outraged that their children are subjected to tests that frustrate and fail them.

Here is the latest from

“WHAT’S NEXT FOR NEW YORK OPT OUTS: New York state education officials said Thursday that they aren’t planning to withhold money from school districts with record high opt-out rates on standardized tests this spring. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia will present a plan to the state board of regents next month that will detail how she will work with superintendents and principals to reverse the tide of test refusals, The New York Times reports [ ]. State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch didn’t rule out withholding money from districts if the state finds that administrators were encouraging opt outs, however. Chalkbeat New York reports [] that Elia said, “I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs. I think it’s unethical.”

“- New York has to adequately address the high opt-out rates. If, down the road, federal officials feel that the state hasn’t done that, then they could step in. Federal law requires a 95 percent participation rate on state tests, and New York saw the highest opt out rates this spring in the state’s history. “The [Education] Department has not had to withhold money – yet – over this requirement because states have either complied or have appropriately addressed the issue with schools or districts that assessed less than 95 percent of students,” the agency has said repeatedly.”

Fred LeBrun of the Albany Times-Union is one of the most thoughtful commentators on education in Néw York state. He knows that Néw York’s test-and-punish regime is a disaster. Unlike the Néw York Times editorial board, he hails the opt out leaders as heroes.

Civil disobedience is justified when your elected representatives turn their backs on you and refuse to listen. Opt out is a beautiful and intelligent response to a ridiculous testing regime that undermines education and demoralizes educators.

Fred gets it. He writes:

“So much rests on such tiny shoulders.

“And make no mistake while you pack those lunches, it’s all about a political agenda being crudely and arrogantly imposed on education across the country. We know who the banner carrier has been here in New York.

“Of all that Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have to answer for after he finally vacates his current post for whatever cave will have him, near the top has to be the damage he’s done to public schooling in New York.

“With his trademark heavy hand, Cuomo has politicized public education down to every student, and for our times and state, singlehandedly taken the pleasure and satisfaction out of learning, and teaching. Not to mention he put new and needless pressures and anxieties on tens of thousands of young parents caught in the middle of these wars.

“All in the name of the most misused word in the dictionary: reform.

“Although we can indeed thank Cuomo for helping make New York No. 1 somewhere on the public education scoreboard.

“We lead the nation in opting out of high-stakes standardized tests, primarily because those privatized tests of questionable merit were rammed down our throats earlier here than in other states…

“So, look for another tempestuous spring on the Opt Out front, with numbers refusing the tests increasing.

“That’s despite empty threats the feds may withhold some Title 1 funding. Empty because the emerging bipartisan will of Congress for the coming reauthorization of Race to the Top is to detach fiscal consequences from opting out of standardized tests. A response to an emerging public will.

“Long term, things are looking up. The Cuomo fiasco will collapse. Commissioner Elia promises a committee including parents and teachers will look hard at New York’s Common Core plan with an eye toward changes. That’s a necessary step in the right direction.

“The Board of Regents is growing a brain on the subject as its membership changes, and the Legislature is likely to become emboldened to make right what they voted poorly on when Cuomo had them over a barrel.

“Much of this is driven by what Opt Out has accomplished. We owe them a great deal.”

This is a terrific article about whether test scores lose their value for accountability when so many students opt out.

What’s terrific about it is the comments of opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann, who says the purpose of test refusal is to bring down the system, to make test-based accountability impossible. She is a parent and she knows how testing has undermined education.

Then there is Tom Kane, the Harvard economist, insisting that without the scores, poor kids and minorities will be neglected. Where is the evidence that 13 years of testing has closed gaps or helped the neediest children?

Kate Taylor reports in today’s New York Times that both the federal government and New York State are considering sanctions to stop the opt out movement.

The state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, appeared on Thursday to be trying to walk a fine line — not wanting to appear to condone opting out, while saying she hoped the federal government would not withhold funds.

“I do think it’s good for kids to take the assessments,” she said. “I don’t think that it necessarily is good for kids to have resources taken away that should be supporting them in their classrooms.”

Officials at the federal Education Department have awhile to decide what to do. The state will not officially report its test participation rate to the federal government until mid-December, and the number will not be considered final until sometime after that, the State Education Department said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the federal Education Department’s spokeswoman, Dorie Nolt, said the agency was looking to the leadership of New York’s Education Department “to take the appropriate steps on behalf of all kids in the state.”

But parents expressed defiance, and some superintendents say they respect the rights of parents to keep their child out of the state testing.

The leaders of the opt-out movement said on Thursday they were not worried about consequences and any attempt to punish districts would backfire.

If state education officials “think parents are unhappy with them now, just wait until they take money away from school districts,” Loy Gross, co-founder of a test refusal group called United to Counter the Core, said.

Elaine Coleman, a parent in Yonkers who is active in opt-out and anti-Common Core groups, said she had already begun planning expanding the movement next year. “We’re hoping we’ll get double the number,” she said.

Many of the districts with high opt-out rates were in middle-class areas that receive little federal funding. But a few were so-called high-needs districts, with relatively high poverty rates.

One such district, the Chateaugay Central School District, near the Canadian border, had an 89 percent opt-out rate. Loretta Fowler, the superintendent, said that losing the district’s roughly $150,000 in Title I funding would force her to lay off three of the district’s 46 teachers. But she said she would still respect parents’ choice to keep their children from taking the tests.

“I would say that is their right as parents,” she said. “Leadership isn’t about telling people what to do.”

Dolgeville Central School District in Herkimer County, which also had an 89 percent opt out rate, received over $300,000 in Title I funds this year. The superintendent, Christine Reynolds, said losing those funds would force the district to cut extracurricular activities and arts programs.

She said she did not encourage parents to opt out, but she sympathized with their view that the tests were being used to punish schools and teachers.

“These are very highly educated parents that started the movement,” she said. “Their rationale is solid. I can’t really argue with them.”

The parents are acting in the spirit of civil disobedience, which has a long history in this country. Federal and state officials would do well to listen to the parents or the opt out movement is likely to grow in strength.


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