The Opt-Out Movement in the USA
When I was in school, I did anything – and everything! – to get out of a test. Seriously. Ask my parents, who I drove nuts. I often refused to go to school on test days or simply pretended I was sick to get out of class just as the exam was being handed out. Tests made me nervous and I hated the idea that one number could forever define my intelligence.
Today, more and more students are refusing to take standardized tests across the USA. Unlike my own mini-protest, however, students who refuse to take tests are part of the Opt-Out movement.
This movement is found in many states in America and units people from across the political divide.
With me to talk about this growing movement is Oren-Pizmony-Levy, an Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has been researching the opt-out movement, situating it within the global context. What motivates people to join the movement? What results have been produced?
In my conversation with Oren today, we discuss his and Nancy Green Saraisky’s report entitled “who opts-out and why?”
Citation: Pizmony-Levy, Oren, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, #95, podcast audio, November 13, 2017. https://freshedpodcast.com/orenpizmonylevy/
Will Brehm 1:58
Oren Pizmony-Levy, welcome to FreshEd.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 2:00
Thank you very much, Will, and thank you so much for inviting me.
Will Brehm 2:04
So what sort of research have you done on the opt-out movement?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 2:08
Our research on the opt-out movement includes two separate studies. The first study I conducted with Dr. Nancy Green Saraisky at Teachers College, and that was done in the winter and spring of 2016. And it’s a survey of opt-out activists across the country. We interviewed activists in different places. We interviewed coordinators of the movement and teachers, and we developed an instrument to try and capture for the first time, who is opting out, and what’s the motivation to opt out? And the survey included a set of demographics questioning as well. So we can understand better who are they not only in terms of motivation, but also in terms of the demographics, the resources that they bring to the movement. As a follow up study, last summer, in 2017, I conducted another study with one of my students, Benjamin Cosman, looking at how Americans view the movement. So we collected data for two different panels, online panels, and interviewed 2,000 American adults aged 18 to 65 from all across the country. And we asked them questions about the movement in terms of how much they are aware of the movement, how much they support or endorse the movement, and some of them were asked follow up questions to the fact of, if they support, why? And, if they oppose, why they oppose. That study was interesting, not only because we got the opportunity to see what the public thinks about the movement, but we also played with wording and framing of the movement. So most studies are asking about parents who excuse their kids from testing. And we believe that the term “excusing kids from testing” is very neutral, and doesn’t necessarily capture the fact that this is a political or ethical act. So using randomized research design, we divided our sample into three groups and each of them got the same set of questions just using different wording. In one group, we describe these parents as “opting out”, in another group, they were “boycotting” the test, and the control group was the usual language of “excusing” kids from the exam. So using this randomized research design, we were able to see whether how you talk about the movement, whether it’s generating more or less support, or more or less awareness of the movement itself.
Will Brehm 4:50
So can you tell me a little bit about the opt-out movement? What is the opt-out movement?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 4:55
The opt-out movement is a tough thing to describe because the name itself suggests that this is about parents who are opting out their kids from standardized testing, and this is what the movement is known for – by the action the title is describing or suggesting. However, in our research, we discovered that the opt-out movement is more than the testing. It’s a contemporary movement in the US, where parents, educators and others, are coming together to protest what they see as the problems with current educational reforms in the US. So these people, as we found, are not only protesting testing but are also protesting the fact that testing is now being linked, or there is aspiration by policymakers, to link testing to holding teachers accountable in terms of salaries or promotion. And these people care about the role of corporations in education. So it’s more than just the testing. And I think this is the best way just to start understanding the movement. It’s not only about opting out, it’s really about critique of current reforms in education in the United States.
Will Brehm 6:17
And when did this sort of reform or this sort of movement emerge?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 6:22
That’s a good question. In some media analyses that I’ve conducted with my students here, we realized that there are some new stories in The New York Times and other national media describing parents protesting tests as early as mid-2000. Parents protesting, for example, the field test of different assessments, etc. But I think the movement became a thing, in terms of visible and publicly recognized, in the summer of 2015, when The New York Times had an article in the News section describing the movement as so strong that one fifth, 20%, of students in New York State opted out of testing in that year. So I think we can say that 2015 is the moment when the movement is maturing enough, and there is so much attention. But there are at least a couple of years beforehand when the movement is starting to happen, but I don’t think it was on the national radar yet.
Will Brehm 7:30
And do we know anything about the levels of participation in this movement by state? Because you just mentioned that 20% of students in New York state are opting out? Are we finding similar statistics in other states in America?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 7:46
We know from what Department of Educations across different states are reporting, we know that there is a high variability in the opt-out movement across states. So for example, in New York, as I said, 20%. However, in North Carolina, where opt-out is just not possible legally for parents to opt out, we know only about less than a percent that is trying to do that or advocating for it.
Will Brehm 8:16
So you said in New York state that there’s 20% of the students that are dropping out? Do we know if this opt-out movement looks different, or there’s different levels of participation in the different states in America? What does the distribution of participation look like across America?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 8:34
The information that we have about the movement across different states is usually coming from two sources: one is Department of Education across the states reporting about opt-out. And from that data, we know that states like Colorado, for example, have higher opt-out rates. For example, it’s ranging from eight to 15%; it depends on the grade. There are at least 10 other states that had high levels of opt-out in the past two, three years. And we know that not necessarily from their own reporting, but from the policy reaction coming from Washington, DC in 2015, 2016. Back then, under the Obama administration, the Department of Education, the federal Department of Education, send out a letter to 11 states that had high levels of opt-out and asked the states, or maybe warned or sanctioned the states to take action and to curbthe movement so they won’t get any sanctions later on. This letter provided us some kind of information about what’s going on in other states. Some activists and some organizations are documenting, also, opt-out patterns across the states, but I’m not sure whether this information is accurate in terms of how many are opting out. From our study, we got responses from 45 states. Some states, we had a lot of response, for example, New York or New Jersey, and other states we had fewer. But from our study, it seems like in different states, there are pockets of opting out. And in some states, it’s really getting a shape of massive opting out like New York or Colorado, as I said before.
Will Brehm 8:34
I want to step back a little bit and ask, What does this opting out actually even look like? Do parents make the decision and then simply not send their child to school on the day of the test? Or are the students, like, they go into the test and then when it’s handed out, they get up in mass protest and kind of walk out of the tests? Like how does it actually look on the ground?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 10:29
That’s a wonderful question, because the way the movement looks, I think, is shaping how much we know about it, and I’ll explain what I’m saying. So usually parents need – if they want to opt-out – need to sign a form and to inform the school that their kids will not take the exam. So the kids will stay at home and won’t take the exam on that day. Some school systems are requiring kids to come to schools even if they are not taking the exam, and to be in the class where their peers are taking the exam and just to stare at their notes, or on the computer. And that’s the way, and we heard it from a couple of parents, not couple, many parents, saying that that’s the way of the school systems to sanction or to threaten the kids and the families from not opting out.
Will Brehm 11:45
Right. So there’s like some sort of peer pressure that gets created by having the students sit there and not take the test.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 11:51
Exactly, exactly. So that’s how some school systems are trying to discourage parents from opting out. But I want to go back to the comment I made earlier, is that, the fact that this movement is happening in organizations within schools, and not in the states. I think that this difference is really affecting how the public is getting to know about the movement and how much power visibility it has. Imagine that we had thousands. 20% of the education system in New York is something like a couple of hundred thousands of kids. Imagine that these kids and families were protesting in the streets for three years in a row. I’m sure that would hit the front pages of newspapers. But because this movement is happening within organizations, within institutions like schools, it’s more difficult for them to get the visibility that other movements get.
Will Brehm 12:49
So this is not a visible movement, you’re saying.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 12:52
It’s not a publicly visible movement, in terms of we don’t see them in the streets. But the public, in the follow up study that we conducted last year, we found that the public is aware of the movement. The question is whether this awareness translates into support of the movement? And that’s where we don’t find yet strong evidence for that.
Will Brehm 13:13
Right. So why aren’t parents and students being encouraged to make this movement visible on the streets like you said, rather than inside school?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 13:25
That’s a good question. I think that that’s a strategic decision or tactical decision that the movement is making. It will be interesting to look in future studies on the diversity of actions that participants are taking in addition to opting out. In our survey, we have some information about that and we know that they do take other activities, for example, contacting policymakers in the states or the district, or writing a letter, or signing a petition. However, participation in more visible activities like protesting is less frequent in the movement. I think it’s a matter of what kind of tactical decision the movement is making about this issue.
Will Brehm 14:09
And who’s leading this movement?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 14:12
In our study, we didn’t look at the leadership, who is leading it. But from what I’m reading, in terms of online websites and other stories, there are different leaderships in different states. So in New York, we have a combination of both educators and parents who are leading the movements. At the national level, there is a united opting out organization and that organization is led by, when we did a study, by six or eight coordinators that brought together different perspectives and diversity of opinion around the movement. And this leadership, if I need to categorize them, they include educators in terms of professors in schools of education, educators in terms of teachers, parents, or former teachers. So it’s really an interesting mix of both teachers/educators and parents who are active and leading this movement.
Will Brehm 15:14
And do we know anything about the political ideologies of some of these opt-out members? Is this a political act that is happening?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 15:24
The findings of our survey from 2016 were really interesting because we found that, although the movement included a lot of liberal or progressives in the American context, it also included a lot of conservatives, or people that voted for the Republican Party in previous elections. So it’s a movement that brings together both sides of the political spectrum. What is interesting is that our analysis suggests that the different groups, in terms of the political or political ideology in the movement, support the movement or engage in the movement for different reasons. And I’ll give you an example: When you look at the question of the Common Core in the media, many media reports are suggesting that the Common Core, or the opposition to the Common Core, is what drives the movement. In our study, we found that only one quarter, 25%, of the respondents said that they are taking part in the movement because they oppose the Common Core. However, when you compare this motivation across the three political ideologies, liberal, middle of the road, and conservative, that’s where you see the striking difference. For example, 16% of liberal respondents said that they participate because they oppose the Common Core. However, 45% of conservatives endorsed that reason. So you can see how conservatives are more in the movement, are more motivated, because of their opposition to Common Core, compared to liberals or middle of the road. And it’s interesting that if you look on other reasons, for example, opposition to the growing wall of corporations in schools, that’s the motivation that is more common among liberals and middle of the old people, and less common among conservative people.
Will Brehm 17:28
So this is interesting. So there’s a political movement afoot – this opt-out movement – that is actually cutting across political divisions in America for critiquing current education reforms, like you said. But there’s different reforms to critique, but it kind of lumps everyone together into this opt-out movement. That’s pretty interesting to think about.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 17:50
So theoretically speaking, from the perspective of social movement theory, this is a case of the strange bedfellows where a movement brings together different political actors from different sides of the political spectrum to come together and collaborate on this task. They might disagree with why they are coming to the movement, or what they want to accomplish, but it seems like in this movement they agree on the action itself, or about the critique of the largereducational reform direction in the US.
Will Brehm 18:24
And I would imagine that success that could come from this movement would look different?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 18:29
In terms of what they perceive?
Will Brehm 18:30
Oren Pizmony-Levy 18:32
Yes, that is a possibility. We didn’t look at this issue, and that would be definitely an interesting direction for future research: to look at what they’re hoping to accomplish by participating in the movement.
Will Brehm 18:43
How does this movement spread? We’re cutting across political divisions in America, and we often hear about there’s bubbles in America, and people only hear what they want to hear. So how does a movement like the opt-out movement actually spread and go across these political divisions in America? It’s pretty incredible.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 19:06
We asked people about how they were mobilized to action. Who first told them about the movement. And we were surprised in the beginning to see that almost two fifths, 39%, of the sample heard about the movement first time from social media. So it’s definitely an important tool, social media, to spread the message around the movement. And indeed, we found that social media – being Twitter or Facebook – is a core element in the organization of the movement. We can see state opt-out Facebook pages, and we can see very local Facebook pages, where people that might know each other in the community can come together and collaborate on social media to spread the message. So social media is definitely one way that this is spreading, but other ways that include more interpersonal social networks and connections. Some people are hearing about the movement from teachers and educators who are taking part in the movement. And some other people are hearing about the movement through friends, neighbors, or even other parents in the school. And indeed, one of the most common modes of activism that our respondents shared with us, is trying to convince other parents to take part in this movement and to opt their kids out of the testing.
Will Brehm 20:34
Do you think that this movement would have existed earlier? The 39% of people being mobilized through social media suggests that this is, in many ways, a social media movement as well, right? And it maybe makes sense that this movement really took off in 2015, like you’re saying, because before that, maybe social media wasn’t as prevalent. I’m just trying to think through, What are the implications for this participation, and mobilization through social media?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 21:08
So technology is part of the story here, but I would be cautious because we conducted our study through social media – that’s how we distributed the link to the questionnaire. So I suspect that social media is part of the story, but I’m not sure that that’s the main thing. I think that what happened with the media is that there is a combination of factors that come together and, in 2015, helped the movement to emerge, or to become more widely spread. I think part of it is the fact that more assessments attached to Common Core were being launched and implemented. And also, I think teachers were seeing more and more efforts to connect students’ test scores to their promotion, evaluation, and tenure. And I think that the whole discussion about whether we can use students’ test scores with the concept of value added models, I think that was also part of the opportunity structure around the movement that really helped it to emerge and to become a larger thing as we see today.
Will Brehm 22:32
Does the traditional media treat the opt-out movement differently than it’s reported on social media?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 22:39
Preliminary analysis that we did about the media suggest, at least the national media (that’s where my student and I were looking at), newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, and others, are not necessarily conveying the complexity of the movement. There is a lot of focus there on the opting out from testing and the issue of the Common Core. However, the movement is much more complicated than that. As I said earlier, it’s a movement that brings together a lot of critique of current education reform. So I don’t want to say that the media is unfair to the movement, but I think the media is not giving us the whole picture. Now, in interviews we conducted over the years, I think one of the problems is that many newspapers are not having any more special journalists on education. So, the cover of education issues in many newspapers is lacking. So it could be that that’s one reason why we don’t have a lot of in-depth analysis of the opt-out movement in media. We didn’t do any research yet on local newspapers and how they cover the opt-out movement, although from anecdotes, I know from the Rochester area, for example, I know that there is more attention to the opt-out movement and to the case that the movement is trying to make in local newspapers. But again, this is based on anecdote and not any systematic research yet.
Will Brehm 24:16
And do you know anything about the opposition to the opt-out movement? I know you said that there are some schools that are making students sit in the tests even though they’re not taking it as a sanction. But do we know about the broader opposition to this movement?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 24:34
So we have a couple of sources of opposition. One is the education system itself. And very clearly, the federal government in the letter to 11 states that had relatively high opt-out rates, we know that that’s one source of the opposition. The education space in the US is a great believer in testing as the base for many educational reforms and action. When you think about accountability in the US, people immediately think about testing. So you can understand why they will oppose or try to kill the movement from being too successful. But there are other sources of support or lack of endorsement coming from the general public. When we conducted, in last summer of 2017, a public opinion survey looking at how Americans view the movement, we heard a lot of critique from the opposition to these parents who are opting out, saying that these parents are helicopter parents that are overprotective of the kids. These voices of opposition suggested that schools and education systems know best what is good for the kids so we should trust them. If they are saying that we should have this testing, then this is important. So these are the two main themes that we saw in comments from the public about endorsing or not endorsing parents who are opting out.
Will Brehm 26:07
So your research – you said you did a 2016 survey, so when President Obama was in office. Do we know if things have changed now that President Trump is in office, and do we know if Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, is supportive of this movement or opposes this movement? Do we know anything about the kind of current state of this movement?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 26:29
No, we don’t know how the change in the administration is shaping the movement. My research team at Teachers College is planning to replicate the study again in the spring of 2018, two years after the initial survey. And I think this will give us two data points to compare how the movement looked like under different regimes. It will be very interesting to see what happened. When I’m thinking about the current ideas, policy ideas or ideology that Secretary DeVos is bringing to the table with her support to privatization and non-public school actors or sectors, I would suspect that that will bring more energy to the movement, because the moment is more than testing. It’s really about this level of cooperation and private actors. So that will be interesting to see whether that will have an effect. But I’m also sensitive to the fact that post-election in the US, we have a lot of activism and marching, a resistance movement against the Trump administration. And it could also be that these kind of activities will take out energy from other movements like the opt-out. And so we might see a negative effect on the movement. We don’t know. And I think it’s important to look at this issue, not only because it’s interesting, but also because theoretically, this will help us to understand how changes in the regime, in administration, is affecting social movements.
Will Brehm 28:07
Yes, Oren, I guess what’s so interesting to me is that Betsy DeVos is very pro-privatization in many ways, but Trump has been on record saying that he opposes the Common Core. So that kind of goes right down the middle of why people are joining this opt-out movement. So they would find common ground with the opposition to Common Core, but would not find common ground when it comes to the issue of privatization.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 28:36
Excellent. So that will be a good way to test whether it’s really about the Common Core that is driving the movement. And as I said earlier, only one quarter of our respondents were driven by that reason. And they are specifically conservatives or from those who voted Republican Party. So I wonder what that will do to their motivation, but testing and standardized assessment, even before the Common Core, part of the education policy in the US, especially after No Child Left Behind. So if the tests are still there, I don’t see how changes in the Common Core will affect that. But that’s something again, this is only speculation, and we need to wait and see what will happen once we collect the data.
Will Brehm 29:24
Right. So as a final question, I guess maybe some backstory: I always hated tests when I was in school, and unfortunately the opt-out movement wasn’t available. It wasn’t an option for me to opt out. I just simply didn’t show up and then I failed tests. I guess the question I have is, I don’t know if you have children, but if you did have children, would you opt your children out of these tests?
Oren Pizmony-Levy 29:52
Ooooh, what a loaded question. So we don’t have kids yet, but if I had kids at this time and they had to go through assessments, standardized assessments, that I don’t necessarily think are helpful or useful for the teachers and for policy making, I think that I would opt-out my kids as well and I will be taking part in this movement. Because I believe that it’s really important for parents to be involved in schools and to be involved in schools and education is not only to pick up the color of the doors, it’s really about thinking together with the educators and the teachers about what is the best way to facilitate the development of kids in schools.
Will Brehm 30:49
Oren Pizmony-Levy, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It’s such a fascinating topic, and when you do the next study in 2018, please come back on the show and let us know what you find.
Oren Pizmony-Levy 31:00
Thank you very much, Will, for inviting me and for allowing me to share the findings, and thank you very much for hosting this wonderful resource called FreshEd.
Who Opts Out and Why? Results from a national survey on opting out of standardized tests
How Americans View the Opt Out Movement