TOPICS > Education

What galvanized standardized testing’s opt-out movement

May 26, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
As the school year draws to a close, many students are taking standardized tests tied to the Common Core. But in some communities there has been a strong backlash, with parents deciding to opt out of having their children participate. The NewsHour’s William Brangham talks to special correspondent for education John Merrow and Motoko Rich of The New York Times.
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GWEN IFILL: The school year is nearing its end around the country, and many students are completing a new round of standardized tests tied to the Common Core curriculum. But there has been backlash in some communities.

William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Parents, in fact, are deciding to opt out. More specifically, their children are simply not taking year-end standardized tests, such as the PARCC exam or another one known as Smarter Balanced.

The movement has been relatively small in total numbers. But it picked up a lot of support this year in places like New York State, where as many as 165,000 students opted out. In New Jersey, 15 percent of the high schoolers who were slated to take the tests chose not to do so. It’s also been an issue in Florida and elsewhere.

We fill in the picture with John Merrow, our special correspondent for education, who reported on this earlier this spring, and Motoko Rich, a national education reporter for The New York Times who has been covering this.

Motoko Rich, I would like to start with you.

I wonder if you could tell me, this movement seemingly came out of — somewhat come out of nowhere. We have had standardized testing for a fairly long time. I wonder, why this moment? What are the concerns, and why have they sprung up now?

MOTOKO RICH, The New York Times: Well, I think there have been — it’s sort of a perfect storm of concern, so it’s not just about testing. A lot of people that I talked to said, it’s not the test themselves that they object to. It’s what they’re being used for and what they’re based on.

So, we first had this movement to introduce new academic standards known as the Common Core, which were adopted by more than 40 states. And, in general, they’re much more rigorous than the standards that came before. And so in the development of new tests to measure whether or not students were reaching those standards and whether teachers were teaching to those standards, the tests became harder.

And when they were first administered in New York State, the proportion of students that passed these tests fell fairly drastically. So, you used to have something like 70 percent or 80 percent of students were passing the test, and then it dropped to about 30 percent. So, that really created a lot of concern. And that was last year.

So, this year, when the test was administered, I think there was already a lot of anxiety out there. And then, on top of that, Governor Cuomo here in New York decided that he wanted to make teacher evaluations more rigorous. And he was concerned that so many teachers had been rated as effective or highly effective the year earlier.

And so he proposed that 50 percent of their evaluations be based on the student test scores. And I think that was really the moment that galvanized a lot of parents and teachers who were talking to the parents to say, wait a minute. That’s not what we want the test to be used for.

As it turned out, that proposal didn’t pass, but, by then, I think there had been a lot of momentum about it. A lot of parents were concerned that these tests were being used in a way that they didn’t deem appropriate.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Merrow, this is certainly not universal. The majority of the students are taking tests, as instructed.

What do we know about the people who are choosing to opt out? Is there a rural-suburban split? Where do they come down politically? Who are they?

JOHN MERROW: Well, you know, that’s interesting.

They — we looked into that. You get opposition on the right, basically sort of a Tea Party, and they’re upset about what they see as too much interference by government. There — on the left and the right, there’s a view that there’s just too much testing and test prep in the schools, which is taking out art, music, phys-ed.

Some on the left, we found, feel that this is so anti-teacher. And you have to remember, we may be the only nation, the only one I know of, that uses test scores not to assess kids, but to assess teachers. I think we’re unique in doing that.

The center of the left and the right, there’s a lot of feeling that the school curriculum has been bare-bones, just drill and, again, no art, music, and so on and so forth. And then, on the left, from the unions, they were very late to the party, as far as we could figure out, but they have come in weighing in that they’re concerned that a lot of this is being used to play gotcha with teachers.

So, it’s pretty widespread. It’s grassroots. It’s small. Twelve million students take the PARCC or Smarter Balanced. Now, if 5 percent opt out, that creates — that triggers some restrictions, and 5 percent of 12 million is only 600,000. As you said, there are close to 150,000 in New York State alone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Motoko, John mentioned this, the teachers’ involvement of this. How much of this is being driven by teachers, do you think?

MOTOKO RICH: Well, I think the teachers — and I would say the teachers unions have been incredibly shrewd in capitalizing on this issue.

There are a lot of issues that have been — that the teachers unions have frankly been attacked about over a number of years, including the stability of tenure, their pension packages. But this is an issue, as John mentioned, that they can kind of galvanize left and right. And so, in some ways, they’re taking — they’re sort of capitalizing on a movement that was already there.

But I think they also helped stoke it. Here in New York State, the New York State teachers union actually did some robocalls before the end-of-year tests began to encourage parents to opt out. So, there definitely is kind of a symbiotic relationship between the grassroots movement on the parents’ side and the teachers actually organizing around this issue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Motoko, I know some of the concerns have been about technology. These tests are given on computers. And many schools have said, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the equipment, we don’t have the bandwidth, and some of our students may in fact come from families where computers are not that accessible.

How much has technology played in the resistance to testing?

MOTOKO RICH: Well, I would say that it depends on where the test was being administered.

Here in New York, the tests were still largely administered as paper-and-pencil tests, so I don’t think that technology was the issue. There have been places around the country where there have been snafus. Some would say those are inevitable snafus. When you’re first introducing — introducing a new test and on a new platform. You’re going to have some problems.

And, as you pointed out, there are places where they don’t have the bandwidth. You’re trying to administer a test to hundreds of students all at the same time. And maybe someone’s connection doesn’t quite work. And then, once that happens, that kind of triggers lots of other problems.

So, there definitely are issues, birthing problems, if you will, with these tests.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Merrow, one of the arguments that has been made — Secretary of Education Arne Duncan raised this and others have as well — that if states and municipalities don’t get 95 percent of their students to take these tests, there might be some kind of a penalty, maybe withholding of federal education aid.

How likely do you think that is?

JOHN MERROW: I think Secretary Duncan has the tiger by the tail here.

This — he owns this. The — No Child Left Behind was focused on schools. His Race to the Top really does focus on teachers. And — but No Child Left Behind requires 95 percent participation. Is — now, they didn’t reach that Jersey City, New Jersey, which has a lot of poor kids. Is he going to take money away from a poor district?  I don’t think so.

But he actually dodged that question in an interview with my colleague from the Times, saying he was leaving it up to the states, but he was watching. I think, in the future, we’re — this is not going to go away. I think we’re now starting to see legislative action in Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, other places.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK.

John Merrow, Motoko Rich, thank you very much for joining us.

MOTOKO RICH: Thanks for having us.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you.

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