Students opt out with testing overload

The opt-out movement in our schools is about more than opposition to standardized testing, according to the report “Who opts out and why? Results from a national survey on opting out of standardized tests,” from Teachers College at Columbia University, released today.


New York, the state of high opt-out rates

Last year, a report in the New York Times showed opt-out percentages highlighted on an overlay of New York from 2013 through 2015. The increase in the number of opt-outs is noticeable before 2015, and, as the New York State Education Department reported, the opt-out numbers this year were even a little higher.

Educators have commonly explained the opt-out phenomenon by saying students were overloaded with tests. The average US student takes more than 113 standardized tests before graduation, Mother Jones reported one year ago.

“This school year saw by far some of the largest numbers of families opting out from standardized tests in history,” the site quoted Bob Schaeffer, director of public education at the advocacy group FairTest.org, as saying.

The number hasn’t changed all that much, leading more parents to catch the opt-out fever and tell their kids to refuse to take certain tests. Those parents have now been studied and surveyed for the Teachers College report that is the subject of this article.

Who opts out and why, a study by Columbia Teachers College

Students I’ve talked to in the past few years say the reason they don’t like all the standardized tests is that the tests:

  • Take time away from other enriching activities
  • Don’t usually count toward their grade

Students also say, especially with the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, that standardized testing contributes to inequity in educational opportunity. They aren’t quite able to express that in so many words, but they bring up topics like school closures in predominantly low-income neighborhoods that are often justified by scores on standardized tests.

The Teachers College report says that the “typical opt-out activist is a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average.”

One of the biggest reasons the parents give for opting out, according to the report, is to protest the way teacher performance is judged by the scores their students get on standardized tests. They consider teacher evaluation based on test scores unfair, and it may be.

However, students usually have a different set of objections, joining their teachers in a strong disapproval of the amount of time tests and test preparation take away from educationally enriching activities. The opportunity cost of “teaching to the test,” for however much that actually happens, can cause valuable lessons to be sacrificed, just because they aren’t tested with standardized tests.

Parents surveyed also expressed a disapproval of public schools being run by corporations or the privatization of public education in general. I’ve never, in three years of talking with, probably, more than a hundred students about opting out, heard a single one express this objection.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.