Tracking the “Opt Out” movement

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The latest round of state assessments will soon conclude for Monroe County students in grades 3-8 in English language arts and math, with some families choosing to opt out entirely.

A new tool from impact mapping company North Arrow is focused on tracking the “opt out” phenomenon, which began in 2013 in opposition to state assessments from the Common Core Standards Initiative. Originating in the suburbs of Long Island, the movement was also significant in local districts including Fairport, Spencerport and East Rochester.

While students opting out of state assessments generally has declined since its peak seven years ago, it is still far from over and has had a lasting impact on the conversation around educational standards and measurements.

“What do movement leaders, students and caretakers want instead of exams? It’s a question of how do we define and measure a high-quality education? And who decides?” says Olivia Ildefonso, co-founder and CEO of North Arrow and creator of the Opt Out dashboard.

“What (my research) started out with was, why in this particular moment?” she continues. “You see the decades and decades of standardized testing that have been put in by every single presidential regime; they all have their own version of ‘more standards and accountability! This is what’s going to solve the problems with education!’ And there was never really a pushback of this size from the suburbs.”

The movement was primarily a coalition of parents, suburbanites, and teachers’ unions and contained liberal and conservative voices alike. Concerns were diverse and included worries that the system was creating “test-prep” obsessed schools, that early-age and English language learners were unfairly assessed before it was appropriate, and that Common Core’s difficult standards could lower school performance (and property values). The linking of test scores with teacher evaluations was another concern.

Some superintendents and administrators were also opposed to the changes on the basis of ceding local control to the state government.

In addition to the usual avenues of protest, parents signaled their displeasure by keeping their children out of school during state assessment periods or requesting a separate activity in lieu of taking the exams.

From 2013 to 2023, as many as 70 or 80 percent of all eligible students did not take the state assessments in some districts statewide. Long Island schools, in particular, were and continue to be a stronghold of the Opt Out movement, with refusal rates as high as 72 percent last year.

“These are state-mandated tests and the state is taking no punitive actions against these districts that are basically not taking them at all,” Ildefonso says. “And, this is just my hypothesis, I think this has everything to do with who these districts are. If New York City school districts were leading this movement, I don’t think the movement would be in the same place it is now.”

She notes that the Opt Out movement was disproportionately represented by wealthier, whiter, and low-need suburban school districts. In contrast, urban districts generally have more students of color and rely much more on state funding. As a result, there was more encouragement for students to take the tests.

“Even at the peak, in 2016, when 21 percent of all students statewide participated in the boycott, districts with the highest 10 percent of test refusals were, on average, 72 percent white compared to 23.69 percent white for districts with the lowest refusals,” Ildefonso writes in her paper, “A Decade of New York’s Opt Out Movement.”

In opting out, Fairport led the way locally with 67 percent of possible students refusing the ELA assessment in 2015. East Rochester, Spencerport, Webster and West Irondequoit also had high rates with at least 44 percent or higher test refusals that year. Hilton, Greece and Brockport also joined those other districts at the top of Monroe County school opt-out rates in the years to come.

Rochester city schools had the lowest opt-out rates in the county, averaging 6 percent over 10 years. In 2018, the Urban League supported an effort by a pro-Common Core group, High Achievement New York, to “Say Yes to the Test.” Following COVID, rates dropped below 2 percent of students opting out.

Interestingly, Pittsford, which could be considered a great fit for a typical opt-out district, was among the lower end of test refusals, never having higher than 26 percent opt-outs from students over the past 10 years.

The tactic of students opting out, combined with miserable testing results in 2013 and the New York Teachers’ Union withdrawing its support for Common Core in 2014, caused then Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call for the standards to be revised in 2015.

In 2017, the state rolled out the Next Generation English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards. The revised system weakened certain aspects but kept much of the Common Core content. In 2019, the requirement to use state tests as part of teacher evaluations was removed.

Those reforms, along with the assessment pause caused by the COVID pandemic, have led to a cooling effect for much of the Opt Out movement.

“The concessions from the state have been huge wins for Opt Out. I think the urgency might not be there anymore compared to when they were fighting for all those things,” says Ildefonso.

“You look at the peak (in) 2016, and you had a lot more diversity in the movement,” she continues. “There’s been an aging-out process for the movement as well.”

In Monroe County, while test refusal rates remain relatively high in some districts such as Spencerport, the coordinated effort organized by various advocacy groups has disappeared. In particular, Fairport and East Rochester schools dropped to 7.2 percent and 10 percent opt-out rates in 2023 after being the strongholds of this movement for the area.

Spencerport’s refusal rate of 29 percent is now the highest in the area, followed closely by Hilton and Webster. Penfield schools are the only ones where rates actually went up, albeit very slightly (by 1 percentage point since 2018).

Even with a slow decline statewide, Ildefonso thinks the Opt Out movement has made lasting effects. Districts generally seem more emboldened in advocating for local control as opting out has not yet resulted in retributive actions. 

In the face of resumption of exam-based state assessments, whole-child education models with methods like project-based learning and school quality measures beyond testing (such as health services, culturally responsive curriculum, diverse teaching staff) have become more popular goals for advocates.

As a researcher with expertise on Long Island schools, Ildefonso hopes the dashboard can serve as a tool for others in the state and lead to further observations about the movement.

“I don’t have all the answers. It interests me and I think it’s important for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but I’m not on the ground in all these other places that have concentrations,” she says, citing Buffalo, Albany and Utica as other areas with high opt-out rates. “What the dashboard does, which I encourage, is it raises questions for us to start answering. I would love for those areas to share with me what they’re seeing in this map.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

7 thoughts on “Tracking the “Opt Out” movement

  1. Some of the other key arguments against the obsessive use of high-stakes standardized testing, and a suggestion on making a difference, are the following:
    1. The tests are not valid for assessing student skill development or knowledge, due to an individual student’s illness, trauma, anxiety, home issues, environmental conditions, etc.
    2. The tests may contain racially & culturally bias questions or information that students of various backgrounds may not understand, such as the use of words like “yacht.”
    3. The tests may ask for information referral by students that their teacher may not have “covered” during the instructional year.
    4. A student taking a mathematics class may completely be proficient with the skills being tested, but may not be a proficient reader of the test “word-problems.”
    5. The tests do not test for many of the critical skills needed for their development as responsible citizens, such as critical thinking, creative problem-solving and interpersonal relationships.
    6. The tests “drive” the curriculum and what teachers teach, since the students, teacher, principal, school and district are all judged on the test scores, at the expense of focusing on what motivates students to engage, such as student interests & choices, the skills mentioned in #5, above, and other subject areas, like social issues, citizenship, art, music, play and physical education.
    7. Students, teachers and the school community who fail the test expectations are labeled as “failures,” lowering their individual and collective self-esteem, impacting their self-worth and motivation to participate and develop.
    8. The culture of education, especially in areas of low socio-economics, high trauma and marginalization, becomes one of control, conformity, obedience and passivity. Creativity and innovation are discouraged, and as a result, fewer creative, enthusiastic potential teaching candidates are attracted to the field, creating a shortage of teachers who are legitimate “change agents” of students, peers, schools and policies.
    Low student growth and development in the RCSD is the product of not only inequitable, structurally racist policies that continue to exist due to failure to follow the research on what will intrinsically motivate students to engage; but also the dynamics of the inter-section of other racial inequities that impact each other, such as housing, criminal justice, employment, health care and education. Each of these realities impact all the others. The RASE Commission for addressing the racial inequities in Monroe County has created meaningful recommendations for realistic change in each of these critical areas and offers, perhaps, the most important process for improving the lives of all marginalized students and families in Monroe County. I encourage those readers and others who are interested in making a difference to join the education committee or one of the other focus groups. Contact the Urban League at 585-325-6530, for more information.
    Dan Drmacich

    • Hi Dan:

      The information and ideas you share are excellent and it makes me wonder where one would start to tackle such a multidimensional situation. One thing you did not mention which is very relevant is the constant churn in leadership. How many superintendents have their been at RCSD in the last 25 years? It seems like there is a new one every two or three years and whoever it is seems to be quickly embroiled in political struggles with board members and other stakeholders.

      If RCSD has a long range strategic plan for the next ten years, it is not well known. Remember the old saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.”

      To impact a large organization like RCSD it would take ten years at least while many students and staff churn through the system as well. There are many outcome studies that show that a positive helping relationship is key between teacher and student and administration and teachers for successful learning to occur. Without that helping alliance all the other tricks and gimmicks will have little positive effect or even if it does somewhat the effect will be short lived.

      Thanks for your excellent analysis.

      • Thanks for your response, David. A couple of thoughts:
        1. Increasing the growth & development of many marginalized students who have been impacted by decades of individual, organizational and structural racism, and as a result, are often living in poverty and experiencing trauma, is a complex issue that demands a complex solution. Education is only one critical factor that needs re-invention to meet student needs. The other issues that are impacting education and each other; employment, housing, health care, transportation, criminal justice, policing, and mental health must be addressed as well, if we expect to see more of our students become active, responsible citizens, who have a greater sense of well-being. John Strazzabosco wrote the book, “90 Feet Under,” that identifies 90 roadblocks that prevent individuals who live in concentrated poverty from escaping it. There are 12 education roadblocks according to John, which even if addressed, would still leave 78 others, such as equitable employment opportunities and health care, that would need to be adequately addressed, as well, for a young person to have a reasonably good chance to escape concentrated poverty.
        I think, despite its detractors, the RASE Commission is the best process for addressing these areas of racial inequity and providing concrete measures to assist students and their families for developing and achieving their goals. Please consider contacting Urban League and joining one of the several committees working on implementation plans to address the needs of Rochester’s marginalized students and citizens.

  2. Urban education is in crisis mode, period. Before one can test,one needs to teach the way kids learn. The RCSD/RCSB and the Union leadership still….still have not figured out how to teach. They still bore kids with their perceived boring academics. They still refuse to show kids the professions and careers open to them. That would allow the kids to be able to connect those perceived boring academics with professions and careers. If you do things over and over and over and do not achieve any results…..what are you doing?! I’ll tell what, you’re dooming kids to generational poverty. You’re forcing kids to get their education on the streets. Those who drop out have a life of misery and that’s’ a life sentence. When are you going to get it? Testing in the urban sector only exposes the educational failure. Unless, of course, if you keep lowering the standards. Before discussing the “opt out” situation, implement an educational journey that will actually have kids find their innate skill or gift.

  3. Great article as an example of local journalism providing the reader with factual data about the activities of local citizens. It’s articles like this that inspire me to support the Rochester Beacon.

  4. With the apparent trend from Albany to de-emphasize the Regents exams (which seems to indicate they don’t value standardized testing), why wouldn’t kids/parents opt out here? One of the last institutions in NYS that had some admirable qualities (the School System) seems have succumbed to being dumbed down for PC reasons . Given declining school enrollment due to population flight, I’m seeing a ugly outlook for the future here.

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