New No Child Left Behind Reauthorization Attempt Targets Opt-Out Movement

Posted: Jun 08, 2015 11:45 AM

Editor's Note: this column was co-authored by Lisa Hudson, an attorney, activist, and mom, regarding the No Child Left Behind Re-authorization and the Common Core testing opt-out movement.

The latest attempt to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB), sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patti Murray (D-WA) and euphemistically named the Every Child Achieves Act), has surprisingly gained bi-partisan support. But it targets the Opt-Out movement, one of the great grassroots phenomena.

Here’s what’s going on.

For decades, education policy-making has been increasingly centralized. Legislatures, local boards of education, and parents have been marginalized. In 2002, NCLB made things worse. Building on prior law, it required statewide standards in math, science and English. It required elaborate state accountability systems that subject children to standardized tests in English and math in grades 3 through 8 and once more in high school, and less frequently in science. It tied school evaluations, along with “sanctions and rewards,” to results on those tests.

Then, spurred by private interests, the Obama Administration used the accountability structures and competitive grants as carrots and sticks to drive Common Core into the states. For their part, the Common Core owners promised that the standards would be of high quality, internationally benchmarked, and evidence-based.

What, then, explains the rising tide of parental and teacher anger?

Many of the standards are age-inappropriate and, as a result, negatively affect learning. The math standards put children into a slowed-down progression, fail to provide a pathway to STEM studies, and will widenachievement gaps. The English standards are unsupported by the evidence. According to Prof. Sandra Stotsky, the premier English standards expert, a child educated according to the standards will be
unprepared for authentic college-level work.

Then there’s NCLB’s high-stakes testing scheme. It is oppressive to students and teachers and incentivizes, in a heavy-handed way, teaching-to-the-test. Moreover, as Prof. Christopher Tienken explains, to be useful for instruction, teachers and parents need test results returned quickly, and they need to see a child’s actual questions and answers. Standardized tests fail on these counts.

High-stakes testing is more like a bar exam. But note the differences. Adults take bar exams. They do so after law school graduation. They prepare for 8 weeks. Most take a review course --sitting for 4 hours a day, reviewing material in outline form and spending learning test-taking strategies that reflect the design, and past iterations, of the exam. They spend lots of additional time taking practice tests.

There is also concern, largely generated by NCLB’s teach-to-the-test mentality-- over the total number of standardized tests to which children are subjected --as many as 113 in K-12.

Parents are pushing back. They are opting their children out of high-stakes Common Core tests in record numbers. FairTest’s Monty Neill reported in the Washington Post that this year parents opted more than 200,000 children out of the New York English tests, triple last year’s rate, and that New Jersey refusals on the Common Core test went from “perhaps a thousand last year to nearly 60,000 on the first round of this year’s test.” Numerous news reports confirm that the opt-out movement is nationwide (see, e.g., here and here).

This movement is a desperate lunge by parents to have a real say in their children’s education. Thomas Morton, a school superintendent in New York, told USA Today, "[T]he folks that are working in the field realize that this is a real issue. I'm not so sure that the folks . . . in Albany understand that." He could have said that about Congress.

The federal government responded with intimidation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that “the federal government is obligated to intervene if states fail to address the rising number of students who are boycotting mandated annual exams.”
How does the NCLB reauthorization bill handle the Opt-Out movement?

It maintains the requirement that a state submit a comprehensive education plan. It keeps the testing requirements. A state must still have an “accountability system” that includes as a “substantial” factor student performance on standardized tests. It does try to lessen the teach-to-the-test pressures by allowing the state to determine "the weight” of the tests in the accountability system. But this will not alleviate such pressures. It’s like saying, “We’re going to beat you with a wooden bat, not a metal one.”

Moreover, under the NCLB reauthorization bill, each state must demonstrate that it will measure “the annual progress of not less than 95 percent of all students.” Unfortunately, to do so, states will likely increase pressure on administrators, teachers, principals, and parents for students to take the tests.

Now is the time for all the senators and representatives who support local control of education and all those who support federalism to stand up and get rid of the federal dictates on how often and in what subjects our children are tested.