A majority of Americans oppose the opt-out movement according to two separate polls released this month. In education, opting out refers to a relatively new phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of parents have held their children out of state mandated standardized testing. The practice is most widespread in states like New York and California, and supporters of the movement have framed opting out as a form of civil disobedience in the face of education policy they object to.
To measure the public’s support for the opt-out trend, researchers at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College produced a study, “How Americans View the Opt Out Movement,” which was released earlier this month. The report draws on findings from an online survey taken by over 2,000 respondents. Variations of certain questions on the survey were given to different groups of respondents to test how phrasing could affect attitudes towards opting out.
According to the survey, almost half of the general public, 47 percent, say they “strongly oppose” or “somewhat oppose” the opt-out movement. Only 31 percent said the “strongly supported” or “somewhat supported” the practice. Respondents were slightly more amenable to supporting the movement when the question was framed as parents “boycotting state standardized tests.” When asked with that language, 35 percent expressed support.
The low level of public sympathy for the opt-out push is notable because many involved with the movement are hoping to effect change within the education system. According to a 2016 study produced by the same lead researcher from Columbia University, many of the parents and activists who push to hold children out of state mandated assessments do so because they oppose the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, worry the assessments incentivize educators to “teach to the test,” or feel uneasy with the influence of large test-writing corporations in their children’s schools.
On the other hand, the general public has a slightly different set of explanations for why the opt-out movement has grown in popularity. For example, 47 percent of respondents cited opposition to the Common Core State Standards as the primary driver for the the opt-out movement (this despite the 2016 finding that only 26 percent of opt-out parents and activists referenced the standards to explain their motivations). Furthermore, roughly a fifth of the general public also harbors suspicions that parents have flocked to the movement because their “children don’t do well on standardized tests.”
In addition to underscoring micro-level debates about parental rights and civil liberties, the opt-out movement is already large enough to pose serious challenges to macro-level education policy initiatives. By federal law, every student in America should be tested every year between 3rd and 8th grades in reading and math. The idea is to gather data to hold schools, districts, and states accountable for student outcomes. If scores are missing for large percentages of students, data sets become skewed and it becomes more difficult to evaluate the system, according to opt-out critics.
To protect the integrity of state level accountability systems, the federal Education Department requires that at least 95 percent of all students in a state sit for the standardized tests. In cases where a state fails to meet that threshold, officials can issue penalties up to and including the withholding of federal funds. In recent years, opt-out rates in New York (which are the highest nationally) have hovered around 20 percent. If the practice persists, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will soon be faced with a tough choice on how hard to turn the screws on state officials that would then crack down on parents.
Also of note: the Education Next survey released earlier this month featured even harsher findings for the opt-out movement than the Columbia study. The Education Next poll, which touches on a variety of other educational issues including charter schools and achievement standards, had questions about both the yearly testing requirements as well as about the opt-out movement. According to that poll, only 24 percent of Americans oppose yearly testing requirements, and a full 63 percent of the public think parents should not be allowed to opt their children out of standardized tests.