On a recent Thursday morning designated for testing at his Colorado middle school, Jack Spiegel commenced to following what had become his daily routine: He woke up, got dressed by 6:45 a.m., sat down the kitchen table and ate a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats. But then the sixth grader broke from his normal course of events -- and school administrators' expectations -- by staying home. Jack and his other school-aged siblings would not be among the students taking their annual exams, his mother decided.
"I wrote a letter just saying they're not going to participate," Ilana Spiegel said later that day. "The laws are immoral and [unjust] and are hurting kids. People aren't listening to parents and educators and students...this was the only thing to do."
Jack's mom is not alone when it comes to that train of thought. Though there's no official count, hundreds of thousands of students across the country reportedly opted out of spring standardized tests based on controversial Common Core standards, which were instituted not long ago throughout most of the country. Because there's no legal precedent for this, some students were disciplined. Federal aid was threatened. But now, as scores were calculated in the summertime lull, lawmakers from Colorado to Maine were pushing state legislation that would secure parents' rights to keep their kids from taking the tests. They argue the so-called opt-out bills not only get families involved in the discussion around the contentious educational initiative but also give them a chance to start taking it down.
Common Core, a national set of English language and math guidelines that dictate what students should be able to do at certain grade levels, was adopted by more than 40 states in 2010. Since then the implementation has been rocky, with critics arguing that the standards didn't cater to a diverse student audience and teachers weren't prepared for the new curriculum. Common Core-aligned standardized exams, most of them developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), took even more heat for encouraging teaching to the test.
In many states, the tests weren't the sole factor in grade promotion, so parents began opting out their children. While it's technically allowed, schools discouraged it, often by sending students out of the room or making them sit quietly during testing. Others mandated that the children themselves refuse the tests -- something Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, took particular issue with. "We're asking third graders to show up to school and say no to their teachers," he said. "It's not appropriate to put children in that position."
That's the primary reason lawmakers got involved -- to force the government to spell out exactly who can opt out and how they must do so. About 10 states have introduced opt-out legislation in the last year, said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, Massachusetts, that works against flawed standardized testing practices. Among them were Maine, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware, Colorado, Arizona and Ohio.
"Winning these kinds of things is often a multiyear effort," Neill said. "Everywhere we turn around, it's growing."
The measures have experienced varying degrees of success. Arizona's HB 2246 died in the Senate in March, though Illinois' HB 306 passed the House in May. Delaware's House Bill 50 traveled back and forth between the chambers for weeks before finally heading to the governor's desk in late June. Maine's LD 695 was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, and New Hampshire's HB 603 was shot down by Gov. Maggie Hassan, who, according to a press release, said it suggested the state was "not committed to ensuring that students are ready for college and/or careers in the 21st century’s innovation economy." Oregon's HB 2655 enjoyed the most success: Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law in June, allowing it to take effect when the school year starts in the fall.
— Chris Cerrone (@Stoptesting15) April 12, 2015
Most of the pushback centered on what opt-out critics termed "the 95 percent rule." Simply put, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that 95 percent of a school's students must take the annual standardized tests or fail to meet adequate yearly progress levels. If that happened, the schools could lose federal Title I funding for low-income students.
Guzzardi, like many state politicians, said his Illinois HB 306 wasn't encouraging or discouraging anyone from taking the Common Core-aligned tests. Instead, it would codify parents' right to make the opt-out decision for their kids and ensure that students not taking the tests would have alternate assignments. The bill also served a higher purpose: It gave parents "a vehicle to voice their frustration" with standardized testing requirements, he added.
Opinions of Common Core have varied slightly by demographic and education level. About 50 percent of all parents approved of Common Core in an NBC News poll taken earlier this year, but that number rose to 56 percent among black respondents. Hispanic parents had the best opinion of the standards, with 73 percent approving. White parents were the most likely to disapprove of Common Core, with 49 percent saying they opposed the national guidelines.
Parents who were college graduates were split on Common Core, with 45 percent favoring the standards and 46 percent opposing them. People with less education were more decisive, with more than half favoring Common Core and 34 percent opposing it.
Parents would probably try to opt out no matter what the exam was, said Save Our Schools NJ volunteer Julia Rubin. The underlying issue was over-testing -- a hot topic on its own as Congress looked to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- and opt-out out bills were a way to address it. "PARCC is just the latest, maybe the worst, manifestation of high-stakes testing," she said. "This is going to be an ongoing issue."
States' discussion about opt-out legislation spilled over into Congress, which last week began debating a rewritten No Child Left Behind law. On Tuesday, lawmakers voted against an amendment to the Senate version of the bill put forth by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would have let parents opt their kids out without consequences for school funding. But the House bill, which passed July 8, included a similar provision from Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Arizona.
Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association, said advocates had to walk a fine line between fighting for parental rights and meeting mandates. "There has been an uproar and almost like an inflaming of the movement because the [education] department has chosen to make such a public issue of this," she added. "It's actually driven more people to say, 'Well, heck. I'm the parent. I'll do what I want. It's my child.'"
By acknowledging this and giving parents the explicit power to opt their kids out, state governments were sending a message that they valued families' input on education policy, said Rep. John Kowalko, a Democrat who sponsored Delaware's opt-out bill. "It has opened the water faucet, the spigot, to a drip for the dialogue," Kowalko added. "The bill guarantees parents that their voices no longer are silent."