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Opt Out or Give Up? Resistance in shades of grey

Posted: 2011-09-02

This statement of resistance is from
Baltimore Education Reform Examiner
, Sept. 1, 2011.

In these critical times of heated educational debate from all ideological camps, an increasing number of families, students, teachers and communities are feeling the oppressive grip of punitive high stakes testing (HST) tightening around public education. Behind closed doors, thousands of voices can be heard whispering their opposition to current policy reform. Ask any one person directly how they feel and they may have the courage to speak their truths, their fears, their experiences, and their concerns. But to do so publicly becomes another matter. In a guest blog I wrote entitled the Pedagogy of Fear I suggested that fear of opting out of high stakes testing is a very real thing. The forms of retaliation to those who resist are many: Teachers can lose their jobs, parents may be ostracized, children singled out and punished by teachers or administrators. In some states including Maryland, state law in keeping with NCLB suggests that students who "opt out" of taking state tests in High School will not be able to receive their diploma. (Roventini, 2011) New policies are being passed as we speak, that will attach up to 30% of a child's grade to their achievement on the state exam. So, given the "price" that opting out may exact from certain groups or communities, what is one to do? Are the only other options complicity and resignation? No.

There is a new movement afoot whose mission it is to say ânoâ to the latter. They can be found on Facebook at "Opt Out of the State Test: The Movement," and The United Opt Out webpage at http://www.unitedoptout.com. Within a week, more than 600 hundred members have joined in the effort to end the reign of oppression in public education enforced by high stakes testing.

There are always ways in, around, and through allowing our public educational systems (and children) to be co-opted by corporate reformers, who use high stakes tests as way to profit test companies, and to privatize one of our most valued democratic institutions: The right for ALL children to a healthy, vibrant, fully funded, and meaningful educational opportunity supported as a government ("We the people") institution.

We are a democratic society. In theory, we the PUBLIC, own the government. Granted we, and they, have done a lousy job of living up to that definition in recent years, but at least on paper (The Constitution of the United States) I am told that certain rights are secured to me as a citizen of this country, including the right to an education, supported and protected by our government. I like knowing that piece of paper is there. I like knowing that, no matter how difficult the journey to resist may be, that I am secured in my right to challenge, resist and promote changes to educational policy. If public education becomes a privatized institution, run by corporate billionaires I LOSE THAT RIGHT. I cannot participate with CEO's of Wal-Mart or Microsoft decisions. I cannot simply walk into a stock holders meeting and hold a protest. I have no voice in the decisions they choose to make. While it might seem "nutty" to some at least, I am legally entitled to do so in front of the Department of Education.

I want some avenues preserved that maintain my stake, my voice, and some form of RECOURSE in the schools my children will attend. I still have voting power to affect what decisions my representatives choose to make. If we don't like them we can rise up in solidarity and demand the changes we wish to see or elect them out of office. It has been done before. So I choose to exercise my right to opt out of high stakes testing.

But what does that really mean?

Opting out means a refusal to "buy into" something-in this case the stranglehold that high stakes testing has on public education. Literally, our tax dollars, through public education, spends 4.5 billion dollars ( Krashen, 2008) on test preparation materials while schools everywhere languish; failing in large part because of the lack of school resources and community support that are needed to enable students in "failing" schools to succeed. Have you ever seen a "failing school" in an upper income community? No.

We know that poverty is an enormous part of the problem in education. But yet we spend money testing children who we know are struggling to overcome factors above and beyond the ârightâ curriculum or dedicated teachers. In medicine, once you know the diagnosis you stop testing to find the problem and focus on the solution. Yet we fail to follow this logic in education.

People who opt out believe that the quickest, swiftest, and most effective way to end the destruction of HST is for parents, students and teachers to refuse to participate in these mandated high stakes tests.

However, I also recognize that this measure is easier said than done. Such actions are never simple, easy or without repercussions. Such an approach to that mission would be naïve and impractical.

There are three basic arenas where people can engage in resistance: Changing the Public Narrative, Breaking the Cycle, Supporting Alternatives.

Here are some suggested ways to opt out of HST in public education in each of these arenas. These are steps that families, teachers, students, and interested citizens can take now. Some of these involve more "risk" than others. Every action counts!!!!!! No action is ever too small!!!

The only things that can defeat this movement are complacency and resignation.

Other ways to opt out of HST in public education:


Opting out of the narrative that HST testing: a-is "good" for schools and that b-is necessary to evaluate student progress

Opting out of silence. Instead we should speak to friends, colleagues, communities, civic organizations, and politicians about HST's destruction to public education.

Opting out of avoidance. Making the truth public through creative means. Using arts-based, or social strategies to share information (storytelling circles, visit project link Out of the Box Doll Project on Facebook), starting flash-mobs, sending postcards with images, posting bumper stickers, passing around the Parent Flyer.


Opting out of complicity. Question, challenge, and share everywhere we can. Break the code of blind compliance.

Opting out of isolation. You are not alone. Form groups and meetings where you can develop viable and realistic forms of resistance suited to your community. Forming local groups and petitions.

Opting out of coercion as a form of education. Fear and isolation as ways to educate children are NOT options we should support!

Opting out of assuming those in power "know best." Meet with your boards of education, school administrators, PTA, congressmen, and community leaders. Talk with them. Challenge the policy "sound bites"! Express your concerns. Ask questions. Seek support.


Knowledge is power. Collect and share research from various sources which document success stories of schools that have used alternative forms of assessment to measure student performance. Promote and advertise research that SHOWS what WORKS.

Collaborate with educators from all levels and areas. Find schools and teachers who demonstrate the success of meaningful curriculum which is NOT test-driven. Identify and promote models of public classrooms which support our beliefs and do so successfully.

Trust in the power of creative collaboration. The best alternatives we can create may not have been invented yet!!! They may emerge through an ongoing process that involves YOU and others-our shared vision.

If we begin, or continue to opt out in any or all of these ways, then taking action (with wisdom, power, resources, and courage it takes of every parent, child, and teacher) to walk out on testing day, and ending high stakes testing for good, and for ALL can become a reality.

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