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In 2013, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to minimize the movement against standardized testing, saying it was confined to “white suburban moms.” Numerous state education officials across the country erected roadblocks to anyone trying to boycott the tests.
Undeterred, parents responded in 2015 with large-scale "opt outs" in New York, New Jersey, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. More than 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams.
The widespread resistance influenced lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act earlier this year. Although the new law still requires states to conduct annual tests, it also allows them to decouple tests from numerous high stake consequences, such as using the scores in teacher evaluations and school ratings.
Despite the obvious power of the opt out movement, attempts at marginalizing it have continued, and misinformation about the movement being confined to well-to-do white communities has dogged reform efforts.
But at this week's 2016 United Opt Out Conference, organizers and activists gathered in Philadelphia to renew their commitment to fight the influence of standardized testing and expand their protests to include more communities of color.
Event organizers filled the program with multiple speakers who addressed the impact of testing on African American, Latino, and low-income families. Numerous keynotes and presentations unified the opt out cause with other grassroots movements for social and economic justice, including Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15. Presenters warned the audience about the need to remain vigilant in protesting new forms of assessments.
Opt Out Meets Black Lives Matter
At an opening panel Denisha Jones, an assistant professor of education at Howard University and United Opt Out administrator, spoke of the need to align opt out with Black Lives Matter and how the movement helps "address systemic racism."
In a brief interview with The Progressive, Jones explained, "we're showing opt out is happening in diverse communities because it is those communities that are most harmed by testing."
Acknowledging that black and Latino parents often have greater fear of the consequences of opting out, she said her organization is developing "pathways for opt out" that also "reject the negative consequences of opting out."
In a panel focused on community empowerment, three African-American mothers from Philadelphia described why and how they are spreading the opt out cause in their communities. They spoke of the need for white organizers to "self correct” by listening to parents in communities of color, and by viewing their own activism as something not done "to the community, but with the community."
"A Fairy Tale'
In another panel Yohuru Williams, a history professor and administrator at Fairfield University and author of numerous books on race and civil rights in America, criticized establishment civil rights organizations—such as the NAACP, Urban League, and the National Council of La Raza—for supporting standardized testing.
Williams acknowledged that public schools have historically underserved non-white school children and contributed to "long term injuries." But he denounced testing as a continuation of that harm.
In a brief interview with The Progressive, Williams called civil rights arguments for testing "a fairy tale."
He questioned the claim that standardized tests are focused on identifying racial disparities, as civil rights groups often say they are. "If they're primarily meant for diagnostic purposes, then why the high stakes?" Williams asked.
"If tests are about holding states accountable for the performance of schools serving low-income kids," he asked, "then why are we blaming teachers for poor results?"
He also questioned why schools that are identified as low performing due to test results so often remain poorly funded nevertheless. "When are we going to see the resources to rescue these kids?" he asked.
Testing is About 'Slotting People'
In his keynote address, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Chris Hedges announced that his youngest son, who is entering the third grade in a Princeton, New Jersey elementary public school, would not be taking standardized tests.
In his speech Hedges linked standardized testing to a "corporate coup d'état" that has placed education policy in the hands of "systems managers" who are interested mostly in "slotting people for their place in the corporate leviathan." He linked protests against standardized testing to struggles for human rights around the globe including the Middle East and Western Europe.
"Testing has nothing to do with what is good for children," he told The Progressive. "Tests measure analytical capacities that are mostly confined to what's valued in technological society at the expense of other intelligences such as emotional, artistic, and creative abilities."
Not Just About Opt Out
The event portrayed an opt out movement growing ever more diverse in its demographic. It’s also about defying an assessment culture. Numerous panels at the conference pointed to the spread of new computer based tests that rely on software algorithms, rather than teachers, and turn testing into a year-round activity rather than a seasonal occurrence.
Jones said she and her fellow organizers still see test boycotts as "the key to the domino effect" in toppling an "oppressive system in schools." But the main purpose of the movement is to ensure schools that are based on "core values" of human rights, racial and economic justice, and a standard of education all children deserve.
"This isn't just about opt out," Jones told The Progressive after the meeting concluded. "It's also about what kind of schools we want for our children."
Jeff Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network and associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC, and has written extensively about public education policy. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jeffbcdm.