Opt-out leader opposes bill that would legitimize parent refusal of state tests

One of the nation’s most prominent opt-out leaders said she opposes a bill introduced in the Colorado General Assembly yesterday that would legitimize her movement because she fears it could foil her larger goal: to end what she calls the “privatization of public education.”

If passed, the bill would signal a significant victory for activists fighting back against a series of reform efforts the state has implemented since 2010, all centered on the Common Core State Standards and their aligned exams.

But that isn’t how Peggy Robertson, a founding member of the nonprofit organization United Opt Out, views it. She said legitimizing opt out could stop the conversation about how much money is being spent on tests rather than other education initiatives she and her colleagues say would improve educational outcomes for students in the poorest school districts.

“I think people have good intentions around this, but if they make opt out legal, it takes away the power of our social movement,” said Robertson, who is also an instructional coach for Aurora Public Schools. And that could stop the growing chorus against testing, she said.

“This is not an anti-testing movement,” Robertson said. “This is a movement to return real learning to the classroom. All the thing we need — nurses, librarians, books, food — we don’t have, because all the money is being funneled to test prep and the test.”

The bill would require school districts, boards of cooperative educational services and charters to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts. Written district policies on opting out would have to be provided to parents.

Opt out leader Peggy Robertson (Courtesy Peggy Robertson)

And while the State Board of Education has already directed the Colorado Department of Education to hold districts and schools harmless if they fail to meet the required 95 percent test participation rate, Senate Bill 15-223 would codify those protections in state law, adding an extra level of security for educators.

The bill has broad bipartisan support and the blessing of the state’s largest teachers union, which will lobby for it.

“Certainly, the [state union] has, in the past, lobbied for a parent opt-out bill that does not penalize students, teachers, schools and districts,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of Colorado Education Association. “We’re hopeful with the increased opt outs this year that the legislature will finally act.”

The right to opt out of standardized tests is not addressed anywhere in state statutes. State education officials have long asserted that opting out is not legal.

But some parents and student say they believe they have a constitutional right to do so. State and federal law, as well as agreements between the Colorado and U.S. education departments, require schools to have a 95 percent participation rate on annual standardized tests.

If school districts do not achieve those rates it could mean a lowered accreditation rating or trigger redirection of federal funds from high opt-out schools without input from the local school district.

Previously, no school or district had come close to that 95 percent threshold. Given that, some education officials and observers have long dismissed the opt-out movement as nothing more than a band of misinformed and paranoid suburban moms.

Until now.

The opt-out movement, in Colorado and across the nation, has grown from social media chatter to conservative media fodder to mentions in The New York Times. While it’s not possible to draw a direct line from the first opt-out family to today’s testing debate, it’s equally impossible to ignore the movement any longer.

“I think that when parents and students are strongly — and very publicly — voicing displeasure, it has very great potential to influence policymakers,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. “Much more so than researchers who voice displeasure. Or for that matter, than educators who voice displeasure. There’s something about the voices of parents and students that’s very authentic.”

In the largest anti-testing demonstration in Colorado, thousands of senior high school students last fall left their classrooms when they were asked to take another round of standardized tests in social studies and science. Those students, mostly in white, middle-class suburbs, said the tests were meaningless and added to the already bloated testing regimen.

“We knew this would happen,” opt-out leader Robertson said, reflecting on the year that saw her movement make headlines like never before. “The key was being ready for it. Here in Colorado, we had a nice head start with the CMAS senior tests [protest]. That gave us an extra edge that other states didn’t have.”

Robertson said her organization has grown from seven people in a handful of states to hundreds across the nation. In Florida alone, she said, there are 25 groups organizing parents who oppose standardized tests and the Common Core State Standards.

Philip E. Bernhardt, the department chair for secondary education, K-12,  and educational technology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said the growing debate around testing is forcing education reform activists and lawmakers to question who is gaining more from the testing system: students or test-makers.

“People are raising questions: are these tests based on research or because there is a tremendous profit to be made?” he said. “I certainly believe it’s the latter. The opt-out movement is definitely making people ask hard questions.”

John Buckner, D-Aurora, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he said the opt-out community has made its concerns known and that the debate is settled: The standardized testing burden in Colorado will be lightened.

“Once we have made the appropriate adjustments to the tests, I’m guessing the opt-out movement will conclude that its work is done, and it will fade away,” Buckner said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Don’t count on it, Roberston said.

“We have to be really careful about not being appeased,”she said. “It would be easy to have a little bit less testing, but I’m not willing to accept a little.”