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‘Teaching for the Test:’ Why More Black Parents are Joining the Opt-Out Movement Against Statewide Standardized Testing


Is the opt-out movement coming to a community near you?  The traditionally white space, typically the purview of suburban white parents, is an effort to remove students from the process of standardized assessment testing.  And now there is a move to attract more Black and Latino families and bring them into the fold.

As Kimberly Hefling of Politico reported, the parents involved in the movement gained steam even before the policy of No Child Left Behind — which mandates annual testing — was enacted by the Bush administration in 2002.  In 2001, in the affluent community of Scarsdale, New York, 100 eighth-grade parents kept their children from taking a statewide exam, on the grounds that the community’s academic standards were higher than those of the state.

While white parents often have found themselves at odds with people of color — believing they must attempt to flee from Black and Brown people in order to secure a better education for their children — whites in the opt-out movement are realizing the need to join forces.

In February, the Opt Out United National conference took place in Philadelphia.  Shakeda Gaines, a Black mother of four who is involved in Opt Out Philly, told Politico that this movement “can’t be successful without the urban” parents’ participation.  Gaines, who shared her own child’s emotional challenges related to testing, said that parents are “really getting trapped” by burdensome testing policies and “they need to know what their rights are.”

The proponents of opting out of standardized testing say they are demanding more for their children, and that in poor communities, testing is eating up scarce resources and time, and is even being used as a motivation to close traditional schools in urban neighborhoods.  As a result, the argument holds, time and money is spent on teaching to the test rather than on support services for children, counselors and the like.  And opt-out supporters believe these tests are being used against them, their children and their communities.

Public school advocates have expressed concern about the privatization of education, with for-profit, corporate free-market principles being used to pick winners and losers among schools, and ultimately among children.  They argue that charter schools and vouchers are diverting resources away from public schools.  According to, the Philadelphia school district pays about $7,000 for each student in a charter school.  Meanwhile, cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago have also experienced a massive closure of public schools in recent years, as charters have been expanded, and the public schools have been underfunded.

As Valerie Straus wrote in the Washington Post last January, the school reform movement has pointed to low standardized test scores as proof that “America’s schools are poor” and that “other countries are eating our lunch.”  Under the argument that competition is the key to quality, standardized testing has been the key to school privatization.  Make the cutoff “pass-fail” score high enough to fail many or most students, and you prove the public schools are not doing their job and must be shuttered or turned into a for-profit operation.

Meanwhile, President Obama has taken aim at the education-industrial-complex, warning that students are spending too much time taking tests, which takes valuable time away from learning. He urged teachers to administer fewer but more meaningful exams.

While the president said that testing in moderation can prove useful in helping track progress and assist in students’ learning, he spoke of the pressure facing teachers in teaching for the test — which detracts from a student’s learning experience.  As a result, parents are concerned the exams are eating up too much time.

‘‘Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble,’’ Obama said. ‘‘So we’re going to work with states, school districts, teachers and parents to make sure that we’re not obsessing about testing.”

As Politico noted, civil rights groups believe the recruitment of parents of color into the opt out movement is misguided.  Luis Torres, director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens, called opt-out an unwelcome diversion.

“We already have so much work to do to try to close the achievement gap that this is a distraction,” Torres said. “It’s not Latino parents, it’s not African-American parents. We don’t have the time to be wasting trying to opt out. We need to know exactly how the kids are doing because when they go to college, if they are not prepared it’s going to cost people more money.”

And Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, argued last year in “Phi Delta Kappa” magazine that these assessments, the quality of which he said are improving, are useful to parents to know how their children are doing in school.

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