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Three Cheers to Parent, Teacher, and Student Opt-Outs

Read this and remember how school officials in Birmingham, Alabama made sure low-scoring students didn't take their state test.

SAN DIEGO -- Sporting an "A" average and varsity letters in two sports, Erin Binney took a battery of tests last spring to improve her college-admissions prospects, including three SAT achievement tests and Advanced Placement exams in U.S. history and chemistry.

But when it came to the state-required achievement test that is used to assess teachers, schools and districts -- and has no effect on her transcript -- the student at Rancho Bernardo High just said no. Instead of being tested two hours each morning for a week, she slept late and did homework.

Erin, now a senior, was one of 212 Rancho Bernardo students, or 8.7% of those eligible for testing, who stayed home or went out to the beach or breakfast -- up from a dozen such refuseniks in 1999, 49 in 2000 and 166 in 2001. Without Erin and other stellar students, Rancho Bernardo's score on the Standardized Testing and Reporting, or STAR, exams has plummeted, and the school has missed out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of state aid and teacher bonuses pegged to improvement.

Rancho Bernardo administrators can't force students to take the test, or penalize them for dodging it. Erin and the rest were excused by their parents.

It's a little-known fact of school life: "mandatory" testing often isn't.

The Bush administration -- and nearly every state -- want to test as many public-school students as possible. The federal "No Child Left Behind" law, adopted last January, says 95% of the students in high-poverty schools must take standardized tests like STAR or the schools forfeit funds granted under Title 1 -- the biggest pot of federal education money available. California requires elementary and middle schools to test 95% of their students, and high schools, 90%. Even students with special needs or limited English are supposed to be tested.

Parents' Rights

But the push for universal testing is colliding with another cherished educational value: parental rights. About 20 states -- including California, Michigan and Wisconsin -- let parents waive testing of their children, usually without having to give a reason. These waivers are confounding school administrators and distorting test scores on which school funding and reputations increasingly hinge.

Waivers spur particular resistance at upscale schools where students excused from testing tend to be high achievers. At Rancho Bernardo, a planned community laden with well-off retirees, several teachers and the president of the parent-teacher association have opted their children out of the test. Erin Binney and other top Rancho Bernardo students excused by their parents say guidance counselors threatened to write unfavorable college recommendations for displaying a lack of school spirit. Counselors deny going that far, but they acknowledge that they consider test participation when they select students to lead school organizations.

Some parents object to standardized testing, or to a particular test. Some parents who speak Spanish or another foreign language feel their children don't have a fair shot on a standardized test given in English. And still others see no personal incentive for their children to labor over tests that aren't included on school transcripts or required for high-school graduation or college admissions. (Parents typically aren't allowed to use the waivers for statewide graduation tests, now required in 27 states.)

"I felt kind of guilty, because I realized I could be taking money away from the school," says Erin's mother, Joan Binney. "But Erin had just started a job, she was competing in lacrosse, and she had to study for the AP tests. It all gets to be too much."

'A Nation at Risk'

The movement to hold teachers, schools and districts to higher standards dates back to a controversial 1983 report titled "A Nation at Risk." It offered a grim portrayal of decline in the nation's public schools and started what has become a steady rise in standardized testing.

The push for testing aroused concern among conservatives who favor parental rights and fear government intrusion. At their prodding, states began adopting opt-out rules for most state standardized tests in the early and mid-1990s; California's was passed in 1995. Since then, a broader coalition has taken up the cause, including the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, which endorsed waivers at its 2001 convention. Many NEA members resent state-imposed tests and think they restrict their academic freedom and limit their ability to set curricula. Various antitesting groups promote opt-outs on their Web sites or have filed waiver legislation in other states, where students who miss tests must make them up or be considered truant.

Paul Warren, California deputy state superintendent for accountability, says waivers act as a valuable "pressure relief valve," saving schools from parents steamed up about testing.

Bush administration officials acknowledge the tension between their goal of universal testing and state opt-out provisions. Eugene Hickok, U.S. undersecretary of education, described waiver rules as a "potential challenge" to administration policy, and said "full participation" in testing "is in both the state's interest and the student's interest."

Nationwide, only an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 parents, mostly in California, excused their children from testing last year, largely because states and school districts don't publicize the option. But the relatively small numbers have a disproportionate impact because they are concentrated in certain schools.

Cost of Rising Opt-Out Rates

At Boulder High School in Boulder, Colo., the number of students excused by their parents from the state test increased to 24 last spring from five in 2001. Most belonged to a school activist group called Student Worker that has colorfully protested statewide testing with videos, posters, and imitation prison-inmate identification badges. For the purpose of rating Colorado schools, students who opt out are lumped in the "unsatisfactory" category, dragging down their school's score. Boulder High's ranking dropped from "excellent" to the next-best category, "high-performing." The high school also failed to qualify this year for $10,000 in state funding for improved scores, although the money might not have been available anyway, due to a state budget crisis.


About 20 states let parents excuse children from compulsory standardized tests used to assess schools and districts. Here are the estimated number of students excused in five of the states.

State Students
California 50,000
Michigan 1,700
Wisconsin 435
Pennsylvania 335

Note: California tests students in grades 2-11. Other states test fewer grades.

"When you feel so strongly, you have to act on it," says Max Holleran, a high-ranking Boulder High student who received a parental waiver. "If it hurts our school, so be it." His father, Michael Holleran, a professor at the University of Colorado, says he shares his son's reservations about testing.

Some schools have retaliated against teachers or students who promote waivers. When Christopher Hu, then a junior at Scripps Ranch High in San Diego, distributed a pamphlet to classmates in 2001 describing how parents could exempt them from the test, the school confiscated the fliers and threatened to discipline the straight-A student.

The school's reaction backfired. Parents excused 118 Scripps Ranch students, or 7.9% of those eligible, from the test that year, and the school's score dropped. After the American Civil Liberties Union intervened on Christopher's behalf -- seeking to strike any record of disciplinary action against him from his transcript -- school officials settled the case by agreeing to that as well as apologizing to him and pledging not to interfere with students handing out antitesting materials. Last spring, parental waivers at Scripps Ranch dropped to two -- and its score skyrocketed -- after the school conducted an intensive pro-testing lobbying campaign, including visits by the principal and assistant principals to each first-period classroom.

Until two years ago, California barred teachers from initiating conversations with parents about waivers. That restriction was eased when the state settled litigation with four school districts over testing students with limited English. Under the settlement, the state can't stop teachers from informing parents about the option, only from soliciting or encouraging parental waivers. Last spring, an elementary school teacher in San Jose was suspended for allegedly doing just that.

Carrots and Sticks

States have sought to expand test participation with both carrots and sticks, with mixed success. Michigan drove down parental waivers to 200 in 2000 from 7,000 in 1999 by offering a $2,500 college scholarship to all students who met or exceeded state standards on the test -- turned out to be almost half of the state's enrollment. Despite the incentive, the number of opt-outs rebounded in 2001 to 1,700; state officials couldn't explain the turnaround. Figures for 2002 are not available yet.

California offers a smaller perk: $1,000 to students scoring in the top 5% of the state's public schools or the top 10% of their high school. Several Rancho Bernardo students said the money was not much of a lure, because their parents could afford to pay for college. Still, Ryan Joynt did take the test, and earned a scholarship. Helping the state to evaluate schools is "almost a civic duty," says Ryan, a senior.

In California, students who opt out don't count in their school's score, which is based on an average of students' scores on a battery of tests. But if the school has too many opt-outs, it doesn't receive a score at all. In 2001, the California Board of Education adopted a policy invalidating the scores of schools with opt-out rates exceeding 20% -- or in some case between 10% and 20% -- on the grounds that the scores would be unreliable measures of the overall enrollment. Under this rule, 37 California schools did not receive an academic ranking last year, including Sir Francis Drake High in Marin County north of San Francisco.

Spurred by a former school-board member who opposes testing, Drake parents excused 37% of eligible students in 2001 and 29% in 2002. Drake administrators say the lack of a rating imperils the school's image and its chances for government and private grants. If a California school goes long enough without a score, it could also be taken over by the state for failure to show improvement, but the no-score policy hasn't be in effect long enough for that to happen.

"I certainly wonder how you can have a state accountability measure, and then permit parents to exclude their kids," says superintendent William Levinson. "It makes absolutely no sense to me."

Also without a ranking is Edison Elementary School in Santa Monica, Calif., a bilingual charter school where parents opted out 67 of 80 second-graders last spring from state testing, which covers grades 2-11. Since the school doesn't teach reading and writing in English until third grade, second-grade parents "feel it is a waste of their child's time and a little bit torturous for them to take a standardized English test," says teacher Elizabeth Ipina.

Last April, five school districts -- along with a charter school that didn't receive a score -- challenged the 2001 rule in state court in San Francisco. They contend they shouldn't be "denied the chance to have their schools' performance measured and compared with other like schools" nor "deprived of a multitude of state and federal funding opportunities" just because parents are exercising a legal right. The case is set for trial in March.

Pennsylvania parents used to exclude their children from testing without saying why. In 1999, deluged by opt-outs, the state narrowed the provision, requiring parents to cite a religious reason. Waivers declined in some districts, but not Karns City, a blue-collar town outside Pittsburgh where the school board opposed state testing as encroaching on local control. In 2001, the board wrote parents in the district, inviting them to object to their children's testing on religious grounds. About 65% of high-school juniors were excused.

Under state pressure, the board dropped the campaign last spring, and nearly all students were tested. But board member Tom Baughman, who had his son opt out in 2001, says he will urge parents to use a religious exemption again next year.

Murals and signs throughout the Rancho Bernardo campus proclaim its status as a California "distinguished" school and a federal "blue-ribbon" school -- prestigious designations that attract newcomers to the neighborhood and sustain housing prices. But administrators say Rancho Bernardo is likely to lose those honors because of declining test scores, which they attribute to rising opt-outs.

Since 1999, Rancho Bernardo's score has dropped to 773 from 803 on a 200-1000 scale. According to a study by Poway Unified School District, in which the school is located, Rancho Bernardo seniors whose parents excluded them from the test last spring -- such as Erin Binney -- have a higher grade point average, 2.89, than the district's overall GPA of 2.76.

Lori Brickley, a science teacher and former teacher-of-the-year in San Diego County, helped popularize waivers at Rancho Bernardo. Ms. Brickley, whose classroom walls are adorned with activist slogans, has twice opted out her daughter Briana, now a senior. She and other teachers in the area honed their antitesting sentiments while attending classes at California State University at San Marcos, a hotbed of progressive education.

In the spring of 2001, Jennifer May passed along Ms. Brickley's information to her parents. Her mother agreed to excuse her. Instead of sweating over the test, Jennifer slept late and spent one morning at a tanning salon. "We didn't give it a lot of thought," says her mother, Kristin May.

Ms. Brickley says she "caught a lot of heat" for alerting students. Guidance counselor Barbara Pruett says, "Some of us are opposed to teachers using instructional time to express philosophical objections to testing." The school considered altering transcripts sent to colleges to reflect a student's opting out, but was told by the district that it couldn't do so without parental permission.

Word of potential deliverance spread from Ms. Brickley's students to the rest of the high school, and thence to the district's two other high schools, Mt. Carmel and Poway. Since 2000, Mt. Carmel's score has dropped to 776 from 796, while waivers increased from two to 143, or 5.6% of the test population. Poway's score fell to 764 from 779 while parental opt-outs soared from six to 151, or 6.5%.

"The students who opt out of the test are the ones we want to take it," says Poway assistant principal Robert Gravina. He says Poway staff will call all parents who opt out their children for next spring's testing, stressing the test's importance and asking them to reconsider.

— Daniel Golden
More Kids Opt Out of Exams Used to Assess Schools
Wall Street Journal
Dec. 24, 2002


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