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The damage done by opt-outs

On the first day of the New York

On the first day of the New York State 2016 Common Core math test, many students at the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station opted out of taking the test, including this group of seventh graders who spent the time reading or doing homework on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Credit: John Paraskevas

A new survey from Teachers College at Columbia University brings some statistical scrutiny to the school-test boycott movement, which has roiled public debate on Long Island for nearly four years.

Two researchers questioned 1,641 opt-out families in 47 states for the report, “Who opts out and why?” They say it’s the first systematic survey of people in the opt-out movement, which has found its national epicenter on Long Island.

Researchers found that the typical activist is a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose household median income is well above the national average.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was widely reviled in November 2013 when he described test boycotters as “white suburban moms.” But it appears he was correct.

New Jersey’s education commissioner put a finer point on the problem, calling the opt-out movement “a suburban phenomenon that’s going to be counterproductive to helping disadvantaged kids.” That is also correct.

Mostly for selfish reasons, my suburban neighbors apparently are willing to punt a well-meaning improvement that will benefit the country in global competition — as well as poorly performing, largely minority schools in the United States. Test boycotters don’t want to admit that their kids need help in some areas, that their high-tax school district doesn’t get an A-plus, or that teachers should be evaluated in part based on the results in their classrooms.

The survey’s authors, who have expertise in the connections between education and social movements, found that 37 percent of test boycotters were very worried about the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, and 45 percent of respondents said they were in the education field in some capacity.

Public education in our country should give every child an equal opportunity to succeed. Yet, throughout the United States, the quality of public schools is closely linked to property taxes, the Teachers College researchers noted.

Consequently, children in poorer communities often don’t receive as high-quality schooling. In our society, and especially on racially segregated Long Island, that means that white and Asian students have better schools, in general, than black and Hispanic students.

Federally mandated annual assessments should unmask these disparities. That’s why leading civil rights organizations are strongly in favor of the tests. Grades given classroom by classroom are impossible to compare from one school district to another, never mind across state lines.

Opt-out activists told the Teachers College researchers that their refusal to participate in the testing is a proxy for larger conflicts around the direction of education policy. They said it’s an act of civil disobedience. Last year, 20 percent of students in New York and more than 50 percent of those on Long Island boycotted these math and English tests for kids in grades 3 through 8.

Civil disobedience should be undertaken on behalf of people who need help, not to solidify white privilege. I don’t believe that’s the intention of boycotters, but it’s ultimately the result.

As someone who cares about social justice, I can’t bear to witness how this movement is deepening our divides: well-off versus poor, white and Asian versus Hispanic and black.

If people want to opt out of public education, there are scores of private schools that follow “whole child” and other alternative philosophies. Test boycotters should opt into Waldorf or Montessori rather than disrupt a national effort to level public schooling.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.


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