Insight

Opting Out of Tests Is an Act of Privilege

A noteworthy new report out of Teachers College explores who is part of the testing opt-out movement that has gained traction in some states.  It’s great data and well worth a read.  It caught our attention because we’ve been interested in how the families we support perceive testing, and have been struck by how rarely the amount or frequency of testing comes up as a concern for them.

The first thing you’re likely to notice is that opt-out parents are very, very different from public school parents nationally and even more different from parents with modest incomes who are most dependent on public schools to create economic opportunity.  If the report has a weakness, it’s how easily it glosses over these massive demographic gaps. For example:

  • The median household income of opt-out supporters is $125,000. The national median is about $53,000.  In New Orleans, where EdNavigator is focused, it’s $37,000.  So the typical opt out household has an income that is more than double what the typical family earns nationally and more than three times the New Orleans average.
  • About 85 percent of opt-out supporters hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree.  The national figure is closer to 30 percent. 
  • Over 90 percent of opt-out supporters are white.  Fewer than half of America’s public school students today are white. In New Orleans, only about 6 percent are.
  • About 45 percent of opt-out supporters earn their living in education.  Among non-parents who support opt-out, it’s a whopping 69 percent.  This may help explain why so many opt-out supporters are motivated not just by opposition to tests but to the use of tests for accountability; they might be the ones being held accountable. (The top two reasons opt-out supporters cited for their position were that they opposed using students’ test results to evaluate teachers and were concerned about teachers “teaching to the test”).

Taken together, you start to get the picture.  This is a narrow slice of the American population.  Opt-out supporters are much more affluent, much whiter, much better educated, and much more likely to work in the education field than folks who are not joining the opt-out movement. 

This is because opting out is, at its root, an act of privilege.  Families in upper income communities don’t feel that they need test results to hold their schools accountable.  They can do that already.  Their voices are heard.  They have the ability to raise objections, advocate, and get action.  They are overwhelmingly confident that the educational process is going to work out just fine for their children.

That is not to say that their concerns about testing should be disregarded; there are plenty of ways we could make testing less intrusive and more useful to schools and families. Let’s just remember: most families don’t live in the same reality as the families who are opting out.  Lower income families and families of color have been overlooked, shut out, and ignored for decades even as their children have received a substandard education.  Annual tests play a key role in drawing attention to problems and forcing districts and states to hold schools accountable for doing their jobs. For the families we support in New Orleans, they’re often a crucial source of insight.  

Tests have all sorts of problems – they certainly aren’t perfect indicators of everything we want schools to accomplish.  But there is reason for the limited appeal of the opt-out movement in working communities despite an onslaught of annual media coverage.  Tests help them keep the system honest.  Plus, so many families like ours have a hundred other concerns about school that take precedence; when you’re worried about making sure your child is going to graduate high school, you don’t have time to worry about the impact of testing on teacher accountability procedures.

There are parallels to the debate over school choice.  Many opponents of offering options to low income families have already exercised choice themselves.  Maybe they did so by purchasing a home in a coveted neighborhood, or by accessing selective admissions public schools.  Or by sending their children to private schools.  When you have the privilege to choose your school already, it’s easy to forget that others don’t have that choice.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think any family should be prevented from opting out if they feel strongly that they do not want their child to participate, for whatever reason. It’s not worth it. But as we strive to create a public education system that serves the needs of ALL families, not just the most vocal and privileged, we should be careful not to overreact to a group whose circumstances are far from typical.