A multiple-choice score sheet.
National and local civil rights groups are divided on their support for the growing opt-out movement protesting standardized tests. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Civil Rights Groups Split Over Opting Out of Standardized Tests


Patrick Michels

A version of this story ran in the July 2015 issue.

Late last school year, as word spread in Houston that a growing number of parents planned to protest standardized testing by keeping their kids home on test day, the Houston Independent School District reached out with a not-so-friendly reminder. In a letter to parents, a district official noted that failure to show up on state test day would result in “negative consequences” such as a score of zero and mandatory summer school.

The letter was notable, first of all, because it wasn’t true; the district soon backtracked, calling the threats an editing error. But the greater truth behind the missive is how far the opt-out movement has come in such a short time. Three years ago, just a handful of Texas parents, frustrated by the way testing and test prep had come to dominate their children’s class time, were pulling their kids from test days as a sort of civil disobedience, to deprive schools of at least a few precious test scores. This year, the movement was large enough to compel a response from the district.

Much of that is thanks to a group called Community Voices for Public Education, which held meetings in homes around the city explaining parents’ rights. Ruth Kravetz, a former HISD administrator who co-founded the group, says she knew of one parent who opted out in 2014. She counted 80 parents doing so this year.

The opt-out movement has grown even faster outside the state, particularly in hotbeds of resistance to the national Common Core standards. Around 200,000 children opted out this year in New York. The growing movement’s most visible members — in the press and in positions of leadership — have been mostly white, middle- and upper-class parents; the opt-out trend has been criticized for sidelining the voices of poor black and Latino parents.

Against that backdrop, 12 national civil rights groups signed a letter in May opposing the opt-out movement and suggesting the language of civil rights had been “appropriated” wrongly by the anti-test crowd. “When parents ‘opt out’ of tests — even when out of protest for legitimate concerns — they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child,” they wrote.

But the letter reflects a split among civil rights groups — in some cases, even different chapters of the same group. The national NAACP signed the letter, for instance, even as its local chapter in Seattle was celebrating its massive opt-out drive. The national League of United Latin American Citizens signed the letter, too, putting it at odds with its largest state chapter, Texas.

The opt-out movement has grown even faster outside the state, particularly in hotbeds of resistance to the national Common Core standards.

“LULAC began in Texas, and Texas LULAC has consistently been against high-stakes testing,” says University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela. “The national organizations do not at all reflect the studied opinion of LULAC in our state.”

Valenzuela is a former education committee chair for the group’s Texas chapter and was also part of the Latino-led resistance to standardized testing in the 1990s, when the state first began denying high school diplomas to students for failing state tests. That policy prompted a lawsuit from Dr. Hector P. Garcia’s American GI Forum on behalf of poor students of color almost 20 years before affluent Anglo parents rallied state lawmakers to their cause.

Valenzuela’s own children opted out of tests in the early 2000s, and she knows of other Latino students who avoided the tests out of protest, without a large movement behind them, and graduated anyway. But challenging schools and facing threats from officials is a lot to ask of parents who may be poor or don’t speak English.

Anecdotally, opt-out activists say their growing movement is getting less white, but it will always be easier for affluent parents to take part.

Kravetz, who helped organize this year’s opt-out drive in Houston, says black or Latino parents account for about 70 percent of those she knows opted out this year. It’s “crazy talk,” she says, to call the testing in Houston’s schools today a civil right; she expects next year’s opt-out effort will draw even more working-class parents as more people realize it’s their best chance at change.

In June, Community Voices for Public Education joined dozens of civil rights and education groups in a letter highlighting the broad local support for opting out. “High-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish Black and Latino students, and recent immigrants to this country,” they wrote.

“Had you talked to me three years ago, I would’ve said there’s no way that opting out is something that can make things better. I would say we have to change minds and change laws. But at this point, it looks like they’re going to be over-testing our children until all our schools are closed,” Kravetz says. “You can’t operate like testing people is going to make them not be poor.”


Correction: This story has been corrected from an earlier version, which mistakenly cited the work of Loyola University Chicago researcher Amy Shuffelton as related to the testing “opt-out” movement; her recent article dealt with school privatization and women “opting out” of the workplace.