Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25. opt-out movement
Houston parents launched an all-volunteer "Opt-Out Academy" for kids and parents in the anti-standardized testing movement. (Patrick Michels)

Parents Launch ‘Opt-Out Academy’ for STAAR Protesters


Patrick Michels

Update, May 11: Ruth Kravetz with Community Voices for Public Education says the group expects 500 parents, across 20 school districts, to opt out of at least one STAAR test this year, including the 80 sign-ups for their Opt Out Academy.

It’s been a fairly disastrous year for standardized testing in Texas. More than 14,000 students had their answers erased. Hundreds of students in Lewisville ISD — and possibly many more school districts — had their tests mistakenly scored too low. Test books were delivered to the wrong addresses; students’ scores from one school district were attributed to another; one question on the test didn’t have a correct answer — and no one was notified about it in advance.

In April, nearly 50 superintendents issued a letter to the state expressing frustration that “Texas would use a flawed testing system for such high stakes measures.” In a response, Education Commissioner Mike Morath replied that, while he too was upset, scores from the tests will still be used this year to decide which students graduate, which schools are highly rated, and in some places, how much teachers earn. “Absent evidence of further issues, we do not believe it prudent to make further adjustments to the current system,” he wrote.

If you’re a student or a parent living through this, you may be wondering what options you’ve got to register your disapproval. That’s where the Houston advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education (CVPE) comes in. Its members encourage parents and kids to simply “opt out” of the test.

Despite the innocuous-sounding name, the opt-out movement is built on a spirit of civil disobedience, meant to deprive states and school systems of the data they’ve come to rely upon, a signal that you refuse to participate in a broken system. Movement members say kids’ time is better spent learning than silently bubbling in test answers for hours. On test days, opt-out parents often suggest alternatives like a visit to a museum or a nature hike.

That’s not practical for most parents, of course, who work during the day and whose jobs may be only marginally more interesting to watch than a school on test day. So this year, CVPE is hosting “Opt Out Academies” for Houston’s young anti-test rebels who need a place to spend the day.

Claudia de Leon, a CVPE member whose son is in his third year of opting out, is helping to organize the academies at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in northwest Houston and Kindred Church in Montrose. On Monday afternoon, she said kids had been working with volunteers, mostly retired teachers, on writing personal narratives, along with some reading and math projects. De Leon added that the kids were getting “lots of recess, and they love it.”

“Recess is the ugly stepchild in school,” she said. “It’s always pushed aside. They’re always trying to do another worksheet or do more test prep. They’re children. They need to get out and run around.”

As the opt-out movement has grown in recent years, few school systems have developed official responses to the protesters. Even in New York, where one-fifth of the students opted out of exams based on Common Core standards in 2015, activists have said they’re frustrated with officials who won’t tell parents about their opt-out rights. The effect, they say, is that the movement remains more insular, skewed toward wealthy and white families.

In Houston, de Leon said, the movement reflects the city’s diversity. She guessed about 70 percent of the students this year were Hispanic, black or multiracial. But the numbers have been much smaller than in New York — about 80 opt-out parents signed up with the group for this week’s elementary STAAR exams, out of about 130,000 students in grades 3 through 8 in the district. De Leon said most parents still don’t know they can opt out of the tests.

Texas law prohibits parents from keeping their kids home on test days, but it doesn’t provide any particular penalty. Last fall, Houston ISD became probably the first district in the state — certainly the first large one — to adopt a policy on opt-outs, asking parents to register their intent to opt out in exchange for a guarantee that they “will not be subject to negative consequences or disciplinary action” for doing so. The district at least wanted a way to quantify its problem.

In practice, de Leon said Houston schools don’t publicize the possibility of opting out. She figures her son’s principal gave her the opt-out form only because of her history of opting out. “It’s actually kind of a secret policy,” de Leon said. (A district spokesperson said they should know next week how many opt-out forms were turned in this year.)

The HISD board balked at giving students a room to spend the test days if they wouldn’t take the test. As it is, any student who comes to school during test week can be offered the test, and if they refuse, will get a zero score. Only by avoiding school for the entire testing week can a student be marked “absent” for the test instead — which, unlike a “zero,” doesn’t penalize their school or their teacher.

“Recognizing that not that many parents would be able to keep their kids at home for that many days in a row, we saw the need for a safe place,” de Leon said. She hopes to attract more teachers and experts to help keep the academies going next year.

“It will have to be made possible by volunteers,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people out there who recognize the damage that high stakes testing is doing for our public schools and they’d be willing to volunteer.”