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Why Did They Protest? Stability and Change in the Opt-Out Movement, 2016–2018


by Oren Pizmony-Levy & Nancy Green Saraisky - 2021

Background/context: One of the most prominent educational social movements in the United States during the past two decades has been the opt-out movement, in which parents and caregivers refuse to have their school-aged children sit for federally mandated tests. Although early responses by government officials framed the movement in terms of race, class, and gender, in truth we know little about the actual motivations that drive opt-out activists. We also know little about the extent to which the movement was affected by recent seismic changes in the political and policy spheres (e.g., the election of Donald J. Trump and the collapse of the Common Core State Standards).

Purpose/objective: In this study, we build on social movements theories to examine who was opting out and why, as well as whether these participants or their motivations changed over time. By doing so, we seek to build upon the existing literature by synthesizing the two primary theoretical perspectives on social movements and activism – uniting the focus on the social psychological determinants of individual activism with the focus on the role of external factors.

Research design: Our analysis is based on data from two waves of the National Survey on Opting Out. The first survey was conducted from January 20 to March 31, 2016 (n=1,611); the second was conducted from March 7 to May 18, 2018 (n=1,298). The National Survey asked respondents to indicate the main reasons or motivations for their participation in the movement. With these data we use descriptive statistics and multivariate analysis to examine the extent to which participant motivations changed between 2016 and 2018. As part of this process we also examine the association between sociodemographic backgrounds and motivations.

Findings/results: The results of our analysis show both stability and change in the opt-out movement between 2016 and 2018. Although the data reveal certain sociodemographic changes in the composition of the movement, these changes in demographics do not fully account for shifts in activist motivations over time. We also find that much of the variation in motivation across key social categories (e.g., political ideology, teachers/nonteachers, and parents/nonparents) holds over time.

Conclusions/discussion: In contrast to common perceptions of the opt-out movement, which often portray parental concerns over their child’s achievement as the predominant motivation for participation, our study reveals that activists in the movement indicate they are motivated by political and ethical ideas. Participants in the opt-out movement are more concerned with collective problems, such as the well-being of teachers, broad curriculum, and privatization of public education, than with individual challenges. Given the massive changes that took place in the political and policy spheres during our period of study, the degree to which activist motivation stayed constant is notable – suggesting that many of these motivations are insulated from politics.

INTRODUCTION


During the past several decades, protest activities have become an increasingly common form of political action in the United States and abroad (e.g., Dodson, 2015; Meyer & Tarrow, 1998; Norris, 2002; Snow et al., 2004). In addition to more institutionalized forms of political participation such as voting, individuals are now engaging with more contentious forms of participation such as protests and boycotts as means to challenge or defend authority. This uptick in highly engaged activity has spread to the realm of education, too, where in the United States a considerable number of notable protests have recently occurred including teacher strikes, #RedforEd demonstrations, and a sustained public outcry against the nomination of a controversial Secretary of Education. Indeed, a recent national survey found that one third of American adults say they have engaged in at least one type of education activism in the past year (Pizmony-Levy et al., 2018).


One prominent educational social movement of this time has been the opt-out movement, in which protesting parents and caregivers refuse to have their school-aged children sit for federally mandated tests (required on an annual basis for students in grades 3–8). Although reports began surfacing in the early 2000s of students in select affluent communities boycotting standardized tests (Zernike, 2001), the opt-out movement did not gain truly national prominence until 2013 – when then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously dismissed the backlash against the Common Core-aligned standardized assessments as some “white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were” (Strauss, 2013). With these words, Secretary Duncan effectively framed the opt-out movement in terms of race, class, and gender – portraying the “soccer mom” demographic as irrational and driven by frustration. Yet despite this broad, sweeping statement, there was in fact almost no research available at the time to answer the critical questions of who was actually opting out and why. Nonetheless, Duncan’s comments played a central role in bringing the previously underground backlash against federally required testing into mainstream public discourse. They also helped to legitimize and perhaps motivate participation in the opt-out movement itself. Subsequent media coverage and participation in the movement grew, with states reporting increased opt-out rates (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017; Strauss, 2016).


Opt-out mobilization peaked nationally in 2015/2016. Since then, at least some of the steam has gone out of the movement. Notably, around the same time, the political context of education politics in the United States shifted dramatically with the election of President Donald J. Trump in 2016 and the subsequent explosion of “Resistance” movement protests across multiple issue areas (Fisher, 2019). Given that movements are never divorced from the social and political contexts in which they occur, the period from 2016 to 2018 can be considered a key window for analyzing the opt-out movement. Against this backdrop, we explore patterns of stability and change in the opt-out movement. In the context of such political upheaval, were new participants motivated to join the opt-out movement? Did the changing political context affect the movement? If so, how?


To answer these and other related questions, this study seeks to synthesize social movements theories in order to better determine who was opting out and why, as well as whether participants or their motivations changed over time. Existing literature on social movements generally examines activism in two ways: either focused on the social psychological determinants of individual activism (Klandermans, 2004; Van Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2013) or on the role of context (i.e., outside factors that enhance or inhibit movement mobilization and success) (Kreisi, 2004; McAdam, 1982; Meyer & Minkoff, 2004). To our knowledge, limited research currently exists linking these two perspectives to explore changes in activist motivations over time.


This article therefore links these two approaches to explore changes in the opt-out movement between 2016 and 2018. Using data from two national surveys of opt-out activists, we examine activists’ reasons for participating in the movement and how and why those reasons changed over time. In doing so, we aim to not only shed light on the specific motivations driving activists to opt their children out of required standardized testing, but also to better understand the degree to which various internal and external factors affected changes in motivation. Specifically, we ask:


RQ #1: How did activists’ motivations for participating in the opt-out movement change between 2016 and 2018?


RQ #2: To what extent were changes in motivation attributable to sociodemographic changes within the movement?


RQ #3: To what extent did motivations for participation in the opt-out movement vary across key demographic variables?


Our results show both stability and change in the opt-out movement between 2016 and 2018. Although the data show certain sociodemographic changes in the composition of the movement, these changes in demographics do not fully account for shifts in activist motivation over time. We find that much of the variation in motivation across key social categories (e.g., political ideology, teachers/nonteachers, and parents/nonparents) holds over time. Given the massive changes that took place in the political and policy spheres during our period of study, the degree to which activist motivation stays constant is notable suggesting that many of these motivations are insulated from politics.


We begin with a brief discussion of social movements theory and the ways in which scholars have discussed activist motivations and the role of social and political contexts in shaping movement mobilization and success. In doing so, we also review past research on the social base of the opt-out movement and motivations for engagement in the movement. Next, we describe our data – how we collected data from activists and how we developed the survey instrument. We then present the results of our analysis, showing basic raw observational differences between 2016 and 2018, and evidence that many of these differences hold even after the inclusion of sociodemographic variables. We discuss these patterns of stability and change in the context of education policy and politics, and conclude with suggestions for future research on the opt-out movement.


SOCIAL MOVEMENTS THEORY


Various scholars offer different definitions for the term “social movements” (for a comprehensive review see Snow et al., 2004). For the purpose of this study, we use Snow’s (2004) definition of social movements: “collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part” (p. 11). We use this conceptualization of the term because it recognizes that social movements target various centers of power and domination including the state, other social institutions, corporations, and culture (Armstrong & Bernstein, 2008). Indeed, studies of social movements in the education realm have concentrated on challenges to the official curricula (Binder, 2002; Davies, 1999; Pizmony-Levy, 2011), cocurricular programs and school climate (Fetner & Kush, 2008; Miceli, 2005), and knowledge production in higher education institutions (Rojas, 2010).


We situate this study of the opt-out movement within the broad corpus of social movement research as follows. The movement is an example of an alliance of parents and teachers protesting a specific educational practice (annual mathematics and English language arts standardized tests for students in grades 3–8) primarily by mobilizing families to boycott federally mandated tests. It operates across the country in different communities with activists organizing themselves through networks of social media groups that function at the local, state, and national level (Green Saraisky & Pizmony-Levy, 2020). It also brings together relatively diverse individuals and organizations that possess disparate ideologies (e.g., liberals and conservatives), a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “strange bedfellow alliances” (Whittier, 2014). And while activists share the common tactic of opting children out of annual standardized tests, they join the opt-out movement for different reasons.


The recent surge in protest activities raises questions about individual-level rationales and justifications for activism in social movements. A review of the existing literature points to an interesting gulf between North American and European scholars regarding the question of motivations (Armstrong & Bernstein, 2008). In the 1970s, in response to approaches that tended to picture activism as irrational, North American scholars emphasized that activism is as rational or irrational as any other behavior (McCarthy & Zald, 1977; Tilly, 1978). As a result, these scholars treated motivations as if they were taken-for-granted (Walder, 2009). By contrast, European scholars tended to intentionally focus on motivations behind social movement participation (Crossley, 2002; Eyerman & Jamison, 1991; Melucci, 1985; Touraine, 1981). Klandermans and his associates, for example, demonstrated the importance of collective motives – rather than individual or selective incentives – in driving an individual’s willingness to participate in activism (Klandermans, 1984; Klandermans & Oegema, 1987; Van Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2017).


More recently, however, North American scholars have begun to recognize the benefits in studying activist motivations, resulting in a corresponding growth in the literature (e.g., Fisher et al., 2017; Gose & Skocpol, 2019). A study of the 2017 Women’s March, for example, examined participants’ reasons for attending the event (Fisher et al., 2017). Fisher et al. found that participants in the event were not solely motivated by issues related to women, but were also motivated by a diverse set of issues including equality, environment, social welfare, racial justice, and LGBTQ rights. Critically, participants were often motivated by issues related to their social identities. Similarly, in this study we expect to find that participants’ sociodemographic characteristics will be associated with specific motivations for opt-out activism.


As part of our analysis, we also examine whether motivations for opt-out activism change over time in relation to shifts in larger societal contexts – including politics, policy, culture, and opportunity (Kriesi, 2004). Existing scholarship offers at least two approaches to the study of social contexts. The first approach focuses on differences between places, namely nation-states and subnational locations (McAdam et al., 1996). Under this approach, Dodson (2015, 2016) found that national characteristics, such as the extent of political globalization, matter for overall activism and participation by specific sociodemographic groups. By contrast, the second approach focuses on changes over time. In her study of movements advocating for family, medical, and sick leave policy agendas in California, Engeman (2018) found that state fiscal capacity shapes social movement strategies and outcomes. In line with this thinking and the extent of changes in the United States between 2016 and 2018, we expect to find that motivations behind opt-out activism will change over time. Additionally, given that changes in the social context might affect the mobilization of different groups, we also evaluate trends in motivations as part of this study while controlling for changes in the sociodemographic composition of the sample.


PRIOR OPT-OUT MOVEMENT RESEARCH


Although fast-moving contemporary events can be challenging for scholars to conceptualize and measure, studies of the opt-out movement appeared very quickly, with early work on the movement benefiting from the availability of county-level records on participation rates in statewide tests. For instance, Chingos (2015) found that opt-out rates in New York were associated with socioeconomic status and student achievement. Wang (2017) also examined data from New York (the state with the consistently highest opt-out rates) and found that the opt-out coalition includes not only parents and teachers but also advocacy groups and organizations (working on a range of public education issues). A study focusing on New Jersey highlighted the state’s organizational network and found that three politically liberal parent-led groups collaborated to mobilize opposition to the PARCC test (the Common Core-aligned assessment adopted by New Jersey to fulfill its federally mandated test requirements) (Supovitz et al., 2016). Interestingly, the study also found these groups collaborated across ideological lines with conservative groups to support antitesting policy and legislation.


Early research also examined the mobilization structure of the opt-out movement, with a particular emphasis on the role of the movement’s largest national organization, United Opt Out. Johnson and Slekar (2014), two educators and activists involved in the leadership of United Opt Out, described the organization as a “warehouse of information and advocacy” (p. 24). Mitra et al. (2016) characterized United Opt Out’s website as an important source of public discourse regarding strategies for grassroots action (p. 12). Kirylo’s (2018) personal account of opting his sons out of required standardized testing cites strategies from United Opt Out and other antitesting organizations as helpful mobilization tools for parents. Stitzlein (2015) also highlights the role of parents as “good dissenters,” engaging in collective action against mandated testing (p. 59).


CONTEXT FOR THE OPT-OUT MOVEMENT


As with any social movement, the opt-out movement did not – and does not – occur in a vacuum. It is embedded in the social, political, and cultural contexts of its time. In turn, this implicit notion of context necessarily encompasses the idea that the opt-out movement can be affected by external factors. Therefore, though it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an exhaustive review of all the various contextual developments that could have affected activist motivation in the opt-out movement between 2016 and 2018, we discuss a few of the most notable factors below. These include external changes in educational policy and politics, as well as internal changes that occurred within the movement.


EXTERNAL CHANGES: POLICY


Though many state and federal policy changes may have influenced the opt-out movement, we highlight the development of the Common Core State Standards and the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act as two major policy initiatives that may have impacted the movement.


Common Core State Standards and test consortia. Many factors may have contributed to activists’ increased focus on standardized testing, but at least one of them was the introduction of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). By 2011, as reported by Jochim and McGuinn (2016), 45 states and the District of Columbia signed on to use the new standards and their aligned assessments. At the same time, many states and districts began imposing new negative consequences on teachers, principals, and schools whose students did not demonstrate increased levels of achievement. In some states, CCSS-aligned assessments were introduced alongside new teacher evaluation systems that required the use of student performance data from the new test when evaluating teacher performance to determine teacher pay (Jochim & McGuinn, 2016). The backlash to these changes was swift and significant. By 2014, only half of the initial states were still on board. The number of states continued to drop as time passed, leaving only 16 states participating in the CCSS by 2019. As one observer noted, the “testing revolution sparked by the Common Core has all but evaporated in less than a decade, with only one-third of the states still using the federally funded assessments designed to measures those standards” (Gewertz, 2019).


Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. In late 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law. Representing a major shift away from federal oversight in education, ESSA eliminated requirements for teacher and principal evaluations to be linked to student test scores. The law also curbed the use of value-added models (VAM), which had been contentiously implemented in 44 states as a measure of teacher accountability. The passage of ESSA helped to quell the public outcry against VAM measures, which had been called into question due to issues of validity, reliability, and fairness (Amrein-Beardsley et al., 2016; Close et al., 2018).


Yet while ESSA offered far greater flexibility to the states and districts, it still required states to meet a 95% participation threshold for federally mandated standardized testing (Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015). In December 2015, the U.S. Department of Education sent letters to 12 state departments of education warning that low participation rates were a violation of federal law that would put schools at risk of losing Title I funding. (Title I grants provide funding to schools that serve low-income students.) These letters, which came after many states saw a dramatic increase in the percentage of students opting out, were seen as a direct effort to stem interest in the movement (in New York, for example, 20% of students had opted out). Nonetheless, federal guidance left it to the states to determine the mechanisms by which opt-out participation would be monitored and addressed.


EXTERNAL CHANGES: POLITICS


The two primary shifts in educational politics that occurred between 2016 and 2018 were the election of Donald J. Trump (and the subsequent Resistance) and the changing views within the civil rights community of standardized testing.


Trump and the Resistance. The end of the Obama presidency and the election of Donald J. Trump signaled a dramatic shift in United States politics. Across the political spectrum there was shock and disbelief that Trump had won. This disbelief quickly turned to distrust, fostering protests and defiance. The contentiousness of Trump’s election was embodied in the visceral reaction to his appointment of Elisabeth DeVos as Secretary of Education. Public outcry was vehement and swift. So many people called their state representatives voicing their opposition that the congressional switchboards shut down. For the first time in history, the Vice President had to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate in order for the confirmation to go through (Huetteman & Alcindor, 2017). The backlash against DeVos showed a newfound divisiveness in education politics and served as a step in the development of a larger anti-Trump movement known as “the Resistance” (a set of social movement activities and orientations protesting Trump’s presidency, rhetoric, and policies; Fisher, 2019).


Swinging pendulum of politics of testing within the civil rights community. As debate took place in the early- and mid-2010s around the reauthorization of the country’s main K–12 education law, civil rights groups were skeptical of annual standardized testing and urged that the reauthorization drop federal requirements for annual testing of students in grades 3–8. In 2012, as part of an effort by education advocates to push for a reexamination of school accountability measures, a coalition of civil rights and education advocacy organizations called for the removal of high-stakes testing requirements and the use of standardized test scores in evaluations of teachers and school leaders (as required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001). Nonetheless, the ESSA ultimately did include the annual testing requirements, and by mid-2015 a dozen civil rights groups released a statement in support of standardized testing. In doing so, they argued that “we cannot fix what we cannot measure,” claiming that “data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes” (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, 2015). Then, in 2018, the fluid politics of the issue continued to shift when the NAACP came out in opposition to the use of high-stakes testing as part of measuring student achievement (Vasquez Heilig, 2018).


INTERNAL CHANGES


Changes in the structure and leadership of United Opt Out. Registered as a nonprofit organization in 2011, United Opt Out was founded to “end the practice of punitive, high-stakes testing… that are fraudulently being used as ‘proof’ of the incompetence of public education/teachers” (United Opt Out, n.d.). The group, which ultimately became the largest national opt-out social movement organization, quickly developed into a national network of state chapters. To promote the practice of opting students out of standardized tests, the organization shared information, provided guidance and support to parents, and coordinated media and political advocacy outreach. The network also organized national conferences on opt-out in 2015 and 2016. After 2016, however, United Opt Out’s leadership began to change, with many of the original administrators stepping out of leadership positions. Although data on state and national membership in the United Opt Out network are not publicly available, the vitality of the network seems to have slowed considerably. National conferences ceased to be organized after 2016 and the website no longer appears to be actively maintained. The importance of social movements organizations (SMOs) is well documented in the literature (for a review, see Armstrong & Bartley, 2007), but education poses an interesting case since education politics are highly localized and decentralized. It is therefore unclear what the effect of a weakened national SMO over time would be on the motivations of participants in the movement.


DATA AND METHODS


Our analysis is based on data from the National Survey on Opting Out, an original survey program developed by the authors to explore the politics and mobilization of the opt-out movement. Through the survey we sought to better understand why and how people became involved in the movement, as well as activist perspectives on education policy and reform. In this study we present data from two waves of surveys. The first survey was conducted from January 20 to March 31, 2016 (n=1,611). The second was conducted from March 7 to May 18, 2018 (n=1,298).


Similar to previous research on social movement activism, we drew a nonprobability sample of individuals affiliated with the opt-out movement. To minimize sampling bias, we constructed a list of national, state, and local groups that maintain social media channels. After receiving permission from the various group administrators, we shared links to the online surveys through the groups and their social media platforms. This included posting links to the survey on Facebook and Twitter. In addition, we shared surveys with colleagues and other individuals who are/were active in the movement. To expand the reach of the survey, messages about the survey included hashtags such as #optout, #optout2016, and #optout2018.


The survey instrument was designed as a web-based, self-administered questionnaire. Because there was limited research on the opt-out movement, we drew on a range of sources to inform the instrument, including scholarly research, media coverage, materials produced by individuals and organizations affiliated with the movement, and consultations with key individuals. We also conducted semistructured interviews with United Opt Out National administrators and with activists in New York. These interviews informed the development of survey items about the movement. Some items were taken directly from existing public opinion surveys (e.g., Phi Delta Kappa [PDK] Poll) that had previously asked respondents about standardized assessment and/or opting out. The final survey probed three broad areas. The first section gathered data on participant engagement with the opt-out movement (e.g., reasons for participation and modes of activism). The second section focused on attitudes toward education policy reform and the use of testing and assessment in education. The third section gathered sociodemographic data.


DEPENDENT VARIABLE


After questions about engagement with opt-out activism (e.g., opting out and other forms of protest), the survey asked respondents to indicate their reasons for participating in opt-out related activities. We used a two-step approach to help respondents identify their most important reasons. Respondents were first presented with a list of 16 reasons (including “other reason” with an option for open-ended text) and asked to mark up to five. From those initially selected reasons, respondents were then asked to mark their main two reasons. For the purpose of this article, we focus on nine reasons that were endorsed by at least 2.0% of the sample. Each reason is represented as a binary variable: coded 1 for yes, and 0 for no.


INDEPENDENT VARIABLES


In analyzing changes over time, we focus on the differences in responses between the two waves of the National Survey on Opting Out. The variable time is a binary variable, coded 1 for 2018, and 0 for 2016. These two points in time represent different contexts for the opt-out movement. In 2016 the political context includes President Obama (Democrat) and Secretary of Education John King. The political context in 2018 includes President Trump (Republican) and Secretary of Education DeVos. Between these two points in time, the opt-out movement also experienced a large transformation in the leadership and orientation of United Opt Out.


As part of this study, we additionally control for a series of sociodemographic characteristics that prior research has found to be correlated with activism and respondent views towards K–12 schooling. The following characteristics are included in all multivariate models: gender, race/ethnicity, age, parental status, education, income, employment status, teaching profession, and region of residence. Given the political nature of the opt-out movement, we also include political party identification.


ANALYTICAL STRATEGY


We used logistic regression to examine variations in reasons for participation in opt-out activism. For each reason, we estimated two models. The first model included only the time variable, while the second model introduced sociodemographic characteristics. We also estimated a series of models in which we included interactions among time and three key sociodemographic characteristics: teaching profession, parental status, and political party identification. We added these interaction terms in separate blocks to prevent complex covariance structures.


RESULTS


Using data from two national surveys of opt-out activists from 2016 and 2018, we address four related issues regarding activist motivations and sociodemographic factors. First, we examine changes in the sociodemographic composition of the movement (as reflected in our surveys). Second, we document how activist motivations for participation changed between 2016 and 2018. Third, we estimate multivariate models to explore whether changes in motivations are associated with changes in the sociodemographic composition of the sample. Fourth, we assess whether changes in motivations are consistent across sociodemographic groups.


We begin the discussion of our findings by comparing the sociodemographic characteristics of opt-out activists as reflected in our 2016 and 2018 samples given that differences in their composition could drive changes in the dominant reasons for engagement in opt-out activism. As illustrated in Table 1, a few notable sociodemographic differences exist between the two samples. For example, the 2018 sample includes fewer respondents from the Northeast region (49.6% vs. 44.2%) and more respondents from other regions such as the Midwest. It also includes more respondents with graduate degrees than the 2016 sample (57.5% vs. 62.9%), as well as more respondents who identify as liberals (52.2% vs. 58.9%). Despite this, however, there is no significant difference with respect to political party identification.1 Of note, the representation of two key groups decreased over time: teachers (from 49.7% to 41.1%) and parents (from 82.3% to 78.1%).


Table 1. Sociodemographic Characteristics of Samples, by Year

 

Sample:

2016

Sample:
2018

Statistical
test

Age (Mean/SD)

47.00

(.19)

48.26

(.25)

***

Women

88.1

86.2

 
    

Race/ethnicity

   

American Indian/Alaska Native

1.2

1.4

 

Asian

1.3

1.4

 

Black/African American

1.9

2.3

 

Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin

4.7

4.7

 

Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

.1

n/a

 

White/Caucasian

92.6

91.6

 

Other

2.4

1.6

 
    

Educational attainment

  

*

Less than high school

2.1

2.0

 

High school

5.4

3.6

 

Associate/community college/nursing degree

6.7

6.5

 

Some college but no degree

28.4

25.0

 

Bachelor’s degree

28.4

25.0

 

Graduate degree

57.5

62.9

 
    

Marital status

   

Married / living with a partner

86.0

84.6

 

Widowed

1.1

1.2

 

Divorced

7.2

7.8

 

Separated

1.1

1.3

 

Never married

4.5

5.1

 
    

LGBT

4.1

4.4

 
    

Parent status

82.3

78.1

**

    

Teacher/educator status

49.7

41.1

***

    

Employed

77.1

79.6

 
    

Region

  

***

Midwest

12.2

17.4

 

Northeast

49.6

44.2

 

South

19.8

21.9

 

West

18.4

16.5

 
    

Religiosity (Mean/SD)

2.90

(.03)

2.97

(.03)

*

    

Political ideology

   

Liberal

52.2

58.9

**

Middle of the road

30.4

26.2

 

Conservative

17.3

14.9

 
    

Party identification

   

Democrat

47.3

49.5

 

Republican

15.0

12.9

 

Independent

32.6

33.1

 

Other

5.1

4.5

 
    

First time hearing about opting out

   

Within the past year

6.8

4.2

***

1–2 years ago

42.2

11.4

 

3–4 years ago

39.8

43.2

 

5 years ago or before

11.2

41.3

 


Note: *** p < .001, ** p < .01, * p < .05



Next, we address our first research question: How did activists’ motivations for participating in the opt-out movement change between 2016 and 2018? In doing so we examine the responses to the survey question in which respondents were asked to indicate up to two main reasons for participating in activities related to the opt-out movement. Table 2 displays the percentage of respondents in the 2016 and 2018 surveys who indicated each statement as the main reason for engaging with the movement. The statements are sorted in descending order according to response patterns in the 2016 survey.


Table 2. Main Reasons for Participating in Opt-Out Related Activities, by Year

 

Sample:

2016

Sample:
2018

Statistical
test

I oppose using standardized tests to evaluate teachers

36.3

32.1

**

Standardized tests force teachers to teach to the test

33.3

32.8

 

I oppose the growing role of corporations in schools

29.6

22.8

***

Standardized tests take away too much instructional time

26.0

30.6

**

I oppose the Common Core State Standards

25.3

15.8

***

I oppose the privatization of schools

15.6

20.0

***

I oppose the growing role of the federal government in schools

8.5

4.2

***

Standardized tests are unfair for racial/ethnic minorities

7.5

12.4

***

To disrupt the usage of standardized tests

2.6

4.0

*

My children don’t do well on standardized tests

1.8

2.4

 

My children complained about standardized tests

1.6

1.0

 

To raise awareness about public education

1.3

.5

*

To demonstrate the power of nonviolence for social change

.7

.5

 

My children asked if they could opt out from standardized tests

.1

.1

 

To gain knowledge on educational issues

.0

.1

 


Note: *** p < .001, ** p < .01, * p < .05


Interestingly, in contrast to the public portrayal of opt-out activists, which often paints parental concerns over their child’s achievement as the predominant motivation for participation, the most common reasons provided by respondents were social/political (rather than personal). One third of respondents in the 2016 survey engaged with the movement because they either opposed the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers (36.3%) or were critical of the perceived negative impact of tests on the curriculum (33.3%). Other common reasons for participation included opposition to the growing role of corporations in schools (29.6%), the perceived impact of tests on instructional time (26.0%), and general opposition to the CCSS (25.3%). Only a very small percentage of respondents mentioned their children as the main reason for their engagement with the movement (1.8% selected “my children do not do well on standardized tests”; 1.6% selected “my children complained about standardized tests”).


A comparison across time suggests that, on average, opt-out activists changed their reasons for participation between 2016 and 2018. We find a notable and statistically significant (as confirmed by Chi-square test) decrease in the percentage of respondents who engaged with the opt-out movement for the following four reasons: “I oppose using standardized tests to evaluate teachers” (36.3% vs. 32.1%), “I oppose the growing role of corporations in schools” (29.6% vs. 22.8%), “I oppose the Common Core State Standards” (25.3% vs. 15.8%), and “I oppose the growing role of the federal government in schools” (8.5% vs. 4.2%). We also find a notable and statistically significant increase in the percentage of respondents who engaged with the opt-out movement for the following three reasons: “Standardized tests take away too much instructional time” (26.0% vs. 30.6%), “I oppose the privatization of schools” (15.6% vs. 20.0%), and “Standardized tests are unfair for racial/ethnic minorities” (7.5% vs. 12.4%). In both years, one third of respondents indicated that they engaged with the movement because “Standardized tests force teachers to teach to the test” (33.3% in 2016; 32.8% in 2018).


We now turn to the second research question that guides this study: To what extent were changes in motivation attributable to sociodemographic changes within the movement? In answering this question, we estimate logistic regression models for the top nine reasons for participating in activities related to the opt-out movement. The first model includes the time/year variable, and the second model adjusts for additional sociodemographic variables. Space constraints preclude us from displaying the full regression models for each motivation (available from the authors by request). Given this constraint, Table 3 instead reports the coefficients for time/year (2018 vs. 2016) and the percentage change in the size of coefficients from the models without any controls.


Table 3. Summary of Logistic Regression Models Predicting Reasons for Participating in Opt-Out Related Activities

Reasons for participating in activities

Model 1


Time coefficient

(without controls)

Model 2


Time coefficient

(with controls)

% reduction in coefficient

I oppose using standardized tests to evaluate teachers

-.19*

-.13

33.4

Standardized tests force teachers to teach to the test

-.02

-.07

241.2

I oppose the growing role of corporations in schools

-.35***

-.35***

.7

Standardized tests take away too much instructional time

.23**

.21*

7.4

I oppose the Common Core State Standards

-.59***

-.55***

6.4

I oppose the privatization of schools

.30***

.21*

31.0

I oppose the growing role of the federal government in schools

-.74***

-.63***

14.6

Standardized tests are unfair for racial/ethnic minorities

.56***

.51***

9.0

To disrupt the usage of standardized tests

.44*

.34

23.8


Note: Variables in left-hand side column serve as dependent variable. Coefficients reflect impact of being part of the 2018 sample relative to being a member of 2016 sample. Model 1 includes no controls. Model 2 includes controls for gender, race, education, household income, employment status, teacher, parent, region, and political ideology.


*** p < .001, ** p < .01, * p < .05


A quick glance at Model 1 in Table 3 confirms the patterns described above. A negative and statistically significant coefficient indicates that compared to 2016, respondents in 2018 were less likely to engage with the opt-out movement because of any given reason. A positive and statistically significant coefficient indicates that compared to 2016, respondents in 2018 were more likely to engage with the opt-out movement because of any given reason.


Notably, we see the aforementioned changes in the reasons for opt-out activism (Table 2) are not simply a byproduct of the sociodemographic characteristics of the two samples. Model 2 in Table 3 introduces an expansive set of sociodemographic controls. In six out of eight reasons, the time coefficient remains a significant predictor even after we adjust for different controls. Thus, other, unmeasured differences might exist among the samples due to changes in the movement as a result of external changes or internal transformations. There are, however, substantial reductions in the size of the time coefficient. For example, we find a reduction of one-third in the size of the time coefficient in both “I oppose using standardized tests to evaluate teachers” (33.4%) and “I oppose the privatization of schools” (31.0%).


So far, we have established that reasons for engagement with the opt-out movement changed between 2016 and 2018, and that shifts in the sociodemographic composition of the two samples do not account for these changes. As the final part of this analysis, we turn now to address our third research question: To what extent did motivations for participation in the opt-out movement vary across key demographic variables? In doing so we examine the extent to which specific characteristics, such as parental status, teacher/educator status, and political ideology, are associated with different reasons for engagement. Once again, we draw on logistic regression models for the top nine reasons for participating in activities related to the opt-out movement. For a more concrete interpretation of the results, Figures 1, 2, and 3 contain predicted probabilities based on the full model (i.e., the model with controls). We also examine whether the aforementioned associations between the specific characteristics and the reasons for engagement changed over time. To do so, we estimate logistic regression models with interaction terms between time/year and parental status, occupation, and political ideology. Table 4 presents a summary of the patterns (full tables are available from the authors by request). Notably, as seen in Table 4, only 4 out of 21 interaction terms are statistically significant (19.0%). Thus, in most cases the associations between the specific characteristics and the reasons for engagement did not change over time.


Figure 1. Predicted probabilities of reasons for participating in opt-out related activities (2016 and 2018 combined), by parent status


[39_23611.htm_g/00002.jpg]

Figure 2. Predicted probabilities of reasons for participating in opt-out related activities (2016 and 2018 combined), by teacher/educator status


[39_23611.htm_g/00004.jpg]

Figure 3. Predicted probabilities of reasons for participating in opt-out related activities (2016 and 2018 combined), by political ideology

[39_23611.htm_g/00006.jpg]


Table 4. Summary of Logistic Regression Models Predicting Reasons for Participating in Opt-Out Related Activities

Reasons for participating in activities

Interaction term:

Time x

Parent status

Interaction term:

Time x

Teacher

Interaction term:

Time x

Political ideology

I oppose the Common Core State Standards

ns

ns

YES

I oppose the growing role of corporations in schools

ns

ns

ns

I oppose the growing role of the federal government in schools

YES

YES

ns

I oppose the privatization of schools

ns

ns

ns

I oppose using standardized tests to evaluate teachers

ns

ns

ns

Standardized tests are unfair for racial/ethnic minorities

ns

ns

ns

Standardized tests force teachers to teach to the test

ns

ns

ns

Standardized tests take away too much instructional time

ns

YES

ns

To disrupt the usage of standardized tests

ns

ns

ns

Total number of significant interaction terms

1

2

1


Overall, we find little difference between respondents who have school-aged children and other respondents with respect to the reasons provided for activism (Figure 1). Parents are more likely than others to engage with the movement because they view standardized tests as taking away too much instructional time (probability of .34 vs. .28), and less likely than others to engage with the movement because they oppose the privatization of schools (probability of .16 vs. .21). Although in 2018 fewer parents linked their activism to their opposition of the growing role of the federal government in schools (.04 probability in 2018; .09 probability in 2016), at the same time more nonparents linked their activism to this sentiment (.06 probability in 2018; .03 probability in 2016).


Differences in motivations based on occupation were more common (Figure 2). Teachers were more likely than others to engage with the movement because they opposed using standardized tests to evaluate teachers (probability of .42 vs. .27). Interestingly, teachers were less likely than others to engage with the movement because they viewed standardized tests as taking away too much instructional time (probability of .29 vs. .37). Our interaction analysis, however, suggests that more teachers endorsed the “instructional time” argument in 2018 than in 2016 (probability of .32 and .23, respectively). This analysis also shows that in 2018 fewer nonteachers linked their activism to their views of the growing role of the federal government in schools in 2018 (probability of .04) than in 2016 (probability of .09). With respect to this association, we find no meaningful change between the years among teachers.


Finally, we find that political ideology is closely linked to the reasons for engagement with the opt-out movement (Figure 3, above). Respondents who identified as liberal were more likely than others to engage with the movement because they opposed the growing role of corporations in schools, the privatization of schools, and the use of tests to evaluate teachers. Such respondents were also more likely to view standardized tests as unfair for racial/ethnic minorities. By contrast, respondents who identified as conservative were more likely than others to engage with the movement because they opposed the CCSS and the growing role of the federal government in schools. Along these lines, fewer respondents in 2018 mentioned opposition to the Common Core as a motiving factor – but our interaction analysis shows that this drop is more pronounced among liberals than conservatives (for liberals the probability was .09 in 2018 and .18 in 2016; for conservatives it was .33 and .44, respectively).


DISCUSSION


Standardized testing is a cornerstone of contemporary federal and state education policy in the United States. For nearly two decades, federal legislation has required states to test virtually all children in grades 3–8 in mathematics and English language arts. Data generated from these tests feed a labyrinth of organizational report cards (for states, local authorities, and schools) and in some places high-stakes teacher evaluation policies (with potential impact on compensation, benefits, and tenure). By mobilizing parents to opt their children out of these tests, the opt-out movement poses a fundamental challenge to these test-based accountability efforts. When large numbers of students do not participate in standardized tests, their actions compromise the quality and the utility of the data. Given the centrality of standardized testing in education policy, it is useful for scholars and policymakers to understand the social base of the opt-out movement, the motivations that drive activists, and how changes in the social context can shape this type of activism.


Our findings on opt-out participation confirm prior research findings (Chingos, 2015; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016), demonstrating the majority of opt-out activists are white women from the upper middle class (as evidenced by their educational attainment, employment, and household income). We also find several changes in the social base of the opt-out movement over time (see Table 1). Compared to 2016, the 2018 sample includes fewer teachers and parents, more respondents who reside in the Midwest, and more respondents who identify as liberals.


Regarding activist motivation, in both 2016 and 2018 the most common reasons for participation in the opt-out movement were social/political rather than personal (see Table 2, above). Many activists joined the movement because they opposed using standardized tests to evaluate teachers or because they recognized the negative consequences of standardized tests on teachers and instruction. Activists also joined the movement because they opposed the growing role of corporations and privatization in schools. These patterns echo prior research on the importance of collective motives, rather than individual or selective incentives, in the willingness to participate in activism (Klandermans, 1984; Klandermans & Oegema, 1987).


The fact that the most common reasons given for participation were social/political is a finding that challenges the common perception of opt-out activists. Early responses by public officials portrayed opt-out activists as driven by frustration over their children’s achievements – a depiction subsequently reflected in public opinion towards the movement (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017). Prior research on public opinion showed limited support for the opt-out movement or parents’ right to opt their children out of standardized tests (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017). It is possible that successful framing of opt-out activists as “frustrated mothers” shaped public antagonism towards the movement. This study’s findings, however, call these views into question.


In an analysis of change over time in participant motivations, we find significant changes in 9 out of 15 motivations. Given these results (see Table 3), we argue that shifts in social context likely affected the motivations of opt-out activists. For instance, between 2016 and 2018, activists became less motivated by opposition to the CCSS. This shift reflects the changing policy environment in which respondents operated. Opposition to the CCSS raged at the start of the survey period, yet by 2018 dozens of states had dropped the Common Core and its associated assessments. Similarly, as compared to 2016, fewer activists in 2018 mentioned opposition to the growing role of the federal government in schools as a key motivation. We speculate this trend may be associated with contextual changes in the federal administration under President Trump’s commitment to conservative principles and smaller government.


Conversely, respondents became more motivated over time by concerns about test fairness to minorities. This change may reflect shifts in the public discourse surrounding test fairness and racial equity (e.g., the Black Lives Matter movement). The fact that the racial composition of both samples is similar suggests that white respondents became more motivated by concerns about test fairness to minorities. It is also plausible, however, that white respondents indicated concerns about test fairness out of social desirability given the growing critique of the opt-out movement as one of racial privilege (e.g., #optoutsowhite). We also find that certain motivations are stable over time despite these political and contextual changes. For example, in both samples, one third of the respondents mentioned the negative impact of standardized tests on the curriculum as a motivation for participation. Such motivations appear to be insulated from politics and structure.


Finally, we find that motivations for activism are associated with sociodemographic characteristics (i.e., parental status, occupation, and political ideology; see Figures 1–3). This pattern echoes recent research on the link between social identities and activism (Fisher et al., 2017). We also find that the association between sociodemographic characteristics and motivations do not change over time. These trends suggest that the movement reached a stabilization point, which Koopmans (2004) identifies as a “new equilibrium in which neither party can hope to make substantial gains by continuing to raise the stakes of contention” (p. 38). This stabilization might also be seen as an outcome of the Department of Education’s reaction to the opt-out movement, in which the Department issued strong guidance against the movement itself but did not ultimately sanction communities with high opt-out rates. Alternatively, the stabilization might reflect success achieved by the opt-out movement. As one activist leader declared, they “now have a seat at the table” with regard to education policy (J. Deutermann, personal communication, April 5, 2019).


Going forward, this article makes two substantive contributions and one theoretical contribution. From a substantive perspective, as noted above, this study challenges common portrayals of opt-out activists. Our collected data show the opt-out movement is political in nature, with activists seeking to achieve a collective good (high quality, professional public education). This study also offers an updated description of the motivations that drive activists nationwide. Most research on the opt-out movement draws on case studies of groups and activists in specific states or locations. Using two national surveys, this study offers a window into the social base of the movement in two very different political and policy contexts. From a theoretical perspective, this article brings together two lines of research on social movements to explore motivations for activism with a more dynamic model capable of taking into account the direct and indirect impacts of social context on the social base of the movement.


Our study has two limitations that should be considered. The first limitation is that we draw on survey data from only two points in time (2016 and 2018). Given that any change takes time, collecting data from additional years will allow us to monitor trends in the opt-out movement. Notably, our plan to administer a third survey in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of schools around the country. Related policymaker decisions to skip standardized tests for one academic year could affect the opt-out movement in the future. The second limitation is that we draw on close-ended responses that were developed based on interviews with leaders in the movement. It is possible that our instrument narrowed the set of motivations that drive activists, and that an open-ended option would have provided different responses.


Accordingly, future research on opt-out activist motivations could proceed in two key ways. Conducting in-depth qualitative interviews with activists would enrich the discourse surrounding the set of known activist motivations. Such interviews would also provide a more nuanced option to unpack how social context shapes motivations. Additionally, future research could follow a specific cohort of activists over time, rather than taking a cross-sectional approach. Either of these approaches would allow for a deeper understanding of the strength of the opt-out movement and the ways in which individual variables interact with structural and contextual factors to influence activist motivation.


The opt-out movement brings together parents, teachers, and supporters from across the political spectrum in the United States in an effort to protect local public schools from what many activists see as the negative consequences of test-based accountability. Changes in the political and policy context necessarily affect the movement and its participants. Careful analysis of activist motivations not only sheds light on the opt-out movement, but may also yield innovative ideas for a more inclusive and transparent policy process going forward.


Note


1.

In supplemental analysis (available upon request from the authors) we find that respondents who identify as Democrats became more liberal in their political ideology (82.6% to 88.0%). A similar change was not evident among Republicans or Independents.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23611, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:10:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Oren Pizmony-Levy
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    OREN PIZMONY-LEVY, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and comparative and international education from Indiana University-Bloomington. His research and teaching focus on global educational movements (GEMs) and schools. One line of research examines the accountability movement and its role in the emergence of international assessments of student achievement (e.g., TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA). Another line of research examines education activism in the United States and abroad.
  • Nancy Green Saraisky
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    NANCY GREEN SARAISKY, Ph.D., is a research associate and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. in political science and comparative education from Columbia University, where her studies were funded by the National Science Foundation. Recent projects focus on the relationship between data, politics, and policy as it relates to educational assessment, both domestically and internationally. She also researches education activism and the rhetoric of education policymaking.
 
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