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The Opt-Out Movement in New York: a Grassroots Movement to Eliminate High-Stakes Testing and Promote Whole Child Public Schooling

by Zhe Chen, David Hursh & Bob Lingard - 2021

Purpose: Over the last five years, approximately 50% of the students in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island and 20% across New York State have opted out of the yearly standardized tests for third through eighth grade. This article focuses on two grassroots organizations, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and Long Island Opt Out (LIOO), the two parents who have been central to the organizationsí success, and the strategies and tactics that the two organizations have adopted to achieve such a high opt-out rate in New York.

Context: Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), third through eighth grade public school students have been required to take yearly standardized tests. The most recent version of the exams focused on assessing students, their teachers, and schools based on the Common Core State Standards. Many educators and parents have argued that the standards and assessments negatively affect student learning (Hursh, 2016; Ravitch, 2020; Tampio, 2018). In response, educators, parents, teachers, and students have lobbied and publicly testified in an effort to reduce the length of the exams, if not eliminate them (Hursh, 2016). However, the testimonies have had almost no impact on the policymakers. Consequently, some parents concluded that the only way to influence policymakers is to get enough students to opt out of the tests so that the scores were not valid and thus could no longer be used to compare students and teachers within and across schools for accountability purposes.

Research Design: This study is drawn from a qualitative research project in which we conducted interviews to understand how the opt-out movement developed and the strategies it adopted in relation to high-stakes testing in New York. The interviews with two parent leaders from NYSAPE and LIOO are the main data source for this article.

Findings: NYSAPE and LIOO can be characterized as real grassroots social movements in that all members have input in the goals and organizing strategies, and unpaid leaders emerge from the membership (McAlevey, 2016). Further, because the organizations lack permanent funding, they have to be innovative in using media. By motivating and empowering others and using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, they built a large network and a strong base so that they could influence policymakers and respond quickly at the local and state levels.

Conclusion: Their organizing strategies exemplified the participatory and grassroots nature of the new social movements as theorized by McAlevey (2016). The opt-out movement is pushing back not only against high-stakes testing but also against the larger neoliberal construction of parents as simply consumers of schooling, rather than as active, informed citizens. The movement also supports whole-child schooling.


New York State has a long history of standardized testing, beginning in 1866 with the Regents end-of-course exams in core subjects. Students can choose to work toward either a local diploma by passing tests created by teachers or a more prestigious Regents diploma, which requires that students pass a minimum number of Regents exams made by the state (Beadie, 1999). However, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), New Yorks students have been required to take standardized exams in math and language arts in Grades 3 through 8 (Hursh, 2007). New York quickly implemented the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) for mathematics and ELA and has tested students with the new Common Core standards-aligned assessments since 2013 as part of the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant requirements, which was two years ahead of most states (Felton, 2015; New York State Education Department [NYSED], 2013). Students were tested before most teachers had adequate materials and professional development to incorporate the standards into classroom practices (McDuffie et al., 2017). These exams have been used to assess not only students but often teachers and schools. However, there is both anecdotal and research evidence that the standards and exams have negatively affected teaching and learning by narrowing the curriculum to what is tested (Hursh, 2016; Tampio, 2018). In fact, students scores on the more objective National Assessment for Educational Progress have not risen in recent decades after so many educational reforms (Ravitch, 2013). In response, parents, teachers, and students have testified at multiple public forums demanding that the tests be developmentally appropriate (Hursh, 2016). However, teacher and student testimonies have had almost no impact on policies (Hursh, 2016). Consequently, some parentsincluding the two interviewed for this articlebegan to conclude that only if enough students refused to take the exams would policymakers act to change assessment practices.

Over the past five years in New York State, from 16% to 20% of the students in Grades 3 through 8, who were required to take the Common Core exams, opted out. The opt-out movement in New York State caught the publics attention in 2014 when, one year after the first Common Core state tests yielded a 70% failure rate statewide, 60,000 students refused to take the state tests (NYSED, 2014). The opt-out rate across the state increased substantially to 200,000 or 20% of eligible students in 2015 (NYSED, 2015) and to approximately 230,000 students or 21% in 2016 (NYSED, 2016b). The opt-out rate began to decline in 2016 after Chancellor Betty Rosa, who is critical of high-stakes testing and publicly expressed sympathy to opt-out parents, was chosen as the chancellor (Clukey, 2016a) and NYSED made some minor changes to the tests (NYSED, 2016a, 2017). The opt-out rate declined to 19% in 2017, 18% in 2018 (NYSED, 2018), and 16% in 2019 (NYSED, 2019), yet New York State still has the highest opt-out rate in the nation (Clukey, 2016b; Wang, 2017). In Nassau and Suffolk countiestwo counties east of New York City on Long Islandthe opt-out rate was much higher at 50% (Hildebrand, 2018).

This qualitative study aims to understand why and howin the face of intense pressure and misleading information from local school districts and the state and federal levelsNew Yorks opt-out movement achieved such a high refusal rate. What strategies and tactics did New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and Long Island Opt Out (LIOO) adopt to effectively organize the movement and affect New Yorks educational policies? As we describe below, we will situate their efforts within McAleveys (2016) three approaches to pursuing societal change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. The approaches differ in how aims and strategies are determined and the relationship between the movement leaders and their membership or base.

We suggest that NYSAPE and LIOO are engaged in an approach that McAlevey (2016) describes as organizing, which places the agency for success within a continually expanding base of people who have not been previously involved and who do not consider themselves activists. Both Jeanette Deutermann and Lisa Rudley, opt-out leaders in New York State, describe their taking a lead in the opt-out movement as becoming activists aiming to change policy by transferring power from the then neoliberal commissioner, chancellor, legislators, and Regents to progressive advocates critical of high-stakes testing and privatization. This paper focuses on these two opt-out leaders.


In conceptualizing our research, as already noted, we used a theoretical frame described by McAlevey (2016) that distinguishes between three approaches to social change: namely, advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. It is only the latter two, mobilizing and organizing, which are truly grassroots. In the more traditional approach of those two, mobilizing, an organizations professional staff take the leadership role determining the goals and tactics. It is the staff who see themselves as agents of change. In contrast to the staff, volunteers are not involved at more than a superficial level in developing goals or strategies. Those who are recruited to the effort are essentially implementing the aims of the professional staff. In contrast, McAlevey (2016) describes organizing as placing the agency for success within

a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people not previously involved, who dont consider themselves activists at all. & In the organizing approach, specific injustice and outrage are the immediate motivation, but the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority, from the 1 percent to the 99 percent. (p. 10)

Moreover, while McAlevey (2016) describes the two approaches as achieving social change, both of which involve ordinary people and are often referred to as grassroots, it is only through the organizing approach that ordinary people are empowered. She adds, it is not merely if ordinary peopleso often referred to as the grassrootsare engaged, but how, why, and where they are engaged (p. 9). Further, mobilizing and organizing differ in that the former recruits people for specific purposes determined by the organizations leadership, which often leads to activist burnout (McAlevey, 2016, p. 11). In contrast, the organizing approach aims to recruit and involve large numbers of people and expands the base through the development of organized leaders who are key influencers of the constituency, and who can then, independent of staff, recruit new people never before involved. Individual face-to-face interactions are key (McAlevey, 2016, p. 12).

Our theoretical frame, therefore, directs us to examine how New Yorks opt-out movement, as embodied in the two organizations LIOO and NYSAPE, conceptualizes the notion of power, whether it is through the advocacy of the organizational elite or the power drawn from large numbers of people who are meaningfully engaged in the process, and whether leadership is embodied in a few people and committees, or whether it is in organic leaders who emerge out of the masses and who also help make the power analysis, design the strategy, and achieve the outcome (McAlevey, 2016, p. 10). Our analysis shows that both NYSAPE and LIOO are successful organizing grassroots movements.

We begin by providing a brief history of the rise of standardized testing in New York beginning with the state education department first making the Regents exams optional and then later making passing the Regents exams a graduation requirement. We then consider the passage of NCLB, followed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; 2015) in relation to mandated high-stakes testing.



New York State has a long history of standardized testing, imposed initially by the state and later, under NCLB, by the federal government. As the exams changed in their purpose, they became increasingly controversial. The first standardized exams were administered in the mid-1800s by the Regents to students applying to colleges, thus supposedly providing a consistent criterion for college admission (Beadie, 1999). New Yorks testing requirements did not change until the mid-1990s, when the Regents, in response to criticism from reports such as National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) that the high school diploma was not rigorous enough, began the process of eliminating the local diploma and requiring that all high school students pass five Regents exams in four different subjects to graduate.

That was followed by the federal government, under NCLB (2001), for the first time, setting testing requirements for schools. NCLB required students in Grades 3 through 8 take state exams in math and language arts. The students test scores were used to measure whether school districts and schools attained a high enough passing rate to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP; Schneider, 2015). School districts and schools that failed to make AYP would face a series of sanctions including improvement strategies, corrective action, and restructuring measures (Ravitch, 2016). Since the exam results were now used to evaluate not only students, but also teachers, schools, and school districts, with penalties for each if too many students failed the exam, the tests were now high stakes (Hursh, 2013). In 2011, new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were quickly adopted by 45 states, and many states started to implement aligned assessments (Jochim & McGuinn, 2016). As one of the recipients of a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, New York quickly adopted the standards and administered the first tests when schools, teachers, and students were not prepared for them (Freedberg, 2016). The Common Core exams have incorporated some negative characteristics, which parents, students and teachers have attempted to rebuff. In New York, because the ESSA requires evaluating teachers based on the results on a standardized exam, and students in kindergarten through second grade do not have a standardized test, their teachers are often evaluated based on other teachers students, such as students scores on the third-grade language arts or math exams. Some teachers were evaluated based on the scores of students or on subjects they never taught (Ciaccio et al., 2017; Hursh, 2016).


Opting out was not an inevitable strategy for challenging high-stakes testing. However, opting out became a significant strategy after other strategiesdemonstrations, lobbying, and letter writingfailed. As we describe below (Hursh et al., 2019, 2020), efforts to roll back high-stakes testing previous to the opt-out movement have mostly failed (Hursh, 2016). Rolling back testing was difficult in part because commissioners and chancellors assumed that the testing was not flawed. The previous commissioner, John King, and chancellor, Meryl Tisch, believed that parents and teachers resisted the Common Core not because they disagreed with it in principle, but because of misconceptions caused by rolling it out too quickly. King and Tisch were confident that if King could explain the Common Core standards, curriculum, and assessments to the public, the public would support them. Consequently, King and Tisch decided to hold a 13-stop listening tour across the state from October to December 2014 to clarify misconceptions and quell the unrest (Hursh, 2016). However, the public was skeptical of standardized testing and other related corporate reforms (e.g., edu-businesses managing the tests) and were ready to voice their displeasure. At the same time, King had no doubts about the righteousness of his cause. Two immovable forces were about to confront one another.

In the Rochester area, the hearing was scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon at a local high school. Approximately, 650 teachers, parents, and community members showed up, with those who wanted to provide three minutes of testimony assigned a number for when they would speak. During the first three hours, dozens of people spoke against the Common Core standards, curriculum, and tests. Only one person spoke in favor of the Common Core, a superintendent of a local suburban district (Hursh, 2016). Otherwise, everyone who spoke was critical of the standards themselves and the EngageNY curriculum, which the NYSED developed, and strongly suggested that teachers use it if they hoped to prepare their students for the standardized exams.

The hearings were initiated but were so acrimonious that the chancellor and commissioner first canceled them part way through, and then, concerned about the optics, restarted them (Hursh, 2016). The hearings resulted in no changes. Therefore, as we will describe, the only strategies remaining for critics of the Common Core were: (1) disrupting the system by reducing the percentage of students taking the tests so that the scores were useless for evaluating schools and teachers, (2) working to elect representatives to school boards and the legislature who were critical of high-stakes assessments, and (3) convincing sympathetic legislators to appoint to the Regents members critical of high-stakes testing or at least less enthusiastic about testing. Legislators became a key focus because the legislature not only passes the laws affecting education but also appoints people to the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents is responsible for the general supervision of all educational activities within the state, presides over the state universities and the NYSED, selects a chancellor as their chair, and hires the commissioner to administer the NYSED. It is in this context that both NYSAPE and LIOO were created.



This article is drawn from a larger study we began in September 2016 by conducting 18 semistructured interviews with parents, teachers, urban community activists, teacher unions, educational administrators from the school level and up to members of the New York Board of Regents, and the current New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa, ending in 2018. Each interview lasted between 6090 minutes. Interviews with two parent leaders from two organizationsNYSAPE and LIOOare the main focus of this article, while the other interviews provide background information.

We did not begin the research for this paper intending to focus on only two New York opt-out organizations. Rather, we began by interviewing parents regarding their views of the opt-out movement, school and district administrators who had to implement testing and other requirements, and political organizers active in the opt-out movement. Initially, we were going to approach the opt-out movement from several perspectives. However, as we conducted the research, it became clear that two organizationsNYSAPE and LIOOand their leaders were key to the success of the opt-out movement in New York (Hursh et al., 2019, 2020; Lingard & Hursh, 2019).

In their national research, Pizmony-Levy and Saraisky (2016) identified the four most active and influential organizations of the nationwide opt-out movement as United Opt-Out National, Inc. (UOO), Badass Teachers Association Inc, LLC (BTA), NYSAPE, and LIOO. We decided to interview key leaders from NYSAPE and LIOO for two reasons: first, unlike UOO and BTA, they are not national organizations but focused on New York. New York State has the highest opt-out rate of the 13 states across the U.S. that failed to meet the 95% participation rate on the state assessments (Strauss, 2018). Focusing on two of the most active local organizations, we aim to present how the organizations contributed to achieving such a high opt-out rate on Long Island and statewide. Additionally, we were interested in how they seemed to exemplify how to develop a successful grassroots movement. Compared to UOO and BTA, both NYSAPE and LIOO are grassroots organizations, in that they have to overcome structural issues such as lack of funding. In this paper we focus on the two leaders to explore how the two organizations turned their liabilities into assets.

After narrowing our research to NYSAPE and LIOO, we further identified our interview participants, key parent leaders from both organizations: Jeanette Deutermann, founder of LIOO and cofounder and member of the NYSAPE steering committee, and Lisa Rudley, cofounder and member of the NYSAPE steering committee. The two parents have been passionate, visible, and active in their own organizations and on their social media or websites since 2013. More importantly, the two parents have captured the attention of media, policymakers, and researchers (Deutermann, 2014; Ravitch, 2020; Strauss, 2015).

In our interviews, we asked questions regarding how they became involved in grassroots organizing, the goals of the movement, whether and how their goals changed over time, and what grassroots strategies and tactics they adopted, including the use of social media. We conducted four lengthy formal interviews with them and also had many informal phone interviews and conversations.

The interviews were transcribed and coded both deductively and inductively by concepts, themes, and events. We also retrieved and analyzed press coverage information and factsheets on the NYSAPE website, Facebook posts on the LIOO group page, documents from the NYSED website, online news releases, conference papers, and journal articles on the opt-out movement to triangulate our data.


In this section we describe our research findings beginning with what we learned about the two activistsJeanette Deutermann and Lisa Rudleyand the two activist organizations NYSAPE and LIOOwhich they helped create.


NYSAPE and LIOO are separate but overlapping organizations. NYSAPE is composed of 75 member organizations across New York State, typically representing a geographical area, such as LIOO (two counties) or the Rochester Coalition for Public Education (a metropolitan area). In contrast, LIOO consists of individual members and focuses on organizing only on Long Island, which has been seen as opt-out central for New York State (Hildebrand, 2018). Both organizations are involved in more than resisting the Common Core exams, such as pushing back against other high-stakes tests, the use of student test scores for teacher evaluations, efforts to increase the number of charter schools, and the edu-business driven inBloom, which aimed to create a data infrastructure to make multiple data sets on students interoperable within and across a number of states (Lingard, 2019).

The two organizations have similar goals and broad organizing strategies. Both organizations rely on horizontally expanding the base and vertically impacting policymakers by electing state legislators who agree with their goals and through advocating for change. However, their differences in size necessitate different tactics at the micro level. LIOO encompasses members from two Long Island counties with a total area of 2,826 square miles, 19 times smaller in size than New York State. Within a few hours, Deutermann can travel to any district on Long Island to attend forums and organize activities, therefore building close relationships with parents, teachers, principals, district advocates, and local media. Deutermann initially interacted with all 124 superintendents in the two counties, but she has gradually come to rely on district liaisons as the movement has grown.

In contrast, NYSAPE is statewide, and therefore, members are limited in their ability to visit other member organizations. Instead, NYSAPE provides guidance for organizations and the public by acting as policy translators and as an information clearinghouse. For example, they issue press releases in response to policy changes at the local, state, and national levels, such as resisting districts sit and stare policies, where students who opt out of the tests are forced to sit at their desks with nothing to do during the several days and many hours the tests are administered. They also post sample test refusal letters and annual opt-out fact sheets and send out action alerts to encourage their members to take political action.


Jeanette Deutermann, a mother of two sons in third and ninth grade, started LIOO when she observed that her younger son began to hate school because of the time spent preparing for and taking the Common Core tests. He had never previously complained about school, but with the introduction of the tests, he began to suffer from anxiety and at home began lying on the floor moaning that he would rather die than go to school.1

During the first year of the Common Core testing, few parents and teachers understood how the tests were scored. When her son received high 2, low 3 out of 4, Deutermann started asking teachers and parents questions about what was on the test and why it was suddenly such a big deal. She received no other information beyond a number, no description of her sons strengths and weaknesses and nothing that a parent or teacher could use to understand her sons learning needs. Even so, a teachers response to her inquiry was disturbing: the test score was not to be used to rank the students but to label bad teachers. Deutermann lamented that The thought that my son spent so much time thinking about, preparing, and taking a test that literally had no benefit to his education or even informing his teacher about his needs made me sick to my stomach.

Deutermann became even more alarmed when her son was selected to be in the Sunrise Learning Academy, where students with test scores on the cusp between proficient and not proficient (high 2s and low 3s) could receive test prep two mornings a week before school to improve their own (and therefore their schools) score. Given how much her son was beginning to hate school, she was apprehensive about informing him that he was being invited to school for more test prep. Consequently, she carefully broached the subject, saying, The school would like kids to come in a little early and work on their math and ELA for the test. What do you think? Her stoic and rarely emotional child physically crumpled to the floor and started crying hysterically at the thought of going in early for even more math and ELA, which he and his friends had all begun to despise.

Fortunately, just that week a parent informed her that he had opted his children out of the state assessments. Knowing that parents had a right to opt their children out of the tests, she responded to her sons despair over more tedious test prep: Stop. Get up. No more crying. Youre not doing this Learning Academy nonsense, and youre not even going to be taking the test. Deutermann decided that her child was more important than educationally useless scores and decided to opt her son out. This turning point was the beginning of what would become the most influential and empowering chapter of her life.

Lisa Rudley is a member of the NYSAPE steering committee. As the mother of a son who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, she has been advocating for parents special education rights for years. She joined the opt-out movement in 2013 when she saw her son, in fifth grade at the time, acting out in response to the increased pressure to do well on the Common Core tests. Consequently, Rudley asked that he be moved to a resource room with a lower student-teacher ratio where he would receive more support. Unfortunately, he was now three grade levels behind where he was. As a mother, Rudley had been involved in protecting her son and other children with special needs. After talking with Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Chris Cerrone of Western New Yorkers for Public Education, Danielle Boudet, Lori Griffin, and others opt-out leaders from the states, Rudley became a leader in the opt-out movement. Together with other opt-out parents, they strategized about creating a statewide group that would serve as a clearinghouse of information for all the grassroots parents and educator groups across the state to resist the testing.

Our interviews of opt-out parents led us to question the common characterization of opt-out parents as helicopter parents who make irrational decisions about their children, as described by some respondents in Pizmony-Levy and Cosmans (2017) national survey. This characterization was also reflected in our conversations about parents with the New York State Board of Regents members. For example, one Regent told us that students were opting out because they had underperformed the last time they sat for the exams, which was likely to be true given that the tests were designed to yield a 70% failure rate. Our participants, however, have a deeper understanding of how the Common Core negatively affects not only their own children but also teachers and the quality of curriculum and schools. They have a broader goal than just refusing to take the tests. Both Deutermann and Rudley, like many opt-out parents, at first tended to attribute their sons anxiety and acting out to their own deficits. However, after talking with other parents, they realized that many other children also suffered from test prep. Parents began to realize that what their children experienced was a widespread phenomenon.


In our interviews, opt-out parents and parent leaders told us that they came to the movement because they saw how the Common Core standards and exams negatively impacted their childs and other childrens experiences of schooling. While their immediate goal was to save their own and other children from the anxiety of preparing for and taking these tests that provide no valuable information, they also began to see how the emphasis on test scores had other ramifications, including what was taught and how.

Leaders of the opt-out movement knew that if they wanted to change the testing policies, they would have to replace members of the legislature who favored high-stakes testing with ones critical of the exams. They realized that if they developed support for their actions at the grassroots level, they might be able to replace pro-testing politicians with ones critical of test-based accountability. By beginning building a strong horizontal base they could vertically influence those in positions of power.

Building a base at the horizontal level, influencing policymakers vertically

The leaders of the opt-out movement worked horizontally on building trusting relationships with their local liaisons, teachers, parents, teacher unions, and local media to organize protests, expand their organizations membership, and spread their messages. At the same time, they began to elect to school boards and the legislature representatives who would vote for policies favored by the opt-out movement. With enough progressive legislators, they couldand didselect Regents critical of high-stakes testing, who in turn selected Dr. Betty Rosa, a long-time progressive educator, as Chancellor.

Deutermann followed this strategy when she began by reaching out to parents and teachers who were witnessing changes in their children and schools similar to her observations. The response to her outreach led to her talking with others on Long Island, many who were also pushing back against Common Core testing. She then organized the resistance by creating a formal structure of liaisons who would coordinate their work with each other. While some district liaisons were already leaders in their districts, some had never taken on leadership roles, but they were all very passionate about organizing parents to opt their children out.

The movement began to support school board candidates who agreed with the opt-out goals. District liaisons and others worked together to endorse candidates, support them on social media, and provide free training on how to run a successful campaign. Over the last five years, the two organizations have helped elect over one hundred candidates to their local school boards as a step toward changing policy (LIOO has kept spreadsheets detailing with candidates they endorsed, how they assisted their campaign, and the electoral outcome.)

Building trust and relationships horizontally

The grassroots nature of their organizations and the need to gather information and develop a strong base required the opt-out movement to build trusting relationships with teachers, parents, local school administrators, and the local media. Teachers were and continue to be valuable informants regarding how the Common Core affects classroom teaching and learning. Not only did parents seek out teachers for information and advice, but teachers also approached LIOO and NYSAPE to share stories about their classrooms. Deutermann and other opt-out leaders would then post the stories anonymously to the LIOO Facebook page. Deutermann felt obligated to tell these teachers stories:

Teachers would whisper in private, in secret, dont tell anybody that I told you this. I just thought the secrecy was absolute insanity. This is something thats happening to these kids. These teachers see it happening. They dont like it. They want to stop it. Yet, they felt that they couldnt say anything. Here are people who knew the most about what was going on and how bad this was for kids, and they couldnt tell anyone. Well, I replied, I will tell your stories for you. That was a major focus in the early days of opt out, and really still is: Well be your voice. & Well get the teachers story of what theyre seeing inside the school to parents. As parents, we dont know what is actually happening in the classroom, but they do. Those stories were so important to get out there, and we did it.

Teachers continue to provide information on what is occurring in schools and also serve on the NYSAPE board of directors. The two organizations have also collaborated with teacher unions to successfully delay using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Opt-out parents believe that if the opt-out rate is high enough, the missing test data would invalidate using the test scores to evaluate teachers. With the joint effort of the opt-out parents and teacher unions, the use of the Common Core results to evaluate teachers has been repeatedly postponed across the state (Disare, 2015).

The main aim of the two organizations is to inform parents of their right to refuse to submit their children to high-stakes standardized tests, work with parents to organize protests and other activities to opt out of the state tests, and eventually affect and change policies regarding the tests. During the last six years, the two organizations have been dedicated to informing parents about why they should opt their children out. They make sure all the information and messages are easy to understand and accessible. Developing relationships with parents, as our participants indicated in interviews, was crucial because once the relationship with parents has been built, the message will be heard, shared, and, most importantly, acted on. With parents and teachers working together, they achieved what individually opting out would not have been able to achieve. They also described how important it was to devote time to building a relationship with parents:

People follow us. & They trust us. They've known us for five years, speaking and protecting their kids and spending the time. I'll spend an hour on the phone with a parent talking them through a problem that they're having opting their kids out. I'll spend that time with them so they know & I'm willing to give up my life and my time to this, so there's trust that's been built.

Our interviewees also suggested that the movement would not be as effective if they did not listen to and incorporate the perspectives of superintendents, principals, and other local district administrators. Engaging with administrators helped them learn from administrators perspectives: We wanted every single level of education to have that voice so that we knew we were covering everything. & We wanted to make sure that what we were advocating was realistic. Many district administrators turned out to be effective leaders and thought what opt-out parents were doing was protecting schools, teachers, and children.

Meanwhile, opt-out leaders have also built a strong relationship with the media to amplify their messages. Many in the media are fascinated by what opt-out has achieved and are eager for stories. During the last six years, our participants have been working with the same reporters providing research, information, and subjects for interviews and stories for local media. Developing a close relationship with local media has been another important and low-cost way to disseminate their messages, recruit new members, and build the movement. Because of the close contact with local media, our participants can, for example, quickly mobilize and send reporters to interview parents at districts with uncooperative administrators and punitive policies, such as sit and stare, so that they can uncover what is occurring in schools and show it to the public. Jeanette stated:

That relationship grew over a number of years, but I knew I had to foster that because these people are telling our story. It's important not to just tell our story and then walk outwe need to develop a relationship.

Pressured NYS Board of Regents vertically

While the two organizations were horizontally building trusting relationships with teachers and parents and empowering them to be grassroots leaders, the movement simultaneously pressured legislators to replace Chancellor Merryl Tisch, a supporter of high-stakes testing and corporate reform of schooling, with Betty Rosa, a critic of both and an experienced educator.

Under pressure from the opt-out movement, NYSED and the Board of Regents also had to make compromises and adjustments. In 2016, NYSED replaced Pearson with Questar Assessment, Inc. to develop Grades 38 ELA and math tests under pressure from parents (NYSED, 2016a). NYSED also reduced the number of test questions on both Grades 38 ELA and mathematics tests and removed test time limits because of opt-out pressure (NYSED, 2016a). Later in June 2017, the Board of Regents announced that they would reduce the number of days that students spend taking the tests from three to two (NYSED, 2017). Additionally, and as already noted, the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation has been postponed since 2015 (Disare, 2015). The parent-led opt-out movement appears to be a warning for federal and state policymakers that it is time to listen to what students, parents, teachers, and local administrators think about the CCSS and aligned assessments. The opt-out movement in New York State was also an important player in effectively opposing efforts to create interoperable multiple data sets about students (InBloom) that would make a cross-state data infrastructure possible (Bulger et al., 2017; Lingard, 2019).

Grassroots organization: a double-edged sword

Grassroots movements have both strengths and weaknesses. Neither LIOO nor NYSAPE is incorporated as a nonprofit organization, which means that donations from individuals or philanthropic organizations are not tax deductible. LIOO and NYSAPE operate on shoestring budgets. Our participants revealed that everything we do is our own pocket and our own time and no reimbursements or anything, and wed like to be able to do more. Everyone, from the leaders on down, donates their time and money. The lack of funding limits their travel and media campaigns.

On the other hand, according to our informants, our lack of funding has been a blessing and a curse. Because they are informal organizations and have limited funding, they are able to respond quickly and innovatively to new policies as they are proposed and implemented at the federal, state, and local levels. Without interference that might come from outside funders, the two organizations remain politically independent from other organizations and stick with their goals, notably opposing high-stakes testing and promoting whole-child public schooling. They do not have to worry about offending major donors. Lack of funding also motivates the two organizations to think of innovative means of getting their messages out.

Low-cost messaging

Relying on volunteers help, both organizations handed out lawn signs and bumper stickers to members reading Refuse NYS 38 Assessments and also sold them at local forums and to local teacher associations and unions. Additionally, because of their lack of funding and their broader agenda to fight against powerful corporations, governors, and legislators who support the corporate reform agenda in schooling and the privatization of public schools, the media and the public are fascinated by the mismatch between lack of financial resources and extent of the apparent political power of opt-out across New York State. This situation has ensured the story of the parent-led movement and organizations is always covered (and covered favorably) in local media.

Using social media to build a strong base and enhance the movement

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has been key to organizing the movement because it provides a faster and less expensive means to develop networks and increase membership than traditional technologies such as television, radio, and newspapers. Our participants expressed that We couldnt have gotten the numbers without Facebook because most parents they know would read their Facebook page everyday instead of newspapers. Starting the social media group, as our participants suggested,

was just a way to say Hey, heres what Im seeing and heres the problem. Is anybody else feeling the same way? I wanted to not only give parents information that I was learning through my research, but I also wanted to connect with other parents to hear what they were going through. It is very upsetting as a parent to watch your kid start to deteriorate and behave this way and have stress symptoms. Once a confident student, now he would break pencils, cry, and state that he was stupid and would never be good at math.

Increasing the number of parents opting out translates into more influence over politicians and policymakers. By anonymously posting teachers stories of what was occurring in classrooms, news regarding changes in educational policy at the federal, state, and local levels, and research and articles about the harmful impact of high-stakes testing and privatization in education, they have used Facebook as an effective way to communicate and recruit people to the movement. People then invite their friends to join, and the number of followers grows exponentially. Currently, in early 2020, the LIOO Info Facebook page has 24,500 members and the NYSAPE Facebook page has 7,106 members. Besides the main Facebook page where people can read about statewide issues, district liaisons set up their own Facebook pages in their districts as a daughter page of the parent one, where parents can learn what is occurring in their districts and discuss local issues.


We have aimed here to understand how New York's opt-out movement became the most successful movement of its kind in the United States from the perspective of two parent leaders. Their success, we show, is an outcome of the intense efforts of its volunteer leaders who care deeply not only about their own children but also about other peoples children.

However, our research is limited in that it only examines two parents in one state. It would be useful to see how the opt-out movement has been organized elsewhere. We have also suggested and begun research on the teacher strikes in the United Statesin West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahomaand they have many of the same characteristics as the opt-out movement.

While the opt-out movement has not eliminated the Common Core exams (now called the Next Generation assessments in New York), they have shifted the perspectives of many educational policymakers throughout the New York system: from local school boards to the Regents, the legislature, and the chancellor. Many are now more open to the views of the critics of standardized testing and willing to consider alternatives. This is most strongly reflected in the replacement of Chancellor Tisch with the current chancellor, Betty Rosa.

These changes reflect the success of the opt-out movement in using the tactic of organizing both horizontally and vertically to change education policy. Both NYSAPE and LIOO began by organizing horizontally to build a base strong enough to initially influence the election of local officials, such as school board members, who, in turn, were able to act vertically to influence the legislature, the Regents, the commissioner, and the chancellor. Both NYSAPE and LIOO have adopted what McAlevey (2016) designates as an organizing approach that comes out of new social movements reforms of the 1960s. McAlevey (2016) argues that such an approach can be powerful, as it depends not on paid staff to succeed, but on citizens like Deutermann and Rudley becoming organic leaders (p. 21), or as Gramsci would describe it, organic intellectuals (1971, p. 2).

As described above, the movement has used social media, their websites, and public forums to educate their members and the public about not only the tests, but also concerns regarding privatizing schools (charter schools), privatizing curriculum and assessment through tests, and commercial online provision. At the most macro level, their opposition has been to what can be seen as the corporate reform of schooling. Moreover, by situating high-stakes testing, privatization, and top-down decision-making within the dominant social imaginary of neoliberalism (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010), they developed a theoretically and politically sophisticated understanding that enables them to resist being positioned as mere recipients of a neoliberal approach to education that emphasizes test scores over complex learning, reduces students and teachers to mere data, and constitutes parents and community as mere consumers of schools within a quasi-educational market. Rather, the opt-out movement repositions parents and community members as active citizens with a right to have a democratic say over the nature and provision of schooling. This can be seen as part of the broader resistance to neoliberalism in education (Tett & Hamilton, 2019). The opt-out movement insists on having input into the processes of making education policy. And rather than seeing teachers, students, and parents as opposed, they see each other as allies pushing back against neoliberal policies and the corporate reform agenda in schooling.

However, those in the opt-out movement think that there is still much to be done. First, while participants in the opt-out movement do not accept former Secretary of Education Arne Duncans portrayal of them as suburban moms who are upset that their children are not as brilliant as they thought they were, the opt-out movement is primarily white, female, and middle-class (Strauss, 2013). Our research suggests that urban parents, while sympathetic to the opt-out movement, fear that the federal government will follow through on threats to cut desperately needed Title I funding if more than 5% of the students opt out. Urban, working-class parents often lack the assets and means to become involved. New Yorks school districts comprise some of the highest childhood poverty rates in the United States (Platsky, 2018). This, coupled with an inadequate public transportation system and jobs that pay poverty wages, results in parents working two or three jobs and makes it almost impossible for these parents to become involved in their childs schools. Still, the opt-out movement needs to broaden its base if it is to accomplish its broadest goals.

The opt-out movement provides many lessons for those wanting to reform society. The opt-out movement in New York is a good example of an effective grassroots movement. While they have achieved only some of their goals, they have shifted the debate to criticizing high-stakes testing, test prep, and test-based accountability and suggesting alternative conceptions and models for more holistic, humanistic whole-child education. They have also reinforced the idea that parents ought to be active citizens in relation to their childrens schooling. The movement also acknowledges the difficulty in the era of the Trump Presidency of holding together a coalition comprising the opt-out movement, as politics divide more strongly along Democratic and Republican lines. This is particularly so on Long Island with its huge opt-out numbers. The opt-out movement provides insight into how to organize a successful grassroots movement in education, and, more broadly, society.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 5, 2021, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23687, Date Accessed: 3/2/2022 3:13:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Zhe Chen
    University of Rochester
    E-mail Author
    ZHE CHEN is an international student from China pursuing doctoral studies in Teaching & Curriculum at the University of Rochester. She holds two masterís degrees, one in International Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the other in Education Policy from the University of Rochester. Her research interests focus on education equity and educational policy in China and the United States.
  • David Hursh
    University of Rochester
    E-mail Author
    DAVID HURSH, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the Warner School of Education, University of Rochester, New York. Over the last two decades, most of his research and writing has focused on how neoliberalism, by emphasizing markets, competition, and quantification, has undermined quality teaching and learning. He has also researched and written about sustainability and environmental health in the United States and Africa, which included a year-long appointment as a visiting scholar at Columbia Universityís Earth Institute.
  • Bob Lingard
    Australian Catholic University
    E-mail Author
    BOB LINGARD, Ph.D., is a professorial fellow in the Institute for Learning Sciences & Teacher Education at Australian Catholic University and an emeritus professor at The University of Queensland. He has published widely in the sociology of education, and his most recent books include Globalisation and Education (Routledge, 2021) and Globalizing Educational Accountabilities (Routledge, 2016). He is editor of the Routledge book series Key Ideas and Education, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and a former President of the Australian Association for Research in Education.
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