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 organizations’ success, and the strategies and tactics that the two organizations have adopted to achieve such a high opt-out rate in New York.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Their organizing strategies exemplified the participatory and grassroots nature of the new social movements as theorized by McAlevey. 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.