Opting Out

What to make of recent events in Colorado, where thousands of high school seniors refused to take a state-mandated standardized test? Is this a harbinger of things to come, an American version of “Arab Spring,” or was it an isolated incident with slight significance beyond the Rocky Mountain State?

These days most eyes are on Washington because Republicans have won control of both houses of Congress, but perhaps the big story in 2015 will be a louder student ‘voice’ about what goes on in schools.

At least 5,000 Colorado high school seniors opted out of the tests, given Thursday and Friday, November 13th and 14th.

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with three Fairview high school seniors talking about the protest, Natalie Griffin (17), Jonathan Snedeker (also 17), and Jennifer Jun (18), all college-bound next year, and all remarkably articulate. [1] At their high school, 98% of the seniors opted out. Across the state, nearly 40% refused to take the test known as CMAS.

Given over two days, CMAS was designed to measure student knowledge of social studies and science. “It’s a no-stakes test for us,” Jonathan Snedeker explained. “The district and the state want data they can use to judge teachers and schools.” And, they say, Colorado is spending $36 million on the test, money they would like to see used to benefit their education.

Students from twelve Colorado high schools [2] wrote and posted an “open letter” to the citizens of Colorado explaining their decision to opt out. The letter, which presents five points of concern, is worth reading in its entirety. These two sentences jumped out at me:

We have been subjected to larger class sizes, cuts to art, music, and extracurricular activities, and fewer opportunities in school. Our reward for putting up with these difficulties is more standardized testing with questionable purposes and monetary costs.

The students have a clear goal: They want Colorado to restrict mandated standardized testing to the number required under federal law (grades 3-8 and 10 in English and math), and no more.

When I spoke with Natalie and Jennifer, they had just come indoors, after standing in zero degree weather in front of their high school. “We have 555 seniors who were supposed to take the test,” Natalie told me. “Well before today, the school had gotten opt-out letters from 435 of us, meaning they expected 120 to take the test.” That didn’t happen, she said happily. “Only 7 kids showed up for the test.” [3]

Two short student videos are worth viewing. The first is an overview, the second a report from the protest itself.

It was clear that these young people thought this through carefully and recognize the importance of being for something even as they were standing together against the test. And so, many protesters spent the testing time working in a food bank or organizing a food drive, while others worked on a email campaign directed at the Legislative Task Force that will be recommending a new policy on testing for Colorado. I asked if adults, including teachers, were helping them behind the scenes, and all three vigorously denied adult involvement.

“We used social media to communicate,” one told me, including Twitter, Google Docs and Google Drive. A Facebook page? I asked. “No, because a Facebook page would have been open to anyone, and we did not want that,” Jennifer told me, and so they created a Facebook Event, accessible only by students. The students told me that they kept their principal in the loop, because they did not want their school to be penalized by the state. [4]

Opting out is not new [5], but something important seems to be happening here: savvy students with a clear goal using social media to communicate with each other, the citizens of Colorado, and–now–with a national audience.

What’s happening in Colorado emphasizes the importance of seeing students–not teachers– as the primary workers in schools. Students are, borrowing Peter Drucker’s term, “knowledge workers.” They are most certainly not manual workers. [6]

Because they are knowledge workers, they must be doing meaningful work that they can respect. Their view of the work matters, and, while they don’t get to decide what to do, their voices must be heard. (So too must teachers’ voices be heard, of course, because top-down decision-making almost always produces poor learning.)

I am occasionally asked what I think we should expect in education now that the Republicans control both Houses of Congress. From Washington, not much. But I expect to hear more ‘voices’ from outside our Nation’s capital, the voices of parents [7], teachers [8] and–especially–students.

Savvy students, fed up with being treated as numbers, may take to social media and organize opting out and other protests against what they deem to be excessive testing. They’ll have to push away adults, left and right, who will want to guide (and control) them, or simply take credit for what the kids are doing. If they are savvy (as the Colorado students seem to be), they will be FOR stuff, and not just against this test or that one. They will have to educate the adults in charge, not an easy task. They will be taking on entrenched economic interests like Pearson, the College Board and others who profit from testing.

But if students are the knowledge workers in schools, then they have a right to be doing interesting and valuable work. As protester Jonathan Snedeker told me, “We spend too much time being tested, and not enough time learning.”


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. Jennifer describes herself as a political moderate. She hopes to go to Stanford, Georgetown or Penn and study international diplomacy. Jonathan hopes to study molecular biology at Johns Hopkins. Natalie, who works part time in the biology lab at UC Boulder, has applied to Brown, Princeton, Emory, Northwestern, Duke and the University of Virginia.
  2. 2. Mostly seniors, but a few underclassmen and some graduates also signed it.
  3. 3. She later corrected that number. Actually NINE showed up, out of 555. That’s less than 2%. At least one of the nine took the test because one of her parents is a teacher and she feared that opting out would jeopardize her job, Natalie told me. On day 2, ten seniors took the test.
  4. 4. Schools are required to demonstrate that they made an “adequate effort” to test at least 95% of students or risk censure by the state. Student organizers urged students to send in an opt-out notice to the principal’s office so the school would know how many computers and proctors it would need to have on testing days.
  5. 5. It happened before in other places, of course. Some students at an elite high school in New York City opted out of a test in the fall of 2013 because they believed that the goal was to play gotcha with their teachers. FairTest publishes a weekly ‘scorecard’ of protests against excessive testing, which you can find here http://fairtest.org/news The list is growing, although not every item is an example of direct action. While some label FairTest as ‘anti-testing,’ its stated position is in favor of ‘testing resistance and reform.’
  6. 6. I am indebted to Deborah Kenny for reminding me of Drucker’s insights. Her book, Born to Rise, is well worth your time, if you haven’t already discovered it. (Harper Collins 2012) Dr. Kenny also writes about kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement in all aspects of an organization.
  7. 7. Some 22 states have passed or are seriously considering passing what are called “parent trigger” laws. Much of the activity is in California. Politico’s Morning Education reports “More than 400 families from across the country will gather this weekend at a trade college in Los Angeles for a “Parent Power Convention” hosted by Parent Revolution, the education reform group that lobbied hard for California’s parent trigger law. Expect a lot of talk about the Vergara decision striking down teacher tenure in California – and how that landmark court case can be replicated in other states.” (November 14)
    California is the site of the first–so far, only–school converted to a charter school under the trigger law. The school apparently achieved gains in reading and science. But all may not be well, if this left-leading publication is correct.
    The ‘parent trigger’ movement is not exactly grass roots, with strong support from the right-leaning organizations. Does that make it a not-quite-genuine ‘voice’ of parents? At the least, it’s highly debatable.
    But there are other parents who support or lead opt-out efforts, sometimes with their children in tow, sometimes arm-in-arm. These parents are being heard from in several Florida communities, Pittsburgh, and a host of other cities and towns.
  8. 8. Do teachers have a ‘voice’ beyond that of their unions? I believe they do, and, as evidence, I cite the growing number of teacher-led schools, Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network, school-community organizations like the Coalition of Community Schools, and social media networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, where teachers share insights and support each other.

21 Responses to “Opting Out”

  1. Bob Caveney 17. Nov, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    Hi John,

    A method for organizing school districts, with testing and the schedule guarantees:

    A) some students will be ahead, bored, idle and not working;
    B) some will be behind, tending to fall more behind, a problem which only compounds.

    It’s this follow-the-schedule method, enforced with tests which causes students to fall more behind, relative to grade level, on average, the more years spent in public school.

    Moving away from the schedule requires students get some amount of autonomy. This presents a different problem. Many students, are not _yet_ able to wisely and responsibly use the freedom required to follow their own individual plan. When autonomy is provided to students who are unready for that freedom, the result is chaos.

    You see the problem. For students to have their own plan, they need autonomy, autonomy many students are not _yet_ ready for.

    It seems like our two choices are guarantee chaos or guarantee idleness.

    There is a 3rd way from the Latin origination of education, educere, meaning to lead out the student from within.

    IF we could, and we can (we have evidence), by leading students through inner exercises in an “inner gymnasium”, little by little (it takes about a month), students begin to better hear the wise part within, develop the skill of the will, and a deep satisfaction takes hold;

    THEN it becomes safe to provide the very autonomy students need to work on challenges just right for each student.

    This is real education work – leading out the student from within – done by trained educators. Only students can do the knowledge work, the reading, writing and arithmetic.

    Leading out students from within solves a structural problem of ‘the-one’ and ‘the-many’ that is unique to eduction work.

    All the best,


    • John Merrow 18. Nov, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Very thoughtful analysis. Thank you. It is a Catch-22, but there is a the way out. It requires trust, high expectations and methods of verification that involves student judgment as well as that of adults. Ted Sizer used to say that you cannot have a well-run school without the active leadership of students. “More police” is never the solution, he said, because kids can always find ways to get around, defy and subvert the authorities.

    • Dienne 18. Nov, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

      Sounds like your definition of “autonomy” is for the students to do what you want them to do. True autonomy, of course, allows for the possibility that someone will choose not to do the “right” thing – “right” being, in your eyes.

      • Bob Caveney 19. Nov, 2014 at 12:04 am #

        Hi Dienne,

        You make a very good point. What do “I” want “them” to do? And you are quite correct, true autonomy allows that someone will choose not do do the “right” thing in my eyes.

        What if we changed the focus, and simply made sure each student understands that whatever someone else believes is right, in any case, the student will live with the consequences of their choice for how to use the autonomy?

        If we led students through exercises so that they could decide for their very selves, with us understanding that mistakes will be made – or as someone once said – practice makes perfectly imperfect – it will come out all right?…then it is a good field of practice…

        I think John’s point about trust is right on. Do we trust that there is something innately good in each of us that is searching for the good?

        If we do not, then who is “the good” to control, to make sure all is well? That’s a scary thought.

        If we do trust that there is something innately good in each, then it is our job to optimize the environment to realize the potential good in each person.

        All the best Dienne,


        • Duane Swacker 19. Nov, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

          ” simply made sure each student understands that whatever someone else believes is right”

          That is not a very solid base on which to base pedagogy.

  2. Glenn Marcus 18. Nov, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    John – another excellent, provocative note. And a terrific first response. However, the phrase “Arab Spring” should be used with more caution. There are too many ways that phrase can be taken by now, that a further explanation is almost always necessary

    In any case, keep up the great work.

  3. Monty Neill 18. Nov, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Students indeed deserve more autonomy. The Coleman report from the 1960s found that next to family background, the strongest correlation with strong results was student sense of ownership of their learning.

    The public schools in the NY Performance Standards Consortium educates its students through project-based learning that culminates in students producing four extended tasks (they are exempt from 4 of 5 state grad tests). Students select their own tasks, following guidelines; the tasks are scored using a rubric designed by the Consortium’s teachers. The results are outstanding. Looking at the then-26 schools in NYC, the results are higher graduation, college attendance and college persistence rates, and lower disciplinary and teacher turnover rates. The Consortium students are demographically identical to NYC as a whole. See http://performanceassessment.org.

    Thanks, also, John for linking to FairTest. We have produced several reports on the growing movement against the overuse and misuse of tests. One on initial victories at http://www.fairtest.org/new-fairtest-report-testing-reform-victories-first; another is a look at two years of movement building at http://www.fairtest.org/testing-resistance-and-reform-movement (which links to more materials, including student-led activism).

  4. Sam Anderson 18. Nov, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    This can snowball into a national movement if the youngfolk doing the organizing share their strategy/tactic with other high schoolers and middle schoolers. PLUS, they need to show that they have a viable alternative to the Testing Madness and demand that these alternatives be used instead.

    Also, in their expanded organizing efforts, they should get students from some of the elite private schools to support them and share how they are assessed. Use the President’s daughters as examples of teens who are NOT tested to boredom or death… and ask the Simple Question: How come I can’t have a assessment system like Sasha and Malia have? And let the “experts” squirm and stutter to explain why!

    • Duane Swacker 19. Nov, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

      “PLUS, they need to show that they have a viable alternative to the Testing Madness. . . ”

      Why should it be the students who have to “show that they have a viable alternative”? That’s like asking a blind archer to hit the bullseye by pointing him/her in the general direction of the target.

  5. anthony Cody 18. Nov, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    Thank you for reporting on this. If the opt out movement continues to grow, it could deprive the data-driven machinery being so carefully built of the raw material it needs, and that would be a very good thing.

    I wonder about two omissions. First, you do not mention United Opt Out, which has been organizing around this issue for several years, providing educators, parents and students with information they need to make this decision: http://unitedoptout.com

    Second, the three “teacher voice” organizations you highlight are all very mainstream. Why do you not wish to mention more political organizations such as the Network for Public Education, which counts as members thousands of teachers, or the Badass Teachers Association, which likewise has thousands? Can teacher voices only be heard when they are safely speaking softly?

    • John Merrow 18. Nov, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      Thank you for calling attention to my oversight. I should have taken more time with the footnotes and mentioned those organizations. My bad

  6. Gene V Glass 18. Nov, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    One of these schools is just two blocks down the street from my Colorado house. The neighborhood is high-end. The kids are very privileged. There is no diversity. So the irony is that the people who are being damaged by high-stakes testing aren’t opting out. When you get so far down, you can’t find a way out. Truly a shame.

    • John Merrow 18. Nov, 2014 at 11:16 am #

      Social media could make a difference today… Let’s see what happens

  7. Sharon 18. Nov, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    Thank you for this article. The two student sentences jumped out at me as well. I hope student opt out arrives in Texas ASAP. Our Tx governor started this standardized testing madness, with his ultimate goal of ending public ed, and we need to help the nation in ending this national nightmare.

  8. Jeff Nichols 18. Nov, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    Of course students should be able to influence the shape of their own educations! The whole effort of education “reform” in recent years has been to wrest control of education from parents, teachers and students and give it to central authorities. This is backwards. Education in a democratic society must be governed democratically. Citizens determine their own fates. Fear of China is not a justification for adopting an authoritarian model of education, yet the effort to mimic and better the test-driven, centralized education system of the Chinese seems to be the explicit goal of Arne Duncan. As Yong Zhao , Diane Ravitch, Carol Burris and many other great scholars and educators are telling us, the path we are on is utter folly, and it will take active resistance by parents, teachers — and as you’ve described in this wonderful piece, students — to restore democracy at its heart, public education.

  9. Robert LaRue 19. Nov, 2014 at 2:40 am #

    I retired from Fairview after 29 years in BVPS, 23 of them at Fairview. For the last 25 years I have taken leave during the various forms of mandated testing, in protest of the tests, the process of giving them, and the way the data was handled by the school and then the state. Please see if you can find out how many BVPS teachers took personal leave on those days. Showing that the movement also has support from teachers, who are mostly afraid of losing their jobs, would help show that the protests have serious, professional, experienced teachers supporting the students.
    Bob LaRue

  10. Will Richardson 19. Nov, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    This: Students “have a right to be doing interesting and valuable work.”

    I have a sophomore at a Blue Ribbon winning high school in NJ and I can tell you he currently has no such “rights.” The ultimate goal of the curriculum is to prepare him to pass the upcoming PARCC tests during his junior year. Everything is aligned. Everything maps to the Common Core. And in the stress of making sure the kids do well on the test, most teachers understandably become conservative in their practice. “Interesting and valuable work,” it seems, doesn’t much happen. It’s just messier and harder to quantify. So I regularly hear him say things like “I hate writing 500 words about a topic I don’t care about.” The interesting and valuable work he does in his life has nothing to do with school.

    Any wonder why only about 40% of high school students said they were “engaged” in school according to the last Gallup survey last year?

    Yet, this is not a testing issue as much as it is a curriculum issue. As Seymour Papert said, to paraphrase, we’re only able to teach in schools about one-billionth of one percent of all there is to know, yet we argue endlessly over what that should be. What if we REALLY trusted the kids and gave them the agency to exercise a freedom to learn in a world where so much is now “learnable” without the auspices of school? What if, instead of focusing on the easy to quantify, our real assessment work started from the place of wanting to know whether or not students had the skills, literacies, and dispositions to be deep and powerful learners ON THEIR OWN because, in this knowledge, teacher, technology-filled world, they better be.

    Good on those kids for taking a stand, but there’s a bigger problem with schools right now, John. Learning is leaving the building, and yet our nostalgia for the traditional narrative of what schools should look and feel like, and our lack of practice and experience in learning in a glboally connected world prevents us from even recognizing the huge shift that modern technologies are bringing to the whole idea of an “education.” Opting out of the test is just the first of many disruptions coming to schools.

  11. John Merrow 20. Nov, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    A reader of my blog called this story to my attention: http://stateimpact.npr.org/florida/2014/11/17/florida-teachers-consider-civil-disobedience-to-say-no-to-testing/

  12. John Merrow 21. Nov, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    I asked the protesting students what has happened in the 7 days following their protest against the test. Here’s what they reported:
    “Hi Mr. Merrow,

    Thanks for checking in! We’ve received mixed reaction, although on the whole it has been more positive than negative.

    Since our protest, we’ve been in touch with students from across Colorado about their standardized testing experiences. Many students from other schools who took CMAS felt it was a waste of time, so we are aiming to unite Colorado students and express this idea to our legislators.

    We’ve also received support from various students and teachers across the country who understand how we feel about standardized testing. While we recognize that we can’t personally do very much about standardized testing in places like Texas or Florida or Massachusetts, it has been great to hear support from people in these places, and we can only hope that our efforts will someday spillover. We’ve also received support from several public figures, including noted student rights activist Mary Beth Tinker. You can read the letter she wrote us on our blog: http://studentsagainstcmas.blogspot.com.

    Of course, there are still plenty of people on the other side, and we have heard plenty of the “they’re just teenagers who are too lazy to take a test” line. That said, we realize that we’ll never have universal popularity, so we are just trying to keep our message clear.

    Let us know if there is other information you’d like from us. We’d be happy to talk via phone with you if you’d like. Again, thanks so much for checking in.

    The Fairview High School Students”

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