Last year, stress about Pennsylvania's state standardized tests caused third grader John Michael Rosenblum to start scratching himself so hard in his sleep that he bled. That's when his mother Michele Gray knew she'd had enough.
So she opted out. "I realized standardized testing isn't serving our communities or schools," Gray says. "The amount of money we spend for these tests is in the tens of millions. Couldn't that be spent on other things, like more teachers?"
After conducting some research and finding The Huffington Post blog of opt-out advocate and Penn State University associate professor of education Timothy Slekar, Gray decided to pull her son John Michael and his brother, Ted, out of standardized testing. Instead, after consulting with her school, they spent test periods on writing projects and constructing small machines.
Gray is part of a small but vocal group of teachers and parents who want to end high-stakes testing -- and the real work starts tomorrow, with National Opt Out Day, an event marked by teach-ins across the country.
"We want to kick off a conversation about opting out," said Shaun Johnson, an assistant elementary education professor at Towson University who helps facilitate United Opt Out National, the group behind Opt Out Day. Johnson and Slekar hope that Opt Out Day leads parents across the country to deny the standardized testing of their children this spring. The movement will culminate with an "Occupy the DOE" (Department of Education) protest in Washington, D.C. this March.
And, in a sense, their timing is perfect: the group is trying to use the momentum of the Occupy movement, while latching onto Sunday's 10th anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act to make its case. NCLB, a sweeping federal education law, mandated the regular testing of students in reading and math, beginning in third grade.
"People are starting to see that after 10 years of No Child Left Behind and the last few years of Race to the Top that it's really not working," Johnson said. "A lot of people blame the test-driven reforms that are a result of those policies. We're trying to build a sense of urgency."
The role of standardized testing in public schools expanded dramatically with NCLB. The law uses state tests to grade schools and determine whether they're making "Adequate Yearly Progress." If not, they face increasing sanctions based on the tests -- though statisticians assert that the scores are often misused.
More recently, a group of Democrats who support the market and data-based movement that's become known as "education reform" have increasingly advocated using tests as a significant component of teacher evaluations. That idea has become a centerpiece of the Obama administration's education agenda, and a factor in the rewrite of NCLB.
But the opt-out movement pushes against the viability of these tests. Proponents say that few parents know that opting out of standardized tests is an option that is legal in most states and that has little bearing on the academic trajectories of most students. "We're trying to alleviate these fears," Johnson said. Under NCLB, 96 percent of students must participate in exams -- but if they don't, the school bears the consequences.
Comparing opting out to an act of civil disobedience, Johnson said, "if you are uncomfortable with the direction of education, you don't have to offer them the data. That's yours." Opt-out loopholes often come in the form of religious exemptions.
Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist whose research is often used to back test-based policies, said the group isn't nationally representative.
"I don't think there's a large contingent of parents who think we shouldn't be testing," Hanushek said. "There's a very vocal anti-accountability group, but it's not a group that's captured the hearts and minds of parents."
According to a recent survey, 29 percent of Americans believe that standardized test scores are "very important" for determining teacher pay; another 44 percent believe they're a "somewhat important factor."
While proponents of opting out say high-stakes tests must end, they're not opposed to all standardized tests. Johnson said he believes exams like the low-stakes National Assessment for Educational Progress can be a useful barometer of learning.
Several of United Opt Out's endorsers overlap with members of the "Save Our Schools" movement, a group that marched in Washington last July in protest of what they see as an increasingly corporate tinge to education policy. While both teachers' unions donated to SOS, representatives from both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association said they had no official ties to United Opt Out.