Democrats Wage War on Themselves Over Opt-Out Movement
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An unintended consequence of the Common Core standards-and-assessments scheme is dissension among liberal interests over the testing. The “opt out” movement comprises essentially two categories: parent activists seeking to protect their children from the useless or even harmful Common Core computerized testing, which is designed less to assess academic content knowledge than to collect psychological data on students; and the liberal, no-accountability, never-test crowd, who object to students’ taking any standardized tests, even validated academic tests not aligned to Common Core. But a powerful liberal cohort also resides in the Common Core education-establishment universe, which pushes more and more computerized assessments not only to collect psychological data on students, but also to enrich the testing companies and other hangers-on that profit from testing accoutrements, such as the required technology. (There is also a powerful, parallel GOP cohort that pushes the same agenda.)

The tangle of agendas illustrates that centralization schemes can create the strangest allies.

One arena for combat is the proposed regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). John King — who was pretty much chased out of New York State when he doggedly pushed Common Core standards and testing there — continues to do the bidding of the Common Core establishment as Secretary of Education. His proposed ESSA regulations would penalize any school in which more than five percent of the students opt out of the testing. Such schools would be designated “in need of improvement” and subject to (so far undefined) punishment.

King’s proposal has not gone over well in, for example, Long Island, where last April more than half of eligible students opted out of the testing. His opponents argue that ESSA itself supports their position by requiring states to notify parents of state laws and policies allowing them to opt out (the Johnny Isakson amendment). But the Senate rejected a Mike Lee amendment that would have explicitly permitted penalty-free opt outs, thus allowing the progressive educrats who drafted ESSA, and their clueless or complicit Republican allies in Congress, to give King his opening for punitive overreach.

Also wading into the opt-out battle are civil-rights groups, and they’re coming down on opposite sides of the issue. In May 2015 a group of organizations including the NAACP and National Council of La Raza issued a statement criticizing the opt-out movement as hindering measurement of minority students’ achievement and enabling cover-up of disparities in achievement, and thus interfering with efforts to equalize resources and outcomes.

Other civil-rights groups have a different view. In response to the anti-opt-out statement, the Network for Public Education released its own statement skewering the current educational environment for over-testing and using “culturally biased” assessments. This group also put a different slant on the parent activists’ objection to psychological data-collection, raising concerns that such psychological analysis could be used to “rank, sort, label, and punish students of color.”

The most visible arena for this intra-Left fight is the platform-drafting process for the Democratic Party. The 2016 platform contains a plank endorsing parental rights to opt out of high-stakes testing. Previous platform testing language expressed commitment to “strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction.” But the new language goes much further:

To that end, we encourage states to develop a multiple measures approach to assessment, and we believe that standardized tests must meet American Statistical Association standards for reliability and validity. We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing, [and] the use of standardized test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.… We also support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their (sic) school.

While this language was welcomed by the civil-rights opt-outers and other advocates who are fighting what they call “corporate school reform,” the pro-testing education-establishment liberals (embodied in Democrats for Education Reform) warned that the new language “threatens to roll back” President Obama’s “historic education legacy.”

Despite the conflict, the language survived at the convention. But the rest of the “education” plank is horrible in many respects — endorsing universal preschool, education as workforce development, etc. So don’t expect the Democrats to become the party of parental rights. But in the meantime, it’s entertaining to watch the top-down centralizers try to regain control over recalcitrant activists on their own side of the aisle. It’s safe to say they didn’t foresee this.

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