The Opt-Out Movement

In recent years, amidst criticism against reliance on standardized assessments in schools, increased attention has focused on students refusing to take state-mandated standardized tests or “opting out.” During the 2014-15 school year, the controversial rollout of the Common Core Standards and corresponding assessments, led to numerous press accounts detailing the threat of growing numbers of students opting out. Early anecdotal reports from schools and districts suggest a wide disparity in opt out rates among states and districts.

Though data quantifying the extent to which students actually opt out has not been released in most states, the New York state education department reported that 20 percent of New York state students in grades 3-8 eligible to take the statewide tests in reading and math for the 2014-15 school year did not do so.1 The data show the students who opted out were more likely to be white and from affluent districts.2 These students were also more likely to have failed to achieve proficiency on the previous year’s exams, while they were less likely to be economically disadvantaged or English-language learners.

The potential consequences for schools and students if large numbers of students forego annual testing vary at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, the ESEA requires each school to test at least 95 percent of its students or else the district or state could face sanctions, such as the loss of Title I funding for low-income students.3 Although the federal participation requirements are clear, the actual consequences are less so for a few reasons. For one, the consequences tied to the 95 percent threshold are linked to the ESEA requirement that states demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on state assessments, a key provision waived by the U.S. Department of Education through the ESEA waiver process. Therefore the threshold lacks meaning in states operating under a waiver, including New York. Further, historically, the US Department of Education has been reluctant to impose monetary sanctions affecting program-related funds for states failing to comply with federal requirements. In cases where sanctions have been imposed, US Department of Education has generally opted to limit withholding to administrative dollars allocated to state education agencies. Whether and how the U.S. Department of Education will intervene in New York or any other states reporting high levels of opting out remains to be seen.

At the state level, requirements for assessment participation span the full range of possibilities. For example, in spite of federal participation mandates, some states, such as California and Utah, allow parents to opt their children out of state assessments for any reason. But state laws elsewhere, such as Arkansas and Texas, specifically prohibit opting out.4 At the local level, opting out can affect individual students since many states require assessment passage for grade promotion or high school graduation. While portfolios and other tests such as the SAT or ACT are often accepted as substitutes for annual state assessments, no state or district has had to deal with cases of widespread opting-out. So the real consequences are as yet undocumented.5

  1. Andrew Ujifusa, “N.Y. Opt-Out Rate Hits 20 Percent on Common-Core Tests,” Education Week, August 12, 2015, accessed August 14, 2015:
  2. Matthew M. Chingos, “Who Opts Out of State Tests?,” Brookings Institution, June 18, 2015:
  3. Lauren Camera “States Seek Guidance in Face of ‘Opt Out’ Push,’” Education Week, April 1, 2015, accessed June 26, 2015,
  4. “Assessment Opt-Out Policies: State responses to parent pushback,” Education Commission of the States (2015), accessed June 26, 2015,
  5. Scott Travis, “High-Stakes Tests: Parents Defiant, Lawmakers Listening,” Sun Sentinel,  January 30, 2015, accessed May 5, 2016,
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