On state test day at school, all the students file in, sharpen their No. 2 pencils, and bend over their bubble sheets.
In Cooperstown, New York last month, sixty-one percent of students in grades 3-8 refused to take the state tests. They call it “opting out.” They’re part of a push in New York and elsewhere to refuse tests as a form of protest against controversial education policies.
At Cooperstown, the opt-out fervor even made it into this week’s school board election, where one of the candidates was a vocal “opt-outer.”
“I think there’s a lot of frustration from parents, there’s a lot of frustration from teachers,” Tabetha Rathbone said at a recent candidates’ forum. “Quite honestly, that’s why I’m running.”
Rathbone opted her third grade son out of the tests. She says the tipping point for her was a slate of new education policies from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. One of them ties teacher evaluations closely to student test scores.
“A lot of people said, ‘You know if we don’t opt out, it’s almost like we’re opting in,’” she says.
But now, after more than half of Cooperstown students refused, the school is in a bind. Schools can get in trouble if a lot of their students opt out. The federal government requires schools to get nearly everyone to take the tests. If a school misses the mark multiple years in a row, there’s a possibility it could lose funding.
Cooperstown Superintendent C.J. Hebert has never had that problem before. Last year, just a handful of his students opted out. This year, he says he doesn’t know how he can improve test participation.
“Other than assist with the communication and talk about what we utilize the test results for, and we certainly do,” he says.
So, public relations, essentially. It’s Hebert’s only option. And he says the state education department didn’t help.
“It really was a lackluster job of getting the information out, or P.R. if you will,” he says. “I think there’s been a lot of misinformation and disinformation that’s been disseminated.”
Most of the reasons for opting out aren’t things a school controls. Hebert says that’s why New York state is going to have to fix this – starting with those controversial teacher evaluations.
“What will occur in the future both in Cooperstown and elsewhere, I think it’s going to be based on whether people feel that the evaluation is fair,” he says.
For right now, schools like Hebert’s are in limbo. It’s not clear yet what New York will do about the test refusal. The state says it will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to take away any funding.
School board candidate and mom Tabetha Rathbone says she never wanted to create a hassle for her school.
That’s the whole, I guess, aspect of civil disobedience,” she says. “You know in New York City when they’re marching down the streets, they’re inconveniencing the people who are trying to drive down the streets. It’s not fair, but that’s just kind of what happens.”
Rathbone says the “opt out” venture sent a message that’s hard to ignore. And she says until the people in charge show they’re listening, she won’t be “opting” back “in.”