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During the late years of the Obama administration, parents in New York State built a standardized-testing boycott that shook the education bureaucracy and inspired similar “opt out” movements nationwide.

New York’s powerful education leaders were stunned almost three years ago when 20 percent of the state’s 1.1 million eligible students refused exams. That astonishing rate ticked up to 21 percent in 2016. The numbers translated into influence for the leaders of the protest, who wanted to reverse testing policies adopted in New York and elsewhere largely because of Obama’s Race To The Top initiative.

“We have a seat at the table now,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a Long Island parent who became the most prominent leader of New York’s “opt out” movement. “We have access to the policymakers.”

But obtaining power and keeping it are different challenges. Now, the statewide protest has begun to stagnate almost everywhere outside its Long Island birthplace. The movement is having a bit of an existential crisis, and its leaders are searching for a way to jumpstart it.

Any regression could not only undermine the boycott’s relevance in the Empire State but also weaken the protest in places where it was more fragile to begin with.

Mike Hynes, superintendent of a Long Island district and a rare outspoken administrator on the side of test refusal, said he worries the movement’s clout could be short-lived.

“I’m nervous for what it will look like [once] that leverage goes away, ” he said. “Nobody would ever listen to you if you were just a gaggle of parents.”

As ‘opt out’ gains influence, protests lose steam

Since their movement began, New York’s “opt out” leaders have made inroads into virtually every level of government.

They’ve elected parents to local school boards, doled out sought-after endorsements to state Senate candidates, met with Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, earned seats on task forces convened by the independent state Board of Regents, fielded personal phone calls from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and testified in front of the U.S. Senate education committee.

The movement’s leaders broadened their focus to education issues beyond standardized testing, weighing in on the state’s academic standards, high school graduation requirements and even policies governing recess. Some left-leaning parents in the movement also now see an opportunity to shift their fight to the Trump administration’s agenda of private alternatives to public education like charter schools and vouchers.

In response to the protests, state education officials slowed or reversed many of the reform initiatives that had sparked them in the first place.

Education commissioner MaryEllen Elia ordered a locally driven process for revising New York’s grade-level curriculum guidelines, tweaking and re-branding the controversial Common Core standards. The State Education Department ditched private test-maker Pearson, contracting instead with a lesser-known and thus less controversial vendor. The state shortened the exams and got rid of time limits. And there’s a four-year moratorium on the use of test results to evaluate teacher performance, a policy parents resented because they argued it encouraged teaching to the test.

Last year, following the changes, New York’s total “opt out” rate declined to 19 percent. A Newsday analysis found the statewide rate would be 14 percent excluding Long Island, where rates exceed 50 percent and are still increasing.

More than three-quarters of the state’s roughly 700 school districts reported a decrease in “opt out” rates in 2017, while 22 percent experienced spikes and 2 percent saw no change. That’s according to an analysis of state data by High Achievement New York, a nonprofit coalition of business and education reform groups that has funded campaigns to counter “opt out.”

The movement, which has been strongest in New York’s white and suburban areas, has been particularly weak in metropolitan areas.

Test refusal numbers in the state’s “big five” cities — New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers — have always lagged suburbs. But the relatively lower numbers in urban areas remained flat or dropped significantly last year, the study shows. The boycott rates in Syracuse and Yonkers were cut in half from 2016 to 2017. Traditional public schools in New York City reported only about 3 percent in both years.

“Opt out” organizers explain the waning numbers as a predictable side effect of the cyclical nature of federal standardized testing mandates. The exams are for third through eighth graders. So, as longtime participants’ children age out, parents of younger children must join up in order to ensure stability.

“One of the things that has made the ‘opt out’ movement plateau is we are not replacing students who are moving beyond eighth grade,” said Chris Cerrone, who teaches in a suburban district and serves as a school board member in a rural one, both near Buffalo.

With respect to cities in particular, “opt out” leaders quickly rattle off the reasons it’s so hard to get parents in those districts to skip state tests. Chief among them, they argue, is the lack of local control.

On Long Island — and in much of suburban and rural New York, for that matter — districts are small, and school board members must be accountable and responsive to parents or risk losing their reelection bids. But in big city districts, board members represent many more schools, and parents’ individual voices matter less.

The movement has a hard time breaking through in New York City, parent activists argue, because the mayor is in charge of schools, and there is no elected board. What’s more, historically, test scores have played a bigger role in decisions about whether to promote students from one grade to the next. And exams still act as gatekeepers for elite public middle and high schools.

“There is a climate of fear in New York City,” said Jia Lee, a Manhattan special education teacher and parent who recently challenged the powerful incumbent president of the city’s teachers’ union and lost. “There is not a systematic, comprehensive way for a large city like ours to be able to spread the message.”

Parents have been deterred, too, by threats from the federal government that their children’s schools will lose funding if “opt out” rates are too high. So far, officials have not made good on those threats. “Opt out” leaders rail against state and district administrators and even media outlets for spreading what they say is misinformation about what’s at stake for schools and students.

However, their main argument — that there are no consequences for children who refuse exams — doesn’t hold up in many of New York’s poor urban communities, where threats of school takeovers or closures are persistent, as is tough competition from alternatives like privately run charter schools.

“Most of the schools that are targeted for closure are schools that are in low-income communities of color,” said Kemala Karmen, a Brooklyn “opt out” leader whose children attend a progressive Manhattan high school. “It’s harder to organize because the threat of school closure is very, very real.”

The struggle over urban parents

To “opt out” leaders, the only way forward is increasing participation in urban areas, especially among parents of color.

Here’s how state education officials summarized the most recent numbers in August: “Proportionally, students who refused to test in 2017 were: much more likely to be white, much more likely to be from [an affluent or middle class] district, less likely to be economically disadvantaged, much less likely to be an English Language Learner.”

Some parent activists contend the protest is growing stronger in more diverse communities, pointing to majority-minority districts on Long Island.

“A lot of people claim this is just a white suburban movement. In New York, especially on Long Island, we’re seeing larger concentrations of black and brown children whose parents are refusing testing for them,” said Marla Kilfoyle, a Long Island mother and executive director of the national activist group Badass Teachers Association. “That’s very, very important, because, historically, black and brown families have been really, really slighted by the education system.”

Several parents of color who support “opt out” said Long Island leaders have deployed them to predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods to try to recruit others.

Charmaine Dixon, a Brooklyn mother and “opt out” proponent, said she has a face other black parents respond to.

When she spoke in 2016 at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood in her borough, “the parents were nodding,” Dixon said. “They can see, yes, she is African American. Yes, her daughter is right there.”

There’s a reason why the white suburban mothers who began the influential protest several years ago take a back seat when they go to schools and neighborhoods where other parents don’t look like them.

“We know that, as white women, we can’t walk into black communities and say, ‘Refuse your kids from testing,’” Kilfoyle said. “We are coming from a very heightened place of privilege.”

But the institutions hoping to stop the “opt out” movement also see urban parents as crucial allies. High Achievement New York, the coalition that aims to reverse the boycott, has concentrated its resources in urban areas.

With support from local chambers of commerce and business councils as well as education reform advocacy groups bankrolled by pro-charter school hedge funders, the group tracked “opt out” as closely as the movement’s organizers themselves. One of its takeaways last year: “CITIES AMONG LEADERS IN PARTICIPATION: NYC Public Schools, NYC Charters, Yonkers, Troy, Syracuse and Poughkeepsie all rank among the 50 districts with the lowest opt-out rates around NY State.”

Executive director Stephen Sigmund said the organization is building on existing support for standardized testing in urban areas, where parents see exams as a way of exposing schools that are failing their children.

“Higher expectations and aligned assessments were an effort to try to correct that,” he said. “Parents in the urban areas recognize the importance of leveling the playing field.”

The sensitive racial politics of diversifying ‘opt out’

To some parents of color, the “opt out” movement’s targeted recruitment of minorities seems exploitative. They say white activists — especially Long Island mothers whose kids attend well-funded, high-performing schools — have no business telling them what decisions they should make for their children.

“They want people of color and people in urban communities to add to their numbers so they can grow,” said Sam Radford, a prominent black parent leader in Buffalo and proponent of standardized testing. “You wouldn’t have to convince people of something that was in their interest.”

The history of institutional racism in education is what drives many educators and parents of color on both sides of the “opt out” fight.

Jamaal Bowman, principal of a public middle school in the Bronx, said it’s important to interrogate why some black parents see the testing boycott as a white movement.

“Especially as a black man in America, I am very familiar with what’s implied there,” Bowman said. “It’s OK for white families to exercise their power as American citizens, and it has never been OK for us to do so.”

But he said he understands why black parents are mixed on “opt out.” They see standardized testing as a tool that black people have used throughout American history to prove they were worthy of gaining access to heretofore white institutions, like Ivy League universities, he said.

Eileen Graham, a black mother who has organized “opt out” in Rochester, said the boycott is about reclaiming the power parents of color are often denied. She tries to convince her peers that refusing tests will give them leverage.

Graham has three children who attended Rochester’s public schools, but she recently began homeschooling her fifth grader. She said urban schools too often place black children in special education inappropriately or lead them to prison, with testing as a central tool for “demonizing” them.

In Rochester, only 8 percent of students passed state English and math exams last year. Ten schools in the district are under receivership.

“As a parent, I’m ready to declare a state of emergency. I feel like I have the power,” Graham said. “The kids cannot read and write. We need to collaborate and come together and do something, and I believe that is ‘opt out.’”

Parents who have actively fought to protect standardized testing make a similar argument about ensuring their children have access to a quality education. Poor student performance on tests can be the proof parents need to force the government to improve their schools, some said.

“Where I live, a lot of the schools have been doing poorly,” said Crystal Lee-McJunkin, whose son attends a public school in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. “I have to constantly fight to make sure he is getting a quality education. I feel like the test helps.”

Patricia Elliott-Patton has gone to great lengths to try to get her 11th grader, Kimberley, out of failing schools in Buffalo. She filed a federal civil rights complaint against the district in 2013, alleging the city’s specialized high schools use admissions criteria that discriminate against minority students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights validated her claims, ordering the district to implement more inclusive policies.

Elliott-Patton moved her daughter from one public school to the next before eventually homeschooling her and then enrolling her in a charter school. In one case, Elliott-Patton changed schools because her daughter was being bullied. In another, she felt Kimberley was being pushed into special education classes despite not having a diagnosed disability.

When Kimberley was in seventh grade, she was reading at a third-grade level. Her teachers encouraged her to skip the English test because she was likely to fail it, Elliott-Patton said.

So the mother agreed. But later she regretted her decision. She said “opting out” destroyed the girl’s confidence.

“She felt, ‘I opted out of the test. I am not smart enough to do good, and I don’t want to learn,’” Elliott-Patton said. “She had a very deficit feeling about her abilities after that.”

Ultimately, Elliott-Patton decided she trusted the test more than her daughter’s teachers to accurately describe how well she was doing. The mom resents some of Kimberley’s teachers for “dumbing down” the material for her as she fell further and further behind.

“Opt out” might work for Long Island mothers. But not for her, Elliott-Patton said.

“I don’t live in the white suburban area. I live in the inner city. I struggle. And it’s important for me to know that my child is learning,” she said.

“It’s important for me because my child is a little black girl here in the inner city, and she has to grow up to do more than a basic retail job,” she said. “But at the rate things are going, she is not going to be able to do much more than that. The results of the exams matter.”