Promoting White Privilege: A look at the Opt-Out Movement By Sarah L. Hairston

The opt-out movement from high-stakes assessments has increased in the past three to four years (Pizmony-Levy & Saraisky, 2016).  Using news reports and detailed surveys, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing website (2017) reported more than 675,000 students […]

The opt-out movement from high-stakes assessments has increased in the past three to four years (Pizmony-Levy & Saraisky, 2016).  Using news reports and detailed surveys, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing website (2017) reported more than 675,000 students refusing to take state accountability assessments across the U.S. in 2015. A call to opt-out of government-mandated assessments is increasingly prevalent across the country – most notably among white families (Pizmony-Levy & Saraisky, 2016). The distinction in race is a necessary point of interrogation.

Government-mandated accountability assessments are designed to provide public measures of achievement that label schools and students as either successful or failing and carry with it potential punitive measures (Harris & Herrington, 2006). The opt-out movement is a grass-roots effort by parents, students, and educators who are opposed to the misuse and overuse of such accountability assessments and seek ways to abstain from them. Since the majority of children being opted out of assessments are white, one must consider whether white privilege plays a role. In order to do so, I will look at government-mandated accountability assessments, the opt-out movement, and how white privilege is manifested within the movement.

Government-Mandated Accountability Assessment

The policy discourse of the past two decades has focused on increased efficiency, accountability, and global competition within public education which in turn led to the creation and emergence of high-stakes accountability assessments. According to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (2017), on average, students take 112 government-mandated accountability assessments between kindergarten and 12th grade.

Proponents of these assessments find them useful in guiding decision making regarding a student’s learning despite research yielding “sparse evidence that it has produced measurable or observable improvements in educational outcomes” (Hansen, 1993). However, the predominance of assessments raises multiple concerns regarding the use of class time for preparation for the test, as well as stress placed on the students. More insidious concerns regarding accountability assessments include: the kind of data being reported; government overreach; misguided and unfair teacher evaluations based on scores; profit growth for assessment companies; use of assessments as a tool for the privatization by creating a discourse of “failure;” and a perpetuation of a neoliberal agenda within education through hegemonic testing measures (Ambrosio, 2013; Davis & Student Nation, 2013; Eissler, 2015; Pizmony-Levy & Saraisky, 2016). Opponents claim that these accountability assessments are both pervasive and used inappropriately.

While government based accountability assessments have raised a variety of concerns that affect students in general, for students of color these assessments further perpetuate racial inequities (Hursh, 2007). Average test scores on accountability assessments throughout the 1990s show an increased gap in achievement between black and white students (Harris & Herrington, 2006). Borg, Plumlee, & Stranahan (2007) claim that schools with larger percentage of students of color will likely continue to have lower average student scores on accountability assessments. Under these conditions, accountability assessments are an “act of whiteness” (Leonardo, 2009). Despite the federal government’s intention for accountability assessments to check whether students of color are receiving an equal education comparatively to their white peers, these biased assessment measures falsely position white students as intellectually superior to their black counterparts.

According to Luker, Luker, and Cobb (2001), accountability assessments are established in a manner that “successfully fertilizes the roots of bigotry and racial discrimination in the USA much more effectively than the rantings of even the most bigoted of the white supremacists” (p. 991). These accountability assessments implicitly position white culture at the forefront of educational concerns and normalize whiteness, making it impossible for students of color to ever truly perform at the same level as their white counterparts.

The Opt-Out Movement

According to a survey conducted by Pizmony-Levy and Saraisky (2016) “the typical opt-out activist is a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average” (p. 6). In contrast, according to a Phi Delta Kappan poll 67 percent of black respondents are in opposition to opting out (Richardson, 2016, p. 17). Opposition to the opt-out movement also includes special interest groups for people of color – such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – which argue that the information gathered by accountability assessments provide specific data that helps to identify achievement gaps and provides rationale for potential corrective action (Reger, 2016). However, this rationale positions accountability assessments as unavoidable, allowing for the continued identification of deficient students and more specifically deficient groups of students based on race.

In order to opt-out of government-mandated accountability assessments, a parent needs to understand how to navigate district and state policy.  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns much of the authority for accountability and decision-making back to the states and local school districts, which was previously in federal hands due to the No Child Left Behind Act (National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2016). A new measure within ESSA allows states to permit parents to opt their children out of the 17 federally required tests (The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, 2017). However, ESSA also requires states to have 95 percent of their students participating in the federally required tests or be at risk of federal sanctions including the potential loss of funding creating little incentive for states to support opt-out policies, and little incentive for publicizing opt-out alternatives to parents.

It is difficult to assess states’ opt-out policies and practices as they are either ambiguous or do not exist. Mitra, Mann, & Hlavacik (2016) codified each states’ practices regarding the ability of parents to opt-out their children from accountability assessments. California and Wisconsin allow parents to opt-out their children, while New Jersey denies parents opt-out rights. The remaining states’ opt-out policies and practices are more ambiguous and many are tied to grade level promotions or other punitive consequences. Due to the fragmented opt-out policies and the lack of incentive for states and school districts to share opt-out information, it is difficult for parents to understand their rights without the help of activist educators and grass-roots organizations.

White Privilege

As the opt-out movement continues to rise, it is important to be cognizant of the racial divide between those who typically opt out of such assessments and those who do not.  As Gillborn (2005) states, “one of the most powerful and dangerous aspects of whiteness is that many (possibly the majority) of white people have no awareness of whiteness as a construction, let alone their own role in sustaining and playing out the inequities at the heart of whiteness” (p. 490). Ignoring the apparent discrepancy of who opts out of accountability assessments can unintentionally promote these constructions of whiteness.

Whiteness is a socially constructed privilege enacted by the subordination of “others” that requires saturation throughout all aspects of life, including educational practices, in order to secure domination (Harris, 1995; Leonardo, 2009). Racial privilege asserts that there are greater advantages to those socially viewed as white. Public schools contribute to the saturation of the hegemony of whiteness through policies and practices that stratify democratic capability and silence possible activism by people of color (Allen, 2004). With states developing ambiguous opt-out policies, and states and school districts not transparently communicating the procedures of opting-out of governmental accountability assessments, the policies and procedures are a case of de facto stratification, whereas the ones with the means, the access, and the opportunity to find the path towards opting-out are the only ones able to do so. This de facto government sponsored entitlement privileges communities with more capital, and disadvantage those communities and students already at a disadvantage.

Another issue in the opt-out movement is that it continues the social construction of whiteness through meritocracy. It allows for arguments to be constructed that white affluent students not be burdened or made to suffer through government accountability assessments as they are above and disconnected from the need for evaluation. Inconspicuously such an argument assigns blame to students of color, and remedies that blame by subjecting those students of color to assessments not necessary for affluent white students. Such an argument is doubly problematic, not only in the continued construction of disadvantage to students of color, but by normalizing governmental accountability assessments as beneath white students.

According to critical whiteness studies (CWS), whiteness must be acknowledged in its privileged position and its contribution to the “permanence of race and racism” (Allen, 2004; Leonardo, 2009). It is important that those involved in the opt-out movement (grass roots organizations, parents and educators) challenge the potential white norm of their agency behind opting out to help abolish and deconstruct whiteness and recognize how whiteness within the opt-out movement can possibly further support racial hegemony (Nayak, 2007).

Modern whiteness is accompanied by an opposition to structural and state-based solutions to racial problems. While groups advocating for people of color are in favor of accountability assessments as a check towards racial equality and equity, the opt-out movement, in its current white dominated structure, once again supports this opposition to structural and state-based solutions to racial problems. By diminishing the necessity of government accountability assessments, the proponents of the opt-out movement do not get to other possible, and much larger, problems within public education. They, instead, advocate for the problem that most affects their child – and not for the larger racial problems of unequal funding, segregation, and violent policies that affect students of color.  While proposed policies to equalize funding, to dismantle segregation, and to allow for non-violent approaches to education would improve public education for more students, such policies may also negatively affect the “economic and cultural lives” of white families and communities. Therefore, focusing on government based accountability assessments, leaves the bigger problems in place.

References

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Sarah L. Hairston is a Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Previously, she taught theatre and public speaking for 16 years and holds an Educational Specialist degree in Educational Leadership and a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Her current research interests include educational policy, structural violence in education, student voice, and educational activism.

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