Taking Opting-Out Seriously: Two TC researchers seek to understand a burgeoning | Teachers College Columbia University

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Taking Opting-Out Seriously: Two TC researchers seek to understand a burgeoning national movement


Why are so many students in the United States declining to take state-mandated standardized tests? What motivates parents who want their children to opt out of the exams?  Are those who opt out simply trying to protect their children, or do they have broader political aims?

These are some of the important – and still largely unanswered – questions that Oren Pizmony-Levy, Assistant Professor in International & Comparative Education, and Assistant Adjunct Professor Nancy Green Saraisky (Ph.D. ’15), hope to address through the first major nationwide survey of participants in the “opt out” movement.  The online survey has already garnered more than 1,200 responses, and the researchers hope to generate as large a sample as possible before they close it at the end of March and analyze the results.

While the opt out movement has generated intense media interest over the past several years, the goals and motivations of those who participate in it are not well understood, Pizmony-Levy says, in part because the mainstream media often oversimplifies or even misrepresents them. The survey’s quantitative and qualitative data, which includes lengthy written answers by respondents, will for the first time give detailed and nuanced insights into the often complex attitudes and motivations of participants and sympathizers. 

“Here we have the opportunity to listen to the public and really try to understand what people are thinking, and what their concerns are,” says Pizmony-Levy. “It’s a type of collective behavior, and it’s important that we understand what people are trying to accomplish. We have to take a serious look at this movement, where it’s coming from and where it is headed.”


One thing is already clear:  those who opt out want to be part of the conversation. “The data we have gathered thus far demonstrate how eager participants are to share their views,” says Green Saraisky. “They want to be heard and are providing thoughtful insight into why they participate in the opt out movement.”

Media attention to opting out reached a fever pitch last summer, when it was reported that 20 percent of New York students – four times as many as the previous year – had sat out the state’s reading and math exams for grades 3 through 8. With similar mass opt-outs taking place in other states, Pizmony-Levy believes that an in-depth study is needed to better understand what has become a national phenomenon.

The survey addresses four major questions: Who are the participants in the “opt-out” movement? How do they become involved? Why are they participating? And what do they think about the education system in the United States?

Pizmony-Levy and Green Saraisky emphasize that the project is being conducted without any outside funding, something they believe will reassure prospective participants that the project has no political agenda.

The two researchers, who have both studied international educational assessments, felt compelled to conduct the survey after doing some initial interviews with opt out activists and realizing that opposition to state-mandated tests often cut across political affiliations, creating an unusual political example of “strange bedfellows.” While conservatives may want their children to opt out of testing because they oppose direct government involvement in the classroom, Pizmony-Levy says, a progressive parent may fear that the tests will give corporations access to student data. Understanding such differences is key to the project. – Ellen Livingston

Those interested in participating in the opt-out study may find the link to the survey at www.orenpizmonylevy.com/



Published Wednesday, Feb 24, 2016

Oren Pizmony-Levy
Oren Pizmony-Levy, Assistant Professor of International & Comparative Education
Nancy Green Saraisky
Assistant Adjunct Professor Nancy Green Saraisky (Ph.D. '15)