Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.


Schools in every state are buzzing this year with talk of “personalized” learning and 21st century assessments for kids as young as kindergarten. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its innovative pilot programs are already changing the ways schools instruct and assess, in ways that are clearly harmful to our kids. Ed-tech companies, chambers of commerce, ALEC, neoliberal foundations, telecommunications companies, and the government are working diligently to turn our public schools into lean, efficient laboratories of data-driven, digital learning.

In the near future, learning eco-systems of cyber education mixed with a smattering of community-based learning opportunities (ELOs) will “optimize” a child’s personal learning pathway to college and career readiness.

Opt out families are being set up as pawns in this fake “assessment reform” movement. I began to realize this a year ago when our dysfunctional, Broad Superintendent-led school district was suddenly almost eager to help us inform parents of their rights to opt out. It wasn’t until the ESSA passed, and I started learning more about competency-based education, out-of-school time learning, and workforce badging that the bigger picture came into focus.

Here’s how we were set up:

  1. The reformers created a disaster in the form of end-of-year, high-stakes tests knowing that parents, teachers, and students would push back.
  2. By tweaking the details of how the disaster played out, they were able to provoke specific responses that could be turned to their advantage later.
  3. After a pre-determined period of suffering, they offered us “solutions.” (see ESSA)
  4. While the proposals at first glance seem to address our concerns, in reality they justify a transition to a standards-driven, digital curriculum that will create comprehensive online databanks of our children’s academic and social-emotional strengths and weaknesses.

The lines in italics below are what we, as caring parents and teachers, have said in response to the harmful end-of-year tests and test-prep imposed our children. Those lines alternate with the “solutions” we can expect to see forced on us as they implement innovative, future-ready schools. These “solutions” are appearing in low-income districts, as well as affluent ones. They may brand the messaging differently, but no one is exempt.

Children shouldn’t be standardized.

Right! How about a “personalized” education? It will use an online learning management system that pulls directly from your child’s own, unique academic, biometric, and behavioral data. It will know ALL your child’s strengths and weakness and record EVERYTHING for future optimization. And we’ll upload all the data into their personal Learning Record Store so it will ALWAYS be available.

Plus, hybrid or blended learning offers a great cost-savings for districts on a tight budget. By outsourcing instructional time to computers, we don’t need as many human teachers. Be assured that when your child DOES get to interact with his/her teacher, it’s going to be REAL quality time!

These end-of-year tests come back too late to meaningfully inform instruction.

Of course! So now we’re focusing on formative assessments-lots of them. We’ve built them directly into the learning management system (LMS) so the results appear effortlessly in your child’s personal data dashboard! As kids spend more and more time with the LMSs, our teachers (or “mentors” as we now like to call them) will be freed up to dive deeply into those piles of incoming data!

These tests are too stressful!

We hear you! And we’ve come up with a way to extract the necessary data as painlessly as possible. Our skilled psychometricians have embedded tests into the online curriculum. They’re called“ stealth assessments.” At any given point your child won’t know whether they are being tested or not. We’re even investigating ways to alter children’s brains through device interfaces to level the learning playing field for all!

I think it’s important to look at the whole child, not just a test score.

We agree, and to show you how committed we are to this new approach we’re dedicating ourselves to monitoring your child’s social-emotional learning and “soft skills,” too. We know that when it comes to workforce development, it’s not just WHAT you know, but who you ARE that counts.

Our goal is to start building that data profile from pre-kindergarten on to ensure accuracy and robustness. We want to ensure they get on and stay on the correct pathway to their future place in the workforce.

All this emphasis on testing has limited our children’s access to recess and their ability to play. We need more play in school, especially in the younger grades.

There are A LOT of studies that show the importance of play in developing skills like teamwork and resilience. It’s unfortunate that we don’t realistically foresee having sufficient funds to cover staff supervision of playgrounds. BUT…we have come up with a number of online games that are designed to build the same skill sets and hit our standards targets. And the side benefit is that they are integrated with our data collection system. It’s a win-win-win: fun, competition, AND data!

With all the money our district has been spending on technology required for testing, there isn’t enough left over to offer our children a curriculum rich in arts and electives.

We all know that money is tight. But we do value a well-rounded curriculum. And that is why we are working very hard with our “out-of-school-time” community partners to develop ELOs (extended, enhanced, expanded learning opportunities). The plan is to allow students to earn school credit OUTSIDE of school. Because in the 21st century, you can learn any time and any place!

Plus, we just don’t see having certified teachers for art and music, coaches, librarians as a good value proposition when we can outsource those functions to community-based nonprofits. Fewer humans on staff = lower pension payments and lower taxes in the long run, right?

Opt out families nationwide are encountering these same arguments, as though a pre-set trap is being sprung. Great. So opting out of end-of-year testing isn’t the silver bullet we hoped it would be. Now what?

Now that we know the whole story, go ahead and opt out of the end of the year tests. No child should suffer through them. But we have to expand our definition of opting out, to protect our children from data mining and stop the shift to embedded assessments and digital curriculum.

In addition to opting out of end-of-year testing, there are other important steps we need to take to safeguard our children’s access to human teachers and to protect their data, their vision, and their emotional health. There is no set playbook, but here are some ideas to get us started.

1. Opt your child out of Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

2. If your school offers a device for home use, decline to sign the waiver for it and/or pay the fee.

3. Does your child’s assigned email address include a unique identifier, like their student ID number? If yes, request a guest log in so that their data cannot be aggregated.

4. Refuse biometric monitoring devices (e.g. fit bits).

5. Refuse to allow your child’s behavioral, or social-emotional data to be entered into third-party applications. (e.g. Class Dojo)

6. Refuse in-class social networking programs (e.g. EdModo).

7. Set a screen time maximum per day/per week for your child.

8. Opt young children out of in school screen time altogether and request paper and pencil assignments and reading from print books (not ebooks).

9. Begin educating parents about the difference between “personalized” learning modules that rely on mining PII (personally-identifiable information) to function properly and technology that empowers children to create and share their own content.

10. Insist that school budgets prioritize human instruction and that hybrid/blended learning not be used as a back door way to increase class size or push online classes.

Parents, teachers, school administrators, and students must begin to look critically at the technology investments we are making in schools. We have to start advocating for responsible tools that empower our children to be creators (and I don’t mean of data), NOT consumers of pre-packaged, corporate content or online games. We must prioritize HUMAN instruction and learning in relationship to one another. We need more face time and less screen time.

Every time a parent acts to protect their child from these harmful policies, it throws a wrench into the gears of this machine. The steamroller of education reform doesn’t stand a chance against an empowered, educated army of parents, teachers and students. Use your power to refuse. Stand together, stand firm, be loud, and grab a friend. Cumulatively our actions will bring down this beast!

I am one of a number of bloggers who decided to collaborate and post our reflections on the opt out movement and where we need to head next. As the pieces go up, I will link to them here. I encourage you to check to the other posts and they fill out the picture, raise other questions, and offer additional strategies.

Peggy Robertson, Busted Pencils: Opt Out is Dead
“The key is refusing the online testing and curriculum IN MASS. One person trying to do this alone has a hard road and a slim chance of succeeding – ultimately this online curriculum will be tied to grades (and already is in many cities), therefore making it more challenging to refuse.  Parents and citizens, in mass, who speak to the school board, who publicize their desire to refuse this online curriculum, can win. Expose it. Gather support. And REFUSE IT. Demand authentic learning by authentic teachers in democratic classroom settings.”

Cheri Kiesecker, Missouri Education Watchdog: ABCs of Classrooms at Risk: Don’t Just Opt Out
“Ask your school what online vendors (like Knewton) they use. Ask to see data contracts, the data collected and shared. Ask why your child is exposed to more and more screen time, and industrial strength Wi-Fi at school. Ask to have the radiation levels measured, and ask to follow these best practices when using Wi-Fi.  Ask to have amount of screen time documented and limited to pediatrician recommended limits.  Remember your child’s  classroom, your child,  is being subjected to much more than just one end of the year test. When you think Opt Out, think big.  Think more. Think Protect the Child….all year.”

Dawn Sweeney, Opt Out Pennsylvania: Opt Out of Opt Out

“High quality certified teachers will be deemed unnecessary in a classroom with increasing class sizes, replaced by facilitators who just need to monitor that students are on task on their devices.  Think about that for a moment.  Teachers who have 6-8 years of college education, and years of teacher experience in classrooms with student interaction will be obsolete, replaced by low-pay, inexperienced, untrained facilitators.  Then add the harmful impact of children being on a device for many hours a day to the physical, mental and emotional health of students – things are moving in the wrong direction, fast!”

Kevin Ohlandt, Exceptional Delaware: Opt Out as we know it is dead. Long live the badge.

If you are with me and agree, join me.  Join those of us, across the country, who believe children should not be guinea pigs for futurists and their money-making agendas.  Talk to your legislators.  Find out what upcoming legislation would allow this future, whether it is Blockchain technology or something else.  Look for “Pay for Success” legislation which has corporations hedge bets based on student outcomes, otherwise known as Social Impact Bonds.  Tell them to fight this and advocate for the restoration of FERPA to pre-2011 levels.  Speak out and share information with other parents and friends.  Opt Out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment is dead.  It is now time to opt out of anything which will bring this future to pass and will cause more harm to your children than anything before.

Emily Talmage, Saving Maine’s Schools: Parents: Time to Step Up Our Game

“It’s time for us to dial up the original Opt Out spirit – the one that wasn’t afraid to say hell no – and realize that we’re going to need to extend this fight way beyond the big end-of-year-test.

Data-mining.  Key-stroke tracking.  Collection of sensitive personal information that ends up in the hands of advertisers.  Digital badging.  Unhealthy amounts of screen time. Growing class sizes. Depleted school budgets.

If I sound alarmist, it’s because I’m a mom and a teacher, so we’re talking about my kids here. I am seriously alarmed.”

Jim Horn, Schools Matter: How Opt Out Could Remain Legitimate, But Won’t

“You see, the new personalized testing paradigm on the horizon, if implemented, will not only change the face of school as we know it, but it will jeopardize the physical and mental health of children, as well as abridge their rights to privacy and the integrity of children’s future goals.  The dystopian dream by the dangerous crackpots who are advancing the new “competency based” business model for schools will be realized when graduating teens have electronic dossiers that include longitudinal testing data, behavior data, attitude data, and character data, all of which will be available for steering young adults into the most appropriate cell to serve the global economic hive.”


21 thoughts on “Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.

  1. aliciadorsey2 – philadelphia – Retired Cosmetologist reinventing myself as a professional digital media consultant. Studied Hospitality at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa Florida where I interned with "Celebrity Catering" and "Live Nation". That internship exposed me to professional catering and gave me great preparation and implementation skills. Mother of two young men, grandmother of two grandsons. I became a parent advocate first and learned that my community also needed advocating. Studying Digital Media and Black and White Photography at Community College of Philadelphia to produce professional documentation of the various issues and concerns in our society.
    aliciadorsey2 says:

    thanks for sharing this information, my grandson entered kindergarten this year and thanks to this info i’m prepared to make sure he is not data mined. we were given virtual k at the school district’s back to school event. Virtual K was developed by Chicago Public Schools to help parents engage in the learning process while enhancing educators skills. Like that they have video and online lessons which prepares my grandson for 21st century technology without collecting data. We need more programs like this, that work with families and educators, not programs that seek to get rid of human teachers!! #SaveOurSchools #StopSchoolToPrisonPipeline

  2. Deborah says:

    I’ve tried earnestly to have our son who is in 6th grade to be refused out of technology and/or sign in as guests on school servers and they refuse this option. They tell me via lawyer I can’t refuse our son out of technology because it infringes on his right to education that is deemed necessary to fulfill his role as 21st century learning crap! What us a parent to do legally to force no technology in school that data mines etc? Outside of homeschooling there isn’t much and honestly parents are stuck in this crap and fighting it day/night

    • esbee says:

      deborah—tell those who say your child will suffer without of technology “because it infringes on his right to education that is deemed necessary to fulfill his role as 21st century learning” that schools did such a find job teaching tech to students that 12 year olds can hack into high stakes security places and parents were held responsible not the schools that taught them.

  3. Pingback: ABCs of Classrooms at Risk: DON’T just #OPTOUT – Missouri Education Watchdog

  4. Pingback: Opt Out As We Know It Is Dead… Long Live The Badge – Exceptional Delaware

  5. amsoconcerned
    Sheila Resseger says:

    Alison, I agree with and greatly appreciate your analysis. I’m just curious about this, though: “The reformers created a disaster in the form of end-of-year, high-stakes tests knowing that parents, teachers, and students would push back.” Do you have evidence that they expected the push-back? It seemed to me that they were blind-sided by it.

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      I wish I could say there was a smoking gun. There are definitely comments by Vander Ark and his ilk that they needed to remove the barrier of end of year testing for “any time” learning to move forward. And the more I read about the origins of this movement in “human factors engineering” the more I have come to realize that it is about psychological manipulation. You can look at how Frameworks set up a series of “moves” for the MacArthur Foundation to get people to come over to their side in support of digital learning. They put over $50 million into that effort alone. It would be great to have a paper trail showing their game plan, but for me I think it is not a stretch to realize that when you threaten children, the adults who care about them are going to organize and fight back.

  6. Diane Sekula – Teaching is hard. Teaching under current conditions is next to impossible. My experience includes teaching in a number of different states and teaching overseas with the Peace Corps. Though I hold I certifications in health education and history, the bulk of my experience has being doing what I love, teaching and learning from our immigrant students. I started this blog as a way of sharing information and to help me process through what has happened to our public schools; our children, our country. Below is the story of this blog’s inception. After teaching for two years in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, I came back to America, eyes wide open; grateful for my experiences and even more grateful for the opportunities provided to me as an American. Presented with a scholarship and the opportunity to further my education as a teacher, I jumped at my first teaching job in the city of Randolph, Massachusetts. For most teachers, their first year is their most difficult. For me, that first year was, by far, one of the best. It was a great environment for a young teacher, the support provided to through my mentors, both formal and informal was far better than what more recent new teachers can imagine. The little tricks of the trade they taught me were invaluable, but what really blew me away was their wit and sense of humor. I wanted to be like them, at the end of my career, teaching with energy and rolling my eyes with a smile on my face. After taking some time off to be with my newborn, I eventually found myself teaching in my ex husband's hometown of San Antonio, TX. That was a learning experience for me. Lacking southern charm and unfamiliar with the school culture, I was put into a state of shock. It was all about the test. Teachers were told that they'd lose their teaching license for failing to comply with test security measures and offered rewards for high test scores. There was a lot of pressure and teaching wasn't a whole lot of fun. Failing in more ways than one to acclimate to the culture, I returned to New England. I landed a teaching job in a small town just outside of Manchester, New Hampshire. Some of my coworkers were a bit prickly in the beginning, but I acclimated and things were mostly fine for a while. But, as things go for teachers nowadays, things slowly changed. It was if a vice was tightening around me. There was more testing, more looking at scores, more pressure. Teaching wasn't as fun anymore. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was very uneasy about the way things were going. One blustery day, finding a rare moment to myself, I decided to swing by the mall. Not being a big shopper, but having a weakness for sweaters, I decided it couldn't hurt to try the store that I had earlier decided I was too old for. That seemingly simple decision was a game changer. Focusing on a rack of sardine-packed sweaters, I was a bit startled to hear my name. "Mrs. Sekula!", called a former student of mine. Sometimes they drive me nuts, but at the end of the day, I loved teaching and loved my students; especially ones like this. Not only was she a very intelligent young girl, but she was respectful, hardworking and helpful; the type of kid you just know would do well. Now a high school student, she went on to tell me that she wanted to go to college to be a teacher. I was thrilled! Who better could you get? She would be a great teacher. My honeymoon teacher moment lasted all of about fifteen minutes. Thoughts racing in my mind, I got back to my car, turned it on, and that's when reality hit me. I did not want my student going into teaching the way things were. She's too smart to be teaching to a test. She's so much more than that as a teacher. That's when I started searching for answers. Why was it that there was ever increasing pressure to teach to a test? To label students? To hook them up to computers? To label schools and teachers as failures? This blog contains some of my own writing, but also a lot of information that I've found, or have been given by other very dedicated teachers, parents and researchers. Strength in numbers; if you have anything that you would like to contribute, by all means please send it to me.
  7. statusbcps
    statusbcps says:

    Added to the Key Links/Resources Page of, the blog following the massive digital transformation of Baltimore County Public Schools. 111,000 students in overcrowded, overheated, crumbling schools all get $1,400 devices.

  8. Pingback: There Is No Conflict Between Opting Out of Tests and Fighting Competency-Based Education | Diane Ravitch's blog

  9. Poetic Justice – A poetry teacher defending public school students and their families.
    Poetic Justice says:

    Reblogged this on Poetic Justice and commented:
    Let us keep in the forefront of our hearts, minds, and souls that our children have started a new school year full of testing, computer programs, shell-shocked teachers, and ravenous entrepreneurs making billions from the hostile take over of public education. They need us now more than ever. In all that we do let us not do anything that brings harm to our children. ##DoNoHarm

  10. Michael Lambert says:

    Aaargh! The title of this piece really annoys me!

    “Now that we know the whole story, go ahead and opt out of the end of the year tests. No child should suffer through them. But we have to expand our definition of opting out, to protect our children from data mining and stop the shift to embedded assessments and digital curriculum.”

    Why the confusing title? This is an extremely important issue, with lots of moving pieces and more information than the average person can process.

    Yes, Competency Based Education is critically important and the opt out movement needs to be ready to transition, should already be transitioning to push back against the inappropriate, dehumanizing use use of technology in our public schools.

    So why the confusing title? How many parents are going to see that and *not* take the time to read the article?

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      As a parent, I know that choosing to opt out of testing is not something done lightly. Most parents opting out are very well informed. If they were to decide to change course, I don’t think they would do it on the basis of a headline of an article they didn’t actually read. It was a calculated risk, but seems to have paid off. A group of bloggers pushed out that campaign a week ago and it generated a HUGE amount of discussion all over the internet. This piece alone is nearing 5,000 views. I accept that you feel differently, but we accomplished our goal which was to wake a lot of people up. Now we can continue the conversation.

      • Deb Clark says:

        As one of the parents leading the Opt Out fight in my community for the past four years, I feel I must disagree with ‘wrench’ about the title. I have heard various reasons for opting out over the years. I don’t think it is fair to assume that anyone opting out has the time to deeply educate themselves and read every article, even this one. When I shared this article in my parent group, I felt it necessary to make it clear that the title was misleading, and please do not just follow the advice in the title to Opt Out, but instead read the entire article.

        Frankly, some of the parents contacting me for advice are those with kids with special needs who are ONLY considering refusing the tests because their child cannot handle taking them. They do not care about the deeper reasons…they do not even really care that their child’s data is at risk, or their child is getting mostly test prep at school, or even that their child’s teacher could be replaced with an electronic device. They know their kid cries, sobs, breaks down at the thought of taking these tests, and they know that between working their two or three jobs and taking care of their family, they want to prevent their child from suffering. I literally get emails from some parents every year asking me, should I opt out, or should I believe that the tests are better this year? They NEED a short, to-the-point answer. I always include links to articles/materials/etc, but first I give them that short answer they are looking for.

        These are the parents in my mind that may very well see the headline, not take the time to read the title, and think that the bullsh*t NYSED is releasing on their facebook page and their mailing list and to the news is accurate.

        This is a great article. Full of valuable information. But the headline definitely does mislead. I think the intention was to grab the reader’s attention….and it does that too. But, with mad respect to the author for all of the research and work that went into writing this, the title does mislead.

  11. wrenchinthegears
    wrenchinthegears says:

    The reality is that with the advent of personalized learning and the shift to stealth, formative assessments, parents, especially parents of special needs students, need to start shifting gears. I appreciate that “end of year opt out” is a useful entry point for parents who know little about this bigger picture. It is imperative, though, that we get them up to speed about the real end game of digital education.

    I trust parents to remove their children from harmful situations. I am not convinced that a parent whose child is being harmed by these tests and who is actively considering opting out would actually change their mind about it after simply glancing at a headline. I think that isn’t giving them enough credit. I do understand though, that those who shared this post felt the need to write a preface to it. Often posts with personal prefaces get read more than those without, which might account for its surprisingly wide circulation.

    I do appreciate your sharing it with your network in spite of your reservations and would encourage you to look at the questions regarding digital curriculum, as that is going to be an important topic moving forward.

  12. tribucks
    tribucks says:

    And how do we know this piece isn’t just another ploy by one side or another to manipulate parents? I mean really…with all of the misinformation and disinformation floating around, who the hell can tell anymore?

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      Is is very confusing, but I have included many, many links. I invite you to look around and give me your take. I would rather this not actually be the direction we’re heading in, but I have found nothing to dispute it. If you are uncertain about this, consider setting up a google alert for “personalized learning.” Within a few weeks, you will come to appreciate the scope of what we are dealing with.

  13. Pingback: Advice to BCPS Parents from “Wrench in the Gears” and Why iNACOL Loves ESSA | STAT-us BCPS

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