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Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership for Diverse Learning Communities




Long Island, New York has led the nation in parent opt-out rates. The Opt-Out Movement is a grassroots coalition of opposition to high-stakes tests that are used to sort students, evaluate teachers, and rank schools. Approximately 50% of students in grades three to eight opted out of the English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics tests in 2019 (“Projects: ELA and Math Opt-Outs 2016-2019,” 2019). Quantitative research has shown a racial disparity between parents who opted out and opted in with White, middle-class parents participating in the opt-out movement at greater rates than Latinx, Black, and Asian parents (Au, 2017; Bennett, 2016a; Hildebrand, 2017; Klein, 2016; Murphy, 2017; Phi Delta Kappa & Gallup Poll, 2017; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016; Ryan, 2016; Tompson, Benz, & Agiesta, 2013). Yet, there is a lack of qualitative research regarding how and why White, middle-class parents are more likely to participate in the opt-out movement. Grounded in the theories of Christiansen’s (2009) four-stage model of a social movement, Bourdieu’s (1973, 1984) social capital theory, and rational choice theory (Abell, 1992; Coleman & Fararo, 1992; Mooney-Marini, 1992; Münch, 1999; Scheff, 1992), this study utilized a phenomenological multi-case research design to examine how parents in high, medium, and low opt-out districts made their decision to opt out or opt into the ELA and math tests in the fourth and fifth grade. It also explored how superintendents and principals made sense of their opt-out rates in their respective districts and how each district’s procedures and policies that are in place, if any, regarding information about testing and opting out influenced the process. I conducted face-to-face, 30-60 minute, semistructured interviews with three superintendents, four principals (two from one district), and 16-20 parents from each district (n = 59). I sought to understand and make sense of the essence of the opt-out movement by asking participants about their lived experiences. The compiled interview data were triangulated with district documents and observational field note data obtained from PTA and PTSA meetings. As a result of the transcribed and coded interview data, three overarching findings emerged. First, I discovered that the districts’ messaging about state testing and parents’ right to opt out was reflected in the opt-out rates. The high opt-out district disseminated the most information about testing and parents’ rights to opt out. Meanwhile, the low opt-out district held pep rallies and pizza challenges to incentivize opting in. Second, although the opt-out movement’s original aim was to improve public school education for the greater good, the parents interviewed in this study made individualistic choices for their child about opting out or opting in based on the information they had access to from the district and social networks of information, as well as their philosophies of parenting and education. Finally, regardless of parent involvement levels, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status, parents’ reasons for opting out or opting in were based on superficial reasoning and were more similar than different across the three districts. Parents are powerful policy actors that have been shown to influence policy at the district and school level (Bakeman, 2018). This dissertation has important implications for state legislation that supports a more equitable assessment and accountability system—one that (a) does not undermine the student and teacher relationship, (b) reports reliable individual growth of the students, (c) does not put undue pressure on low-income districts of color to raise scores or get sanctioned, and (d) fosters teaching and learning grounded in comprehensive educational pedagogy instead of test-prep materials for corporate profit.

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