Opting Out in 1994

A recent conversation reminded me that I had been an early entrant in the opt-out movement. Actually, several of my friends and I were nearly two decades ahead of today’s subscribers. Our motivations weren’t especially noble. Our actions had limited reach. Regardless, I’ll proudly claim that we opted out before anyone was using the expression.

I was a high school junior in 1994. My classmates and I were one of the first cohorts to take the 11th grade PSSA in Pennsylvania. Our teachers didn’t do much to prepare us for the tests beyond telling us we had to take them. We were close to indifferent. Getting out of class seemed like an acceptable trade, so we had that. I can’t speak for the parents of my friends, but I know my parents had little to no interest. They probably weren’t aware.

Before the testing window began, we found out the tests wouldn’t affect our credits or academic standing in any way. Instead, the scores would be used to rate the school’s performance. Telling us that was a mistake. We had no reason to care about the tests if they had no bearing on us. Additionally, the idea of being able to make our school look bad by purposely tanking the tests seemed fun.

My friends and I weren’t notorious troublemakers, but we did enjoy subversion for its own sake. Most of us were relatively capable students, but none of us were especially ambitious. Out of sheer laziness, I’m guessing a few of us would’ve given up on the tests about halfway through. Simply skipping school on the testing dates would’ve been the easiest route, but it wouldn’t have worked because make-up dates were prescheduled. The school insisted on us taking the tests. We insisted on not playing along. Worse than that, we insisted on giving the school a black eye out of immature, angsty spite.

We made a pact. Each of us would mark “B” for every answer without reading anything and immediately turn in the test booklet. We’d be taking the test in a cafeteria, so we’d see if anyone balked. Shame is a powerful motivator, although we didn’t need it. On the first testing date, I watched my friends finish in mere minutes, close their books, and hand the tests to the proctors. I felt proud as I did the same with mine. The proctors were angry, but they had little recourse. I put my head down and took a nap with the remaining time. My future glowed.

This wasn’t intended to make a statement. We went through with it because we were lazy and because we thought defiance was entertaining. I have no idea what impact our action (or lack of action) had on the school. I don’t think any of us truly cared if we made a negative impact. We were just being jerks because we liked being jerks.

Looking back, we probably could’ve encouraged more students to join us. We only talked about it within our group. The message would’ve been easy to spread via word of mouth or even a few strategically-placed posters. True to our nature, we didn’t put much effort into our threadbare cause.

Thinking about this makes me wonder how quickly a student-led opt-out movement could spread today. Students still don’t like to take tests. Teenagers in particular like to do what their friends are doing. I’m guessing a test protest could spread nationally in a matter of days. The movement could be called “The Straight-A Challenge.” Teenagers love social media challenges. This one would encourage them to mark “A” for every answer on whatever statewide standardized tests their schools make them take. Yes, my friends and I marked “B,” but “The Straight-B Challenge” isn’t as catchy. I’m not certain the challenge would need to have any kind of social or political slant. I think kids would buy in just the way my friends and I did. For all I know, kids might already be doing something like this.

Opting out was fun when I did it twenty-one years ago. Notions of tests being harmful to child development or counterproductive to learning outcomes meant nothing to me at the time. I had no interest in taking a test that had nothing to do with me. At the same time, I thought poisoning the school’s results would be good for a laugh. I’m thinking schools today are filled with kids who would agree. I’m not advocating for any of them to go through with it, but I might smirk to myself if any of them would.

Opting Out in 1994

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