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A new theory about test opt-outs: It’s the Gen Xers

The Gen Xers could be the force behind the opt-out anti-testing movement.

Generation X, most often defined as people born from 1965 to 1979, is characterized as independent, cynical and defiant of authority. They were the latchkey kids, the ones born to families with more working mothers and more divorce.

Now, that group makes up the largest proportion of parents in public schools, and they want their children to have a different upbringing than they did. As parents, Gen Xers have become known as overprotective, perhaps compensating for where they believe that their own parents fell short.

“Generation X parents see their children as having unique gifts, and they do not see them as being one of the crowd,” says Susan Gregory Thomas, who has written extensively about Generation X parents. “A lot of these parents are determined that teachers and schools recognize what each of their children needs. The idea that standardized testing is not going to take into account their child’s unique gift is totally offensive to them.”

Generational research suggests that those born in a certain time period share characteristics driven by political, economic and cultural events. Not everyone buys into the concept. Some argue that it broadly applies to white, middle-class values without factoring in different experiences connected to race, class and culture.

Still, even critics acknowledge that projected values typically reflect the majority of the population.

Some have dubbed Gen Xers “stealth fighters” who took the blade from the helicopter parents before them and sharpened it.

“Stealth-fighter parents do not hover,” Neil Howe, a leading generational researcher, wrote in a 2010 article for the School Superintendents Association. “They choose when and where they will attack.”

Well before the latest movement to refuse standardized tests, Generation X parents were already gaining notoriety for “opting out” of careers, prompting the New York Times Magazine more than a decade ago to proclaim them the “Opt Out Generation.”

They were well-educated, professional women who, whether committed to family or turned off by the bureaucratic inflexibility of the workplace, opted out of careers and into parenting.

They arranged play groups, prepared homemade organic baby food and pushed back on government requirements to vaccinate their children.

Researchers predicted these parents, now roughly between the ages of 37 and 51, would present special challenges to school systems, and that has proven true as their children have worked their way through the schools.

“Generation X has always been very, very suspicious of the system,” Thomas said. “Generation X does not like the system. They felt alienated by it.”

They are comfortable with technology, using it to communicate directly – and regularly – with teachers, mobilize groups of parents, schedule meetings and even conduct their own research on educational approaches.

They want ready access to information. And they’re often skeptical of the answers.

“The tools are there today to be more intrusive,” said William D. Coplin, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University. “The parents are really very heavy-duty into the kids. They’re very involved.”

Coplin sees evidence of this in his own neighborhood in an upper middle-class suburb of Syracuse. Parents who live just 2½ blocks from the neighborhood elementary school drive their children, rather than have them walk or ride the bus.

“They won’t make the kids get on the bus,” he said. “It’s a combination of fear something will happen to them and that they’re spoiled.”

In fairness to Generation X parents, their own school years coincided with a period when one reform effort after another was declared a failure. Many also associate the focus on standardized tests with then-President George W. Bush, who to many in the generation represented the institutionalized power they fought so hard against. “Now they want proof their children won’t have the same problem,” Howe predicted in 2010, also cautioning schools to get ready for what he called the “opt out” consumer parent who would selectively pick and choose the parts of public education they believe would benefit their child.

That rising tide is perhaps cresting with the movement to opt children out of state standardized tests.

Despite the state’s efforts to address their concerns, parents remain skeptical. That was evident in West Seneca two weeks ago, where parents took time off from work to attend a daytime forum to bring their concerns directly to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

In a district where the percentage of students opting out of state tests surpasses 70 percent, parents were not shy bringing their demands directly to the highest level.

They want to permanently disconnect standardized tests from teacher evaluations. They want to eliminate the Common Core Learning Standards.

A few engaged in back-and-forth exchanges with Elia, cutting the commissioner off as she attempted to answer their questions. “We have been actively resisting these reforms,” parent Molly M. Dana told the commissioner. “Minor changes and clarifications are unacceptable to us.”

Thomas, the writer who is a Generation X parent herself, said that kind of protective parenting is characteristic of the style she has seen as her own children worked their way through the school system, both public and private. In fact, she acknowledges she is guilty of it herself, and wonders whether she did her older children a disservice sheltering them from uncomfortable and competitive situations.

So will her youngest child be taking the tests? “I’m going to have him take it,” she said. “Certainly his unique gifts are not going to be revealed taking these tests, but basic understanding will be.”

“He’ll be taking tests his whole life,” she added. “He will be opting in.”