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Opt-outs still grow as states reclaim some power

Every Student Succeeds Act make states responsible for creating accountability measures

The opt-out movement shows no signs of slowing in the midst of this year’s spring testing season. An estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of a million students could chose not to take state standardized tests this school year, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

In 2014-15, more than 640,000 students skipped state standardized tests. Eight states—California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin—have laws allowing parents to opt their children out.

“The opt-out movement and other forms of resistance to high-stakes testing are not going to go away until policymakers and state capitals reduce the volume of testing,” says Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

Parent resistance to high-stakes standardized testing has grown in recent years, as exams were aligned to new standards and became more difficult.

Some 40 states sought federal Race to the Top grants or No Child Left Behind waivers by adopting teacher and principal evaluation systems based heavily on student test scores, which also disheartened parents, says Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy for the School Superintendents Association.

“There was forced use of student achievement data on tests that were not designed for teacher evaluations,” Ellerson says. “It became too much.”

ESSA changes

The opt-outs continue this spring despite a December 2015 memo from the U.S. Department of Education reminding states that under both NCLB and ESSA, at least 95 percent of students are required to take state-chosen standardized tests. Federal funding may be withheld from states that dip below this threshold.

The memo also asks states to sanction schools where fewer than 95 percent of students participate, and suggests punishments, such as withholding funds or lowering a school’s rating in the state accountability system.

New York saw a 20 percent opt-out rate last school year. Twelve other states risk going over the limit this year. But the Department of Education has yet to issue any sanctions. And the Every Student Succeeds Act make states responsible for creating accountability measures that can go beyond test scores.

“The key here is that the new law shifts the power for enforcement for that requirement from the federal government to the states,” Schaeffer says. “A state can develop a system of follow-up for districts where 95 percent of students do not participate.”

Federal vs. state testing

ESSA upholds NCLB’s requirement that students take 17 different federal standardized tests total, spread throughout grades 3 through 8 and one in high school.

However, a typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12, according to a 2015 study from the Council of the Great City Schools. Most tests students take are required by states and districts, rather than the U.S. Department of Education.

“I think it’s at the crux of the movement—it’s not just backlash against the Common Core, but against the number of tests and how the scores are being used,” Ellerson says.

Ellerson expects that the opt-out movement will lessen in coming years, as ESSA allows states and school districts to audit assessment systems and eliminate unnecessary tests. The law also encourages states to limit the amount of time students spend taking tests.

Ellerson has the following tips to help administrators deal with opt-outs:

  • Create a list of all standardized tests required for each grade. Include why they are required, and at what level (federal, state or district).
  • Implement an opt-out policy if your district expects large numbers of students to skip tests.
  • Let parents know they can come to you with any concerns.
  • Use teachers to communicate with students and parents about testing, such as how much class time will be used to prepare and why each exam is necessary.

“Sometimes parents just want to be heard, and want to understand that administrators see their child as more than just a test taker,” Ellerson says. “If you lend a sympathetic ear, it can go a long way and help inform the direction the district should go in if eliminating or changing a test.”

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