Denver Public Schools officials on Wednesday evening issued new guidelines for how schools should treat families who have opted-out of state assessments after a conflict between a parent and the principal at a Hilltop neighborhood middle school.
The recommendations, which allow students to attend regular classes while skipping early morning tests, comes almost halfway through the time period the state allots for schools to proctor the tests. The district is also issuing the memo amid a growing cacophony of assessment protests: Since the fall, teachers, parents, school leaders and school boards have increasingly raised questions over the merit and amount of testing in schools.
But as more parents have asked that their students be exempted from the state exams, schools have sometimes struggled with how to reconcile the demands of parents and of the law, which requires students to be tested.
“It is important for families to understand the value of assessments and the district’s responsibility to follow the law,” wrote Susana Cordova, the district’s chief academic officer, in an email to Denver principals. “Each school is responsible for assessing students in attendance during the testing window.”
However, she continued, “Students refusing to participate in testing should still be allowed access to all other non-assessment activities.”
Parents who want to opt-out their students of the state exams argue that there is legal precedent that allows them to do so, despite a Colorado law that requires students to be tested in third through tenth grades.
So far, the debate over testing in Colorado has seemed to be concentrated in suburbs like Douglas County. But while still relatively small — the total opt-outs from the 2013 round of tests amount to about 1 percent of students — the emergence of spats in Denver may indicate that momentum among parents to opt out is growing.
Meanwhile, parents who wish to have their students abstain from the test are encountering pushback from districts, said Angela Engel, a former Colorado teacher turn author and parent activist.
Susan Johnson, the Denver parent whose conflict with her child’s school prompted the new guidance from DPS, is one parent who recently joined the opt-out movement.
“I never liked the tests,” she said during an interview Wednesday. But this year is the first she decided to opt her children out of the exams.
Johnson, following the guidance of organizations like United Opt-Out, sent a letter earlier this month explaining her decision to opt-out her children to both her daughter’s middle school and her son’s high school.
She said she didn’t receive any grief from staff at Denver’s South High School.
“They encouraged me to send my opt-out letter to the school board,” Johnson said.
But on Tuesday, she removed her sixth-grade daughter, Sarah, from the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences after her suspicions were aroused that the school was not respecting her request to exempt her daughter from TCAP testing.
Johnson, who is also the school’s PTA treasurer, said she dropped Sarah off at 10:55 a.m. Tuesday, after testing was completed for the day.
In a video shot on a cell phone shortly after Johnson believed her daughter was in class, Johnson found Sarah, in an office with school staff.
“Excuse me, I explicitly said my daughter was not to be spoken to about this test or coerced in any way,” she told a school employee.
Johnson then asked her daughter if they denied her access to her class. Sarah nodded.
“Get your backpack, let’s go,” Johnson told Sarah.
As Johnson and her daughter left the room, an unidentified DPS employee stood and recited testing protocol.
“Legally, she can’t be in a testing room and interacting with other kids who have already tested same sessions that day,” he said.
Denver school officials declined to discuss the incident at Hill in detail.
But, the school’s principal was following a literal interpretation of guidance provided to him from Colorado Department of Education that said all students who are present during a testing period are required to take test from district and state officials, a district spokeswoman said.
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And the district acknowledged the incident highlighted the need to help school leaders understand what to do if parent demands conflict with state guidance.
“We have apologized to the family for what happened at Hill yesterday,” said Kristy Armstrong, DPS’s spokeswoman. “Our assessment staff has received further clarification on how to accommodate students whose families choose to opt their students out of the portion of the school day devoted to state assessments. Students whose families choose to opt out of state assessments are welcome to participate fully in classroom activities during non-testing time.”
Denver’s new guidance mirrors established policy in neighboring Aurora Public Schools.
“When parents decide they will not allow their students to take TCAP, we ask for them to share their decision in writing, and then we keep the letters for our records,” said Georgia Duran, an APS spokeswoman. “Often parents choose to keep their students home during testing time, but we encourage parents to allow students to attend school. If a student does attend school, we have the student work with another class, and we provide individual work for the child.”
Opting students out of tests is not new. Since 1997, state law has required public school students in specific grades to take the standardized tests in math and English language arts.
However, as states have begun to introduce new exams tied to Common Core State Standards, parents have increasingly begun to organize across the nation to protest.
Engel, the author and activist, likened the opt-out movement to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights and Women’s liberation movements.
“Parents are sick and tired of the commercialization of our child’s education,” Engel said, explaining just one of the many arguments of parents who want to opt-out their students. “They are not for profit. The policies around high-stakes testing is making a lot of money for the test publishers like Pearson. Kids don’t have lobbyists. It falls to the parents to protect their interest. Too many commercial interests including consultants, data managers and curriculum publishers are benefiting.”
The conflict over the role of testing has pitted parents like Johnson against many state and district officials, who point out that testing is necessary to drive schools’ progress and undergird a complex system of school and teacher accountability that the state has built over the past several years.
Colorado schools are rolling out the state’s new standards, which incorporate the national Common Core math and English language standards. Beginning in April, some Colorado students will be tested on science and social studies standards. And a year from now Colorado students will be assessed using the new PARCC tests, which will assess students on the Common Core math and English language standards in nearly a dozen states.
“Next year will be worse,” Johnson said, referring to the PARCC tests.
In light of the debate, Colorado’s General Assembly is considering a bill that would establish a commission to study the issue. And on Tuesday, the State Board of Education Chairman Paul Lundeen, who is also running for a seat in the state House, introduced a resolution that if passed would call on the legislators to abandon the state’s participation in the PARCC tests.
How Colorado could move forward with its accountability reform efforts if the state abandoned the high-stakes testing could prove difficult. But parents like Johnson might be OK if the system was dumped.
Johnson believe the accountability measures are misguided and is obstructing quality learning. That’s just one of many reasons why she doesn’t want her children taking the test.
“Teachers have been forced to change the way they teach,” she said. “Who can blame them? Their livelihood is on the line. They insist they’re not teaching to the test. But you can see they are. If I were a teacher, I would.”