Opt-out leader opposes bill that would legitimize parent refusal of state tests

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

One of the nation’s most prominent opt-out leaders said she opposes a bill introduced in the Colorado General Assembly yesterday that would legitimize her movement because she fears it could foil her larger goal: to end what she calls the “privatization of public education.”

If passed, the bill would signal a significant victory for activists fighting back against a series of reform efforts the state has implemented since 2010, all centered on the Common Core State Standards and their aligned exams.

But that isn’t how Peggy Robertson, a founding member of the nonprofit organization United Opt Out, views it. She said legitimizing opt out could stop the conversation about how much money is being spent on tests rather than other education initiatives she and her colleagues say would improve educational outcomes for students in the poorest school districts.

“I think people have good intentions around this, but if they make opt out legal, it takes away the power of our social movement,” said Robertson, who is also an instructional coach for Aurora Public Schools. And that could stop the growing chorus against testing, she said.

“This is not an anti-testing movement,” Robertson said. “This is a movement to return real learning to the classroom. All the thing we need — nurses, librarians, books, food — we don’t have, because all the money is being funneled to test prep and the test.”

The bill would require school districts, boards of cooperative educational services and charters to allow parents to opt out of any standardized tests required by the state or local districts. Written district policies on opting out would have to be provided to parents.

Opt out leader Peggy Robertson
PHOTO: Courtesy Peggy Robertson
Opt out leader Peggy Robertson

And while the State Board of Education has already directed the Colorado Department of Education to hold districts and schools harmless if they fail to meet the required 95 percent test participation rate, Senate Bill 15-223 would codify those protections in state law, adding an extra level of security for educators.

The bill has broad bipartisan support and the blessing of the state’s largest teachers union, which will lobby for it.

“Certainly, the [state union] has, in the past, lobbied for a parent opt-out bill that does not penalize students, teachers, schools and districts,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of Colorado Education Association. “We’re hopeful with the increased opt outs this year that the legislature will finally act.”

The right to opt out of standardized tests is not addressed anywhere in state statutes. State education officials have long asserted that opting out is not legal.

But some parents and student say they believe they have a constitutional right to do so. State and federal law, as well as agreements between the Colorado and U.S. education departments, require schools to have a 95 percent participation rate on annual standardized tests.

If school districts do not achieve those rates it could mean a lowered accreditation rating or trigger redirection of federal funds from high opt-out schools without input from the local school district.

Previously, no school or district had come close to that 95 percent threshold. Given that, some education officials and observers have long dismissed the opt-out movement as nothing more than a band of misinformed and paranoid suburban moms.

Until now.

The opt-out movement, in Colorado and across the nation, has grown from social media chatter to conservative media fodder to mentions in The New York Times. While it’s not possible to draw a direct line from the first opt-out family to today’s testing debate, it’s equally impossible to ignore the movement any longer.

“I think that when parents and students are strongly — and very publicly — voicing displeasure, it has very great potential to influence policymakers,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. “Much more so than researchers who voice displeasure. Or for that matter, than educators who voice displeasure. There’s something about the voices of parents and students that’s very authentic.”

In the largest anti-testing demonstration in Colorado, thousands of senior high school students last fall left their classrooms when they were asked to take another round of standardized tests in social studies and science. Those students, mostly in white, middle-class suburbs, said the tests were meaningless and added to the already bloated testing regimen.

“We knew this would happen,” opt-out leader Robertson said, reflecting on the year that saw her movement make headlines like never before. “The key was being ready for it. Here in Colorado, we had a nice head start with the CMAS senior tests [protest]. That gave us an extra edge that other states didn’t have.”

Robertson said her organization has grown from seven people in a handful of states to hundreds across the nation. In Florida alone, she said, there are 25 groups organizing parents who oppose standardized tests and the Common Core State Standards.

Philip E. Bernhardt, the department chair for secondary education, K-12,  and educational technology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said the growing debate around testing is forcing education reform activists and lawmakers to question who is gaining more from the testing system: students or test-makers.

“People are raising questions: are these tests based on research or because there is a tremendous profit to be made?” he said. “I certainly believe it’s the latter. The opt-out movement is definitely making people ask hard questions.”

John Buckner, D-Aurora, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he said the opt-out community has made its concerns known and that the debate is settled: The standardized testing burden in Colorado will be lightened.

“Once we have made the appropriate adjustments to the tests, I’m guessing the opt-out movement will conclude that its work is done, and it will fade away,” Buckner said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Don’t count on it, Roberston said.

“We have to be really careful about not being appeased,”she said. “It would be easy to have a little bit less testing, but I’m not willing to accept a little.”

previewing TNReady

Why Tennessee’s high school test scores, out this week, matter more — and less — than usual

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

When scores dropped last year for most Tennessee high school students under a new state test, leaders spoke of “setting a new baseline” under a harder assessment aligned to more rigorous standards.

This week, Tennesseans will see if last year’s scores — in which nearly three-quarters of high schoolers performed below grade level — was in fact just a reset moment.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has scheduled a press conference for Thursday morning to release the highly anticipated second year of high school scores under TNReady, which replaced the state’s TCAP tests in 2015-16. (Students in grades 3-8 will get TNReady scores for the first time this fall; last year, their tests were canceled because of a series of testing failures.)

Here’s what you need to know about this week’s data dump, which will focus on statewide scores.

1. Last year’s low scores weren’t a big surprise.

Not only was it the first time Tennessee students took TNReady, it also was the first time that they were being tested on new academic standards in math and language arts known as the Common Core, which reached Tennessee classrooms in 2012.

Other states that switched to Common Core-aligned exams also saw their scores plummet. In New York, for example, the proportion of students who scored proficient or higher in reading dropped precipitously in 2013 during the first year of a new test for grades 3-8.

McQueen sought last year to prepare Tennessee for the same experience. After all, she said, the state was moving away from a multiple-choice test to one that challenges students’ higher-order thinking skills. Plus, while Tennessee students had been posting strong scores on the state’s own exam, they had struggled on national tests such as the ACT, raising questions about whether the previous state test was a good measure of students’ skills.

“We expected scores to be lower in the first year of a more rigorous assessment,” McQueen said after only 21 percent of high school students scored on or above grade level in math, while 30 percent tested ready in English and reading.

2. It’s expected that this year’s scores will rise … and it will be a bad sign if they don’t.

Over and over, state officials assured Tennesseans that 2016 was just the start.

“[We] expect that scores will rebound over time as all students grow to meet these higher expectations — just as we have seen in the past,” McQueen said.

She was referring to the state’s shift to Diploma Standards in 2009, when passing rates on end-of-course tests dropped by almost half. But in subsequent years, those scores rose steadily in a “sawtooth pattern” that has been documented over and over when states adopt new assessments and students and teachers grow accustomed to them.

That includes New York, where after the worrisome results in 2013, the percentage of students passing started inching up the following year, especially in math.

In Tennessee, this year’s high school scores will provide the first significant data point in establishing whether the state is on the same track. Higher scores would put the state on an upward trajectory, and suggest that students are increasingly proficient in the skills that the test is measuring. Scores that remain flat or go down would raise questions about whether teachers and students are adjusting to more rigorous standards.

3. There’s lots more scores to come.

This week’s statewide high school scores will kick off a cascade of other TNReady results that will be released in the weeks and months ahead.

Next comes district- and school-level high school scores, which will be shared first with school systems before being released to the public. That’s likely to happen in August.

In the fall, Tennessee will release its scores for students in grades 3-8, who took TNReady for the first time this year after the 2016 testing debacle. While testing went better this year, the state’s new testing company needed extra time to score the exams, because additional work goes into setting “cut scores” each time a new test is given.

A group of educators just concluded the process of reviewing the test data to recommend what scores should fall into the state’s four new categories for measuring performance: below grade level, approaching grade level, on grade level, or mastered. The State Board of Education will review and vote on those recommendations next month.

4. This year’s scores are lower stakes than usual, but that probably won’t last.

For years, Tennessee has been a leader in using test scores to judge students, teachers, and schools. Like most states, it uses the data to determine which schools are so low-performing that they should be closed or otherwise overhauled. It also crunches scores through a complicated “value-added” algorithm designed to assess how much learning that teachers contribute to their students — an approach that it has mostly stuck with as value-added measures have fallen out of favor across the nation. And unusually, the state exam scores are also supposed to factor into final student grades, this year counting for 10 percent.

But the rocky road to the new tests has temporarily diminished how much the scores count. Because preliminary scores arrived late this spring, most districts opted to grade students on the basis of their schoolwork alone.

And because of the testing transition, the scores won’t be given as much weight in this year’s teacher evaluations — an adjustment that lawmakers made to alleviate anxiety about the changes. Test scores will contribute only 10 percent to teachers’ ratings. Depending on the subject, that proportion is supposed to rise to between 15 and 25 percent by 2018-19.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.