The Answer Is No

Federal education department: No reprieve for opt-outs

State Board of Education / File photo

Colorado districts with large numbers of students refusing to take state standardized tests could face federal sanctions, after the U.S. Education Department Friday rejected a request from Colorado education officials to hold school districts harmless for high rates of opt-outs.

Federal officials said in a letter to Colorado Education Commissioner Robert Hammond that not holding districts accountable for students who have opted out of tests will hinder efforts to improve schools and reduce inequities.

Districts are required by law to test all students in grades three to eight each year and all students in high school at least once. Federal officials have said districts could face sanctions, including the potential loss of federal funds, if fewer than 95 percent of students participate.

But in some Colorado districts, far fewer than 95 percent of students have taken standardized tests so far this year. In Boulder, for instance, district officials estimate that 47 percent of high schoolers, 14 percent of middle schoolers, 9 percent of students in K-8 schools, and 6 percent of elementary schoolers did not participate in the first round of spring tests.

As opposition to testing reached a boiling point, the State Board of Education voted in February to exempt districts from penalties for having low student participation in standardized tests.

The Colorado Department of Education subsequently requested a waiver from the federal education department that would effectively allow districts to not count students who had been opted out of tests toward that required 95 percent minimum.

In the letter to Hammond, Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle wrote that the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act does not permit certain students or percentages of students to be excluded from testing and does not permit state education agencies to exempt certain districts from accountability requirements.

“High-quality, annual, statewide assessments provide information on all students so that educators can improve educational outcomes, close achievement gaps between subgroups of historically underserved students and their more advantaged peers, increase equity, and improve instruction,” Delisle wrote.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this week that the federal government might have to intervene if states did not address rising numbers of students and parents refusing standardized tests.

When the state board voted to give districts a pass in February, Hammond advised that “districts still need to engage in good faith efforts to test all students in accordance with state and federal law and maintain documentation of parent refusals.”

Hammond announced his retirement earlier today.

The federal education department did agree Friday to grant the state flexibility on certain testing requirements that would reduce the number of students who are “double tested.”

The letter said that the federal department is still considering whether to grant the state flexibility from a requirement that teacher and principal evaluation requirements be tied to measures of student growth as determined by test scores. The state decided last year that districts could determine, for the 2014-15 school year, how much weight to give growth. Many districts have already acted on that flexibility.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County