By at least one measure, the epicenter of anti-testing backlash in Colorado last spring was an isolated rural community where distrust of government runs deep and the school superintendent gets an earful at the Superette coffee shop if things aren’t going right in the classroom.

The Dolores County School District, based in Dove Creek in southwestern Colorado, had the lowest participation on PARCC English and math tests of any Colorado district — 8.4 percent. Just 13 of 155 students in the farm-rich area near the Utah border took the new tests aligned with the Common Core, according to data made public Friday.

When Colorado gained notice last spring as fertile ground for a movement opting out of state standardized tests, much of the attention fell on protests at high-performing, wealthy suburban districts.

District-level PARCC data released Friday  showed that was warranted — a total of more than 30,000 students from the Boulder Valley, Douglas County and Cherry Creek districts sat out the tests.

But when it came to low participation rates, rural districts led the way. A Chalkbeat analysis found 18 of the 20 districts with the lowest participation rates are rural districts, from all corners of the state.

In other words, the more affluent suburban districts with large student populations had far more students skip the tests, but a greater proportion of students at those rural districts opted out of them.

20 districts with lowest participation

Chalkbeat’s calculations took into account participation in English language arts tests. Participation rates on math tests were similar.

Generally, elementary school test participation was high and participation steadily decreased in higher grades, sinking in high school. High school testing for 2016 was curtailed in testing reform legislation passed this year.

Low participation in state tests typically carry consequences for school and districts, but not this year.

Federal law requires at least 95 percent participation on language arts and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school. In Colorado, districts that fall short have faced a one-step reduction in their accreditation rating in years past.

But a testing reform law passed last spring created a one-year timeout in the accountability system. The U.S Department of Education’s recent approval of Colorado’s waiver from federal education laws also means Colorado school districts won’t face the loss of accreditation. However, districts with substandard test participation will be required to spell out plans for boosting it.

Just 32 school districts reported their overall PARCC participation at 95 percent or above, according to a Chalkbeat review.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural School Alliance, said opt-out momentum in rural districts gained steam after a resolution last spring from the state Board of Education saying districts and schools shouldn’t be punished for low participation. Word travels fast in small communities, she said, and there’s a “lack of buy-in” in the testing and accountability system.

“These people live in districts where their accreditation rating has changed from year to year because one family moves out,” Murphy said.

In Dolores County, Superintendent Bruce Hankins was a vocal opponent of the tests, arguing the results come far too late to inform classroom instruction and are too flawed to use for accountability. Hankins made it easy on parents, providing a form letter on the district website for opting students out of tests. If he needs to be held accountable, he said, it’s going to happen at the local coffee shop.

“Parents are tired of their kids being stressed out over a test that doesn’t mean anything to them,” Hankins said. “They are tired of teachers being beat up when they are busting their butts to do what is best for kids. And they’re tired of districts and schools being labeled failures when they know they’re not.”

Concerns also were voiced, Hankins said, about the government unnecessarily collecting data on students. The district is about 93 percent white and has no English language learners. Hankins said many families qualify for subsidized lunches but won’t apply because they don’t think their income is anyone’s business.

A number of rural Colorado districts, including the Dolores County district, are working toward developing an alternative accountability system that moves beyond using state tests as the primary measure.

Not all rural districts harbored anti-testing sentiment. Three Colorado school districts reported 100 percent PARCC participation, and all were rural: Prairie, Genoa-Hugo and Stratton. A number of other rural districts reported participation numbers well above the state average.

Participation rates in Colorado’s 10 largest districts

No district had more students skip the tests than Douglas County. More than 13,700 students did not participate, putting the south suburban district’s participation rate at about 70 percent. District leadership has been sharply critical of the state testing system.

“Parents have patiently waited for the standardized testing movement to get to the right amount of tests and the right tests and the right experience for their children, and I think their level of frustration has steadily grown because they haven’t seen movement in the right direction in their opinion,” said Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen.

The participation rate in the Boulder Valley School District was even lower — 67 percent. The highest opt-out rates were at the two high schools in Boulder where protests of earlier state social studies and science tests attracted widespread attention and likely helped fuel the PARCC opt-out movement.

Superintendent Bruce Messinger said his sense is that parents weren’t targeting PARCC, but rather were reacting to what they perceive to be the burdensome nature of state assessments as a whole.

“It was their way of saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Messinger said.

The state also documented cases in which parents refused to allow their children to take the tests. However, districts were not required to turn over documentation of refusals, so the picture is incomplete. Others may have skipped the test in protest without filling out forms.

Backers of the tests argue they are critical to ensuring the state has an accurate picture of student achievement, especially with poor and minority children.

Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director Climb Higher Colorado, which champions the state’s academic standards and aligned tests, said the central question is whether high opt-outs will hide achievement gaps in some districts.

She said that while she understands parental rights, large numbers of opt-outs mean the state doesn’t get a true understanding of challenges facing schools.

“You are not getting the full picture,” Pharo Carter said.

Graphics by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat