Choosing to refuse

Opt-out movement gains foothold in Tennessee as more parents and students refuse state assessment

PHOTO: Provided by Anna Thorsen
Clara Thorsen writes a letter to Commissioner Candice McQueen about TNReady.

Tears rolled down Clara Thorsen’s face on Monday morning. Despite the Supergirl shirt she was wearing, the third-grader didn’t feel ready to take TNReady, the state’s new end-of-course exam.

“I feel stressed out and unhappy,” she quietly told her mom, Anna. “I just want to be home.”

Anna Thorsen felt conflicted. Clara has dyslexia, making it especially challenging to write essays by hand, a key component of the new test. Although Clara is intellectually gifted, Thorsen knew that she’d likely score below grade level because of her disability. Still, teachers and administrators at Clara’s Nashville elementary school were ready and willing to provide all the supports allowed for testing.

Thorsen opted to drop off Clara at school for Part I of the state assessment. But for Part II of the test next month, Clara will join the growing ranks of Tennessee students who are “opting out” — or refusing to take the state’s standardized test.

“We gave it a shot. We tried. But I’ve never seen my daughter this low,” Thorsen said this week. “She can’t emotionally do it again.”

"We gave it a shot. We tried. But I’ve never seen my daughter this low."Anna Thorsen, parent

While the Tennessee Department of Education can’t provide statewide numbers at this point, anecdotal evidence suggests that the opt-out wave is beginning to gain traction in Tennessee, a year after mass numbers of students refused tests in states including New York,Washington, and Colorado. 

This week, almost half of students at one Chattanooga elementary school refused to take the TNReady test. Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, opted his child out. Social media is abuzz with parents seeking guidance on how to get their child out of testing, too. And a popular Tennessee-based blog has set forth a comprehensive guide for parents called “Choose to Refuse.”

Adding to momentum is the state’s rocky rollout of this year’s new test, which has been beset by technical problems and delays, causing parents and teachers to call into question the test’s legitimacy.

State officials insist that you can’t opt out of the state’s standardized tests, which are used to make decisions about schools and teachers — and are necessary for the state to receive federal funding, as well as know which schools and students need the most support. The tests are required, emphasizes State Department of Education spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

“Given both the importance and legal obligation, our department’s policy is that parents may not refuse or opt a child out of participating in state assessments,” Ball said Tuesday.. “Except for situations where the Tennessee General Assembly has specifically provided the right to opt out in the law, such as the family life curriculum, parents and/or students may not opt out of state-mandated content or instructional programs, including assessments.”

Ball added that there is no federal law directly authorizing parents and students to skip standardized testing.

For the state and many educators, standardized assessments are a helpful tool to understand how students are progressing and to see if the state is fulfilling its responsibility to make sure kids are college-ready, and that all kids — not just students who are middle or upper-middle class and white, like many of the students refusing the test — are receiving an adequate education.

Many parents behind “opt out” say they’re not against standardized testing altogether. But they do think schools spend too much time preparing for and administering the tests. They are concerned that the tests measure test-taking skills more than knowledge. And they are critical of how this year’s scores won’t be returned until October, rendering them largely useless to teachers since students already will have started new classes by then.

“I’m not opposed to testing,” said Heather DeGaetano, whose fourth-grade daughter refused testing this week in Chattanooga. “In fact, I think testing has a useful place in our children’s education. I’m opposed to testing in this amount, and I’m opposed to testing when the results don’t mean anything.”

"I'm not opposed to testing...I'm opposed to testing in this amount, and I'm opposed to testing when the results don't mean anything."Heather DeGaetano, parent

Others view this year’s shift in state testing as a work in progress. Zack Barnes, a literacy teacher at Nashville’s Apollo Middle Prep School, wishes standardized tests gave him better information about his students. But he thinks that TNReady, which is aligned with the Common Core state standards and includes more open-ended questions, is a move in the right direction. The only way to improve it, he says, is to take it.

“Of course, we need fewer and better tests,” said Barnes, who is also an education blogger. “But it gives a great snapshot of a school. How are the schools progressing? Do they need any extra support?”

While other states have opt-out policies, Tennessee has none, meaning students who want to skip the test have to refuse the test when their teacher hands it to them — a daunting step for students who have disabilities or are inclined to follow rules. At some schools, the refusers have been permitted to read; at other schools, students have to sit quietly. One mom in Chattanooga even reported her son had to sit on his hands for the duration of the exam earlier this week.

Schools are in a tricky position when faced with students opting out. Districts are not authorized to adopt policies allowing students to refuse the test, or to offer alternate activities such as study hall or computer lab, for students whose parents refuse to have them participate in state assessments.

And because there is no set policy, every parent has had a different journey to refusing the test in behalf of a child.

DeGaetano had a community with whom to refuse the test. At the beginning of the school year, she talked to her school’s PTA president about the large amount of testing happening throughout the year. They organized a meeting to explore opting out and were surprised when about 40 parents showed up.

“It turned out there were lots of parents who weren’t feeling good about it,” DeGaetano said. “We said, ‘Oh OK. It’s not just the crazy people who complain about anything.’”

The parents talked about civil disobedience with their children and instructed them how to refuse the test. In the end, more than 200 students at Normal Park Magnet Elementary refused the test this week. The principal did not encourage the parents, but she listened to their concerns, DeGaetano says.

We felt “like there was safety in numbers,” she said.

In Knox County, Leslie Kurtz had a lonelier path. Because she began refusing the test before opt-out gained traction in Tennessee, she’s developed a reputation as a bit of an opt-out guru. Every day, she receives calls and emails asking for advice.

She’s instructed her son Rio, now in the eighth grade, to refuse tests since he was in the sixth grade. The first year he refused end-of-year testing, he had to sit and stare for hours while his classmates tested. The second year, he went to Washington, D.C., with a friend’s family. Kurtz dismissed a letter warning of truancy after he missed the testing days. In past years, standardized test scores have counted for Rio’s grades, but this year they won’t because of the delay in scoring. In years the scores have counted, Kurtz has asked teachers to print out his grades before the ‘zeros’ from state test are included.

“We’ve had many conversations about civil disobedience,” Kurtz said of her talks with her son. “He actually learned more by refusing the test then he would have by taking it.”

Though the Department of Education appears unlikely to make refusing the test easier in the near future, it made efforts last year to begin addressing teacher and parent concerns about testing.  Education Commissioner Candice McQueen convened a task force to look into complaints about over-testing. As a result of the panel’s recommendations, a bill was drafted to eliminate a set of standardized tests. And, in the in order to create a more relaxed testing atmosphere this year, the state is allowing students to read after testing and teachers are no longer required to cover their bulletin boards.

"(Tests give) a great snapshot of a school. How are the schools progressing? Do they need any extra support?”"Zack Barnes, teacher

But for many parents, that’s not enough. They want to see a steeper reduction in the time their children spend preparing for and taking standardized tests.

As in Tennessee, opt-out has largely taken root among white parents, many with advanced degrees. Both DeGaetano and Anna Thorsen are attorneys. That’s not the profile of most Tennessee public school families, more than half of whom are economically disadvantaged.

DeGaetano says she thinks seriously about those implications.

“If you’re working third shift, tracking all of this information (about testing) down on the Tennessee Department of Education website is not an easy thing to do,” she said.

She hopes ultimately that refusing the test will lead to better policies across the state. “This is about more than my kid,” she said.

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.