Two small districts set the record for opting out

If you want to know where opposition to standardized testing may run deepest, look to Mancos and Buffalo, two rural Colorado districts 472 miles apart on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.

The two districts appear to have had the highest opt-out rates on elementary and middle school science and social studies tests given last spring.

“I think it just kind of rose up organically from everybody in the community,” said Mancos Superintendent Brian Hanson.

Testing opposition arose early in the 455-student district – none of the district’s seniors took their science and social studies tests last fall.

“It started with us at that point,” Hanson said, and continued into the spring. “In a small town it doesn’t take very long for that kind of thing to happen.”

Hanson added, “In small communities people place a value in a lot of things, not just test scores. I think there’s more to a kid than that test score. Our community agrees with that.”

Here are Mancos’ opt-out rates: 61.3 percent on 4th grade social studies, 87.2 percent in seventh grade, 60 percent in 5th grade science, 95.8 percent in 8th grade.

Anti-testing sentiment developed somewhat differently in Buffalo, according to Superintendent Rob Sanders. (The 315-student district often is called Merino, after the northeastern plains town where its schools are located. The dual names are the legacy of a long-ago consolidation.)

All of Buffalo’s seniors took social studies and science tests last fall. Sanders said students questioned the value of the tests but were told by the principal that they needed to take them. “We have extremely compliant kids and parents,” Sanders said.

But attitudes started to change in the spring, after word spread of the State Board of Education’s February approval of a resolution exempting districts from any accreditation penalties for low test participation rates. (Social studies and science tests were given in April.)

“We have a firm belief that we are accountable every single day. We believe we can reach our goals with some other type of standardized test,” Sander said.

Here are Buffalo’s opt-out rates: 91.3 percent on 4th grade social studies, 100 percent on 7th grade, 60 percent on 5th grade science, 95.8 percent on 8th grade.

The two districts share rural locations and the same state rating – Accredited, the second-highest level in the state’s five-step system. Nearly 58 percent of Mancos students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and about 31 percent are minority. Buffalo has 25 percent free and reduced-price lunch enrollment and is about 12 percent minority.

Looking for a better system

Both Mancos and Buffalo are participating in a group of districts called the Rural Innovation Alliance, which is in the early stages of developing what’s called the Student Centered Accountability Project.

The goal is to develop a testing and accountability system that relies on a broader set of factors and data than the current state system, which is heavily reliant on results of statewide tests. (Get more information on the project in these slides.)

The State Board has given the project a preliminary endorsement, and proponents hope the initiative will qualify as a pilot project under the testing law passed by the legislature earlier this year.

“The districts that are involved in this project are very excited about it,” Hanson said. “We think we’re on to something.”

How the “waiver” districts did

One concrete sign of testing dissatisfaction earlier this year was the fact that 27 districts applied to the Department of Education or enquired about waivers from the first part of the PARCC language arts and math tests, which were given in March.

The waiver applications were solicited by the State Board in January. That proved to be an empty gesture because the attorney general ruled that granting waivers was illegal. But as a symbolic gesture the board kept the issue on its agenda for months and didn’t finally deny the waiver applications until May.

Districts’ interest in waiving out of PARCC tests didn’t appear to extend to parent refusals on the science and social studies tests. Only six of the 27 districts had opt-out rates higher than the state averages. In addition to Buffalo, Byers, Elizabeth, Julesburg and Wiley (northwest of Lamar) had significantly higher opt-out rates. Douglas County’s opt-out rates were modestly higher than the state’s.

(Data wasn’t available for some districts, or on some tests for other districts, because the number of students eligible to take the tests was below 16. In that case no testing results are publicly reported for privacy reasons.)

Mancos didn’t request a waiver.