The brushfire of testing refusal sparked by some high school seniors last fall spread during the state’s main testing season this spring, a Chalkbeat Colorado survey of the state’s largest school districts has found.

There were relatively high opt-out rates in more districts than was the case last fall, with only five of the state’s largest districts testing enough students to avoid scrutiny from federal education authorities. In almost every district test refusal appears to have been concentrated in high school, particularly in 11th grade.

Only the Adams 50, Aurora, Greeley, Mesa 51 and Pueblo 60 districts appeared to have participation rates at or above 95 percent.

Chalkbeat contacted the state’s 20 largest districts to ask about opt-out rates. Some districts provided summary information while others gave more detail. Denver and Jefferson County, the state’s largest districts, declined to provided summary information while they were still compiling their data.

We also asked other questions about how testing season went. See this story for information about those issues.

Detailed, standardized statistics about opt-out rates will be calculated by the CDE and reported this fall – probably at the same time as scores — after districts submit their full data to CDE at the end of July. CDE officials didn’t want to comment on spring opt outs until that final official data is compiled.

Will testing changes make a difference?

The PARCC language arts and math tests were given in two sections, one in March and the second at the end of the school year. Many districts reported that opt-out rates were higher for the second set of tests.

High school assessments and the testing schedule both will change in 2016. Juniors won’t be tested in language arts and math, and there will be only a single testing “window” in April.

“I don’t claim to be a prophet, but, yeah, I expected high opt-out percentages,” said Republican Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, who was heavily involved in legislative testing and opt-out debates. He also suggested high school refusal rates were significantly driven by students. “The awareness and them advocating to each other is more important.”

“Folks have been wondering where those big districts would fall. It’ll be an interesting convers what we do about those big districts with a high rate” of opt outs, said Bill Jaeger, a vice president with the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Jaeger served on the state task force that studied testing before the 2015 legislative session and has followed the issue closely.

As for the variation among districts, Jaeger said, “It’s an interesting finding to me, and there’s a whole host of explanations that I don’t think anyone’s explored.”

Noting testing changes made by both the legislature and the PARCC, Jaeger said, “It will be interesting to see if there is a restoration of confidence in the assessments.”

One testing critic, St. Vrain Superintendent Bob Haddad, doesn’t think that will happen.

“I don’t think it will make a difference,” Haddad said of testing reductions. “I don’t think you’re going to get parents and students back at the table … because there’s no trust” in the state testing system. “CMAS was summarily rejected by our students and parents.”

CMAS, or the Colorado Measure of Academic Standards, is the official name of the state’s testing system, which includes the PARCC tests.

Holbert also thinks testing changes won’t necessarily dampen opt-out rates. “I expect it to continue. … There is an increasing frustration with assessments that don’t drive to letter grades.”

A big change from 2014

Statewide participation was more than 99 percent on the last set of paper-and-pencil TCAP tests given in the spring of 2014.

That started to change, when high school seniors had to take statewide tests for the first time. The Colorado Department of Education reports only 81.8 percent of seniors took the science tests and that 81.7 took social studies.

Testing reduction and opting out were hot topics during the 2015 legislative session. An assessment bill was passed – among other changes seniors won’t be tested this fall – but a measure to codify parent opt-out rates died in a House committee. (If it had passed it likely faced a veto by Gov. John Hickenlooper.)

Test participation rates are important because the U.S. Department of Education requires 95 percent test participation. In Colorado schools and districts can have their accreditation ratings downgraded if they fail to meet that benchmark on two or more tests.

Supporters of high test participation argue that it’s vital to ensure the state has a full, annual picture of student and school achievement, especially by minority and poor children.

But the potential consequences for districts that fell below 95 percent are unclear, according to CDE. For one thing, the testing reform law passed last spring creates a one-year time out in the accountability system. And legislation currently pending in Congress – if passed – could give state more flexibility in using test results for accountability.

What the districts reported

Here are the highlights of what the 20 largest districts reported to Chalkbeat:

Academy (24,578 students) – The district had an overall opt-out rate of 23 percent, said public information officer Nanette Anderson. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 10.3 percent science, 11.4 percent social studies)

Adams 12-Five Star (38,701 students) – The percentage of students who opted out of the first set of language arts and math tests was less than 1 percent in grades 3-10 but rose to more than 4 percent for high school juniors, according to information provided by the district. Opt-out rates rose for the end-of-year tests in all grades but were 9.5 percent for language arts and 10 percent for math in the 11th grade. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 8.2 percent science, 7.2 percent social studies)

Adams 50 (10,161 students) – The Westminster-based district had a .17 percent opt-out rate for the two windows said Jeni Gotto, executive director of teaching and learning. More students opted out for end-of-year tests. “Kids didn’t understand why they were taking tests twice,” Gotto said. She attributed the high participation rate to effective work by principals in explaining the value of testing. “Because we are a priority improvement district, we value the data. I’m not sure every district sent that message out.” (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 8.2 percent science, 7.2 percent social studies)

Aurora (47,729 students) – For the March window the district’s opt out rate was just under 3 percent, and in May the refusal rate was 3 percent, said Mya Martin-Glenn, director of assessment and research. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 6.1 percent science, 5.9 percent social studies)

Boulder Valley (30,908 students) – The district was a hotbed of opting out by high seniors in the fall, and that pattern continued in the spring. “At the high school level, 35 percent of students ultimately took PARCC English language arts. The corresponding figures for elementary and middle school students were 92 percent and 82 percent, respectively. Math figures are nearly identical,” said Jonathan Dings, executive director of student assessment and program evaluation. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 78.2 percent science, 77.6 percent social studies)

Brighton 27J (17,103 students) – “Overall it was about 10 percent of our students who opted out. Most of it was high school … mainly 11th grade,” said Peggy Robertson, director of assessment and federal grants. The elementary opt-out rate was 2 percent, she noted. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: percent 4.8 science, percent 5.3 social studies)

Cherry Creek (54,499 students) – The opt-out rate was about 16 percent for the first window and roughly 23 percent for the end-of-year tests, said Norm Alerta, director of assessment and evaluation. “We’re seeing most of it in high school,” he noted, saying the rate was “50 percent or more” in high schools, 17-20 percent in middle schools and less than 10 percent at the elementary level. The district also noticed variation among high schools. Cherry Creek the highest, but Overland had a rate of about 10 percent. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: percent 34.7 science, 36.7 percent social studies)

Colorado Springs District 11 (28,332) – The district had an overall opt-out rate of 10-11 percent, with rates of 1-2 percent in elementary schools, 4 percent at middle schools and 31 percent in high schools, said Janeen Demi-Smith, executive director of educational data and support services. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 5 percent science, 4.7 percent social studies)

Denver Public Schools (88,839 students) – “DPS is continuing to review our CMAS data and validating our numbers to ensure all data reflects the guidance from CDE,” said Jennifer Mills, a DPS senior program manager. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 13.6 percent science, 12.1 percent social studies)

Douglas County (66,702 students) – About 16-17 percent of students opted out district-wide, with fewer than 5 percent at elementary schools but rising to about 30 percent in high schools, said Matt Reynolds, chief assessment and system performance officer. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 47.8 percent science, 50.9 percent social studies)

Falcon 49 (19,552 students) – Some 11.3 percent of district students opted out, according to communications director Matt Meister. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 9.4 percent science, 8.7 percent social studies)

Greeley (21,183 students) – The district reported 134 parent refusals out of 14,346 students tested, for an opt-out rate of less than 1 percent, according to Sophia Masewicz, director of assessment and special programs. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 3.1 percent science, 3 percent social studies)

Harrison (11,441 students) – District schools had an overall opt-out rate of about 1 percent, but the rate was more than 35 percent for Harrison charter schools, reported Margaret Ruckstuhl, research, data and accountability officer. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 21.9 percent science, 22.7 percent social studies)

Jefferson County (86,547 students) – Robert Good, director of instructional assessment, said he couldn’t provide opt-out statistics until the district finishes its data cleanup process at the end of this month. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 8.5 percent science, 7.8 percent social studies)

Littleton (15,691 students) – District participation rates followed the pattern seen in many other large districts, according to information provided by Diane Leiker, director of communications. Third grade language arts and math test participation was 99 percent during both testing sessions. There were similar high rates in grades 4 and 5, but participation slipped in higher grades, and on the end-of-year section. The district reported 69 percent of 10th graders and 53 percent of 11th graders took the March tests. But those rates dropped to 39 percent and 29 percent in May. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 41.8 science, 42.7 percent social studies)

(This chart provided by the Littleton schools shows participation by grade and test and shows a pattern reported by many other districts. Key to abbreviations: PBA – Performance-based assessments given in March, SS – Social studies, EOY – End of year.)

Littleton test participation chart

Mesa 51 (21,742 students) – “Generally we had a 95 percent participation rate,” said communication director Dan Dougherty, who also noted that two of five school board members opted their children out of testing. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 18.6 percent science, 17 percent social studies)

Poudre (29,053 students) – “We had in the upper 90s [percentage points] for elementary school participation in PARCC, mid-90s for middle schools and 80s for high schools,” said Danielle Clark, executive director of communications. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 25.9 percent science, 27.4 percent social studies)

Pueblo 60 (17,960) – “Of the 10,800 students who were eligible to participate in the state assessment program, less than 1 percent of the parents refused the performance-based assessment portion [given in March] while about 3 percent of parents refused the end of year assessment portion,” said Amy Weingardner, assessment data specialist. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 14.8 percent science, 15 percent social studies)

St. Vrain (31,076 students) – “We had a considerable amount of parents decide not to have their children take the tests,” said Superintendent Don Haddad. He didn’t have specific numbers, but noted opting out was “Not very prevalent at the elementary schools. We had some at the middle schools, and we had a considerable amount at the high schools.” (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 21.7 percent science, 8.1 percent social studies)

Thompson (15,691 students) – Opt-out rates were below 5 percent in grades 3-5 but started rising in middle school, reported assessment director Carmen Williams. Opting out spiked among high school juniors, with 46.6 percent boycotting the March language arts tests and 57.1 percent skipping those tests in May. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 33.4 33.8 percent science, 33.8 percent social studies)

Charter School Institute (14,048 students) – Officials of this state agency, which oversees schools that enroll 14,048 students, said they didn’t have opt-out information. (Non-participation on fall 12th grade tests: 17 percent science, 17.5 percent social studies)

The state’s 20 largest districts plus CSI, enroll 685,978 students, about 77 percent of the 889,006 pupils in the state.

The state’s CMAS tests aren’t given in all grades. K-2 and 12th grade students weren’t testing this spring. So the number of students tested in a district is smaller than total enrollment. Fall non-participation rates listed above include both parent refusals and small numbers of students who didn’t take tests for other reasons.