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.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

explainer

Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.