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.

TNReady backlash

BREAKING: Tennessee lawmakers take matters into their own hands on TNReady testing problems

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State lawmakers are in session at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

It was an extraordinary day on Capitol Hill in Nashville and, in many ways, unprecedented.

After hearing reports of more testing problems with Tennessee’s standardized test in their schools back home, members of the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for a sweeping measure to pull TNReady scores from this year’s accountability systems for teachers, students, schools, and districts.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam said he would sign the legislation.

The votes circumvented the legislature’s committee process but, after days of technical problems with the state’s return to online testing, lawmakers had reached a boiling point. They rose to their feet and, one after another, railed against the Department of Education and its testing company, Questar, for their oversight of the beleaguered test.

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At midday, the Senate and House convened a conference committee and, with members going back and forth to the governor’s office to confer, tacked on their amendment to a bill sponsored by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville and Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville.

“The camel was already loaded down heavy, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Smith said of more testing glitches on Thursday. “The circumstances were so extraordinary that going through the traditional committee process did not serve our teachers or students. That’s why we did what we did.”

What they did was pass a bill that would:

  • Let local school boards determine, between a range of 0 and 15 percent, what TNReady scores will count toward students’ final grades;
  • Prevent local districts from using the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers;
  • Ensure that none of this year’s TNReady data can be used to put a school on the “priority list” of lowest-performing schools eligible for state intervention; and
  • Nix the use of TNReady data in determining A-F ratings for schools, a system that’s beginning this fall

“It was clear many members of the General Assembly wanted to address concerns related to the recent administration of state assessments,” Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said in a statement. “The governor understands these concerns and did not oppose the legislation.”

The decision will allow Tennessee to take a breath as it seeks to fix its broken testing system, which has been snakebit from the outset. In 2016, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ended up canceling most testing when TNReady’s new online platform collapsed under the weight of statewide testing on newly minted digital devices. The next year, Tennessee reverted to mostly paper-and-pencil tests, but there were scoring and score delivery issues under new vendor Questar.

This week, when a third year of testing launched, McQueen had been more confident under a gradual transition to online testing beginning with high school students. But on Monday, a login issue stopped testing in its tracks. Tuesday was worse, as Questar’s system shut down because of an alleged cyber attack.

“What you heard today is that, until we get testing right, we want to make sure our teachers, students and schools are not impacted,” Smith told Chalkbeat when the dust had settled on Thursday.

“We’re still going to move forward with our accountability system. We’ll still see what the data shows this year. But we want to make sure the data isn’t skewed. We want to make sure it’s reliable.”

News of the likely pause drew immediate cheers from teacher groups.

“The legislature made sure students, teachers and schools were protected against the failures of TNReady,” said Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, commending lawmakers for taking “decisive action.”

“We are very pleased legislators ensured that employment or compensation decisions based on the data cannot be used,” added JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

But others warned that systems for holding teachers and schools accountable are key to ensuring an equitable education for all students.

“While we are dismayed that there were issues with the online TNReady tests, we believe that assessments are the clearest way to gauge what students know, and how well schools are serving all students,” said Gini Pupo-Walker of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

“Tennessee has made great progress by raising expectations, creating high standards and implementing TNReady,” Pupo-Walker said, “and it is important to continue to assess students every year on their mastery in the core content areas.”

Correction: April 19, 2018: This story has been corrected to show that both the Senate and the House approved the bill on Friday. A previous version said the Senate had recessed and would vote Monday on the House-approved bill.

exceptions to the rule

The highs and lows of Colorado education are spotlighted in ‘The Outliers’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file
Students at Sheridan's Fort Logan Elementary collaborate on a literacy lesson.

The Boulder Valley School District serves a largely affluent population with highly educated parents. In Sterling on the Eastern Plains, fewer than 1 in 6 adults has a bachelor’s degree. But both the Boulder district and the Valley Re-1 district serving Sterling send a large portion of their graduates to college, and few of them need remediation classes when they get there.

Those are just two of the findings in a new report from the Denver-based education reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado that examines both exemplary and struggling districts. A Plus focuses on data analysis to drive public support for policy changes. This is the second year that A Plus has released “The Outliers,” which is intended to help educators find models to emulate.

The report notes success stories like DSST: Stapleton High School, part of the Denver-based charter network, which posted the state’s highest average SAT scores for white students, black students and students from low-income families. Its Hispanic students also posted SAT scores that were among the highest in the state.

Among the report’s nuanced findings, the tiny Sheridan district south of Denver sends relatively few students to college, with many later needing remediation. But the district has made big strides in the graduation rate of homeless students, who make up 25 percent of its students. In 2016, 64 percent of its homeless students graduated, compared with 53 percent for the state and 42 percent in Denver.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

The numbers only tell so much.

The report shows schools where students from low-income families — as measured by free- and reduced-price lunch rates — do well on elementary math tests or middle school language arts, and where Hispanic students graduate at high rates or have good SAT scores. However, it doesn’t explain just how those schools succeed.

CEO Van Schoales said A Plus Colorado isn’t able to visit all districts and schools to research what they’re doing right, but he hopes the report can still be a resource for principals and superintendents.

“Folks need to spend the time to get to understand the places where most kids are getting to standards or graduating or showing growth,” he said. “There can be an echo chamber in education around the cool places or what’s hot. This report is the data. There are a lot of places doing great work.”

Small districts are just as capable of serving at-risk students as large ones.

The first year of “The Outliers” only looked at the 76 districts serving at least 1,000 students. This year, the report looks at roughly 120 districts with publicly available data. Small districts are more likely to be outliers in both good and bad ways. With fewer students overall, it doesn’t take many students to significantly boost or drag down achievement percentages.

The researchers found small school districts serving low-income and diverse student populations and getting good outcomes.

“A lot of school districts think that the bigger you are, the more capacity you have and the more good you can do, and our report shows that that is not necessarily true,” Schoales said. “You can find school districts doing well by low-income kids all over Colorado and ones that are not.”

Online schools need a lot more scrutiny.

The report found that students in online schools do worse even than students in low-performing brick-and-mortar schools, and that when districts open online schools, it pulls down districtwide performance.

The Byers district east of Denver, where 82 percent of students attend online schools, and Colorado Digital BOCES, a cooperative collection of online schools, showed some of the lowest academic growth in the state, the report found.

“In theory, it sounds great,” but most online schools are not working for their students, Schoales said.

This is not a new concern. A 2016 investigation by Education Week raised serious questions about the operation of GOAL Academy online schools. But the sector continues to expand, with A Plus calling it “one of the fastest growing segments within the Colorado educational ecosystem.”

Colorado suppresses so much student data that it’s hard to get a complete picture.

Colorado has strict data privacy rules that lead to the suppression of student achievement information from small batches and sometimes even larger groups of students. As a result, A Plus Colorado said it doesn’t know whether the 300 black students in the Boulder Valley School District or the 366 students in Manitou Springs who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch are meeting grade-level expectations.

That’s because the state redacts scores whenever fewer than four students score at a particular proficiency level, and then shields additional scores from other groups and even other schools to further obscure the data.

A Plus says this 3-year-old policy makes it impossible to discern how certain groups of students are performing.

Complete test data is available to district officials, but Schoales said that’s not good enough. If they and the public can’t compare among school districts, they don’t know how much better they could be doing.

“The public and policy makers need to know what’s working and where we can learn from,” Schoales said.

Read the rest of the report, with lots of district- and school-level information, here: